Despite the Obama administration’s attempt to bolster the U.S. position in the Far East through its “pivot,” the American alliance structure in the region is under its greatest pressure in a generation. China’s military modernization is spurring U.S. partners and allies to engage in buildups of their own. Of more immediate concern is Beijing’s expansionism, typified by its declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over an area that includes the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Given U.S. President Barack Obama’s hands-off foreign policy, analysts and diplomats are increasingly questioning whether the U.S. will respond to more concrete moves by China to assert its control over disputed territories. If Beijing were to employ the sort of “special warfare” which Russia recently pioneered in Crimea, deploying paramilitaries or otherwise muddying its role, the outcome would seemingly be even more in question.
Obama is not the first president to face these problems – aggressive adversaries, nervous allies, and a U.S. public deeply unwilling to make the commitments necessary to reassure those allies – in the Asia-Pacific. A look back at the Asia-Pacific policy of President Gerald Ford and his chief foreign policy architect Henry Kissinger is surprisingly instructive for placing America’s contemporary position in the region in perspective.
Ford came into office in 1974 after Watergate unseated Richard Nixon, and it fell to him to craft America’s response to the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. The final loss of the Vietnam War sent shockwaves throughout the Asia-Pacific, raising questions as to whether it marked the beginning of a general rout of U.S. power. As today, American allies began to question whether the U.S. would stick to its security commitments. And also just as today, after Obama set the precedent of consulting Congress prior to military action in Syria, an assertive and anti-interventionist Congress looked set to complicate the use of military force to defend the American alliance system. On top of all this, Ford and Kissinger faced criticism from a nascent neoconservative movement, who like today’s China hawks saw policy as being too weak and accommodative.
Ford and Kissinger had to balance these competing pressures into a competent policy which hit the pause button on what looked like an American rout from the region after the fall of Saigon. They also had to do so without causing a reprise of the bitter domestic debate over Vietnam, which had ultimately only made the public and Congress leery of the use of force abroad. In this, they largely succeeded – and the reasons why are instructive for today’s policymakers.
First, the Ford administration did not attempt to turn back the tide of history. Following the unification of Vietnam under Communist rule, it was clear that other countries in the Asia-Pacific would have to accommodate the new regional reality. The administration acceded to pressure from the Thai government to withdraw U.S. forces from the country, and issued a policy statement that it would not stand in the way of Thai rapprochement with its Communist neighbors. When the Filipino government of President Ferdinand Marcos began to throw U.S. basing rights in that country into question, the administration stalled while trying to develop alternatives bases elsewhere. SEATO, the anti-Communist alliance that had included Thailand and the Philippines, was quietly wound up.
Just as in today’s Asia-Pacific, the changing realities of power across the region inevitably shook up existing agreements and alliances. While the Ford administration adapted where it could, it also acted forcefully to show that there were red lines which its adversaries could not cross. The second lesson of the Ford administration’s policy in the Asia-Pacific was hence that the calculated and defensive use of force could deter adversaries and stop the spread of cracks in the region’s security architecture from getting any deeper.
The Ford administration’s first use of force was to rescue the crew of a U.S. container ship, the SS Mayaguez, which was hijacked by Cambodian gunboats on the high seas and steered to the island of Koh Tang in the Gulf of Thailand. Coming in May 1975, under a month after the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh and a week after the fall of Saigon, the incident seemed to set an unwelcome precedent for America’s interactions with the new authorities in Indochina. Perceiving the incident as a threat to the free movement of commerce over the seas and fearing a repeat of the trauma which had followed the 1968 capture of the U.S.S Pueblo by North Korea, the Ford administration was determined to respond.
Fearing that the crew would soon be transferred to the Cambodian mainland as hostages, Ford decided on military action. He ordered an airborne assault on Koh Tang, the seizure of the Mayaguez, and the bombing of targets on the Cambodian mainland. He and Kissinger brushed aside both the 1973 War Powers Resolution and a Congressional ban on military action in Indochina to launch this action, seeking to reassure treaty allies like South Korea and Japan that the executive branch would stand by its commitments even in the face of Congressional opposition. The projection of American power abroad hence also became about the projection of presidential power at home, a theme that is still with us today.
Ford’s response to the incident was heavily criticized in the aftermath of the rescue operation because the crew of the Mayaguez had – unbeknownst to the White House – been released by the Cambodians moments before the operation began. This is a step that the Khmer Rouge may never have taken if it were not for imminent U.S. military action, but it led to bitter recriminations from Congress and the media and further underscored the anti-interventionist mood in Washington. Yet despite the tragic deaths of 41 Marines in the episode, the Ford administration had successfully demonstrated that it was willing to use military force to defend the regional status quo.
The Ford administration’s willingness to use force and task risks in defense of its interests and allies was even further underlined by an incident in the Korean DMZ in August 1976. After the fall of South Vietnam, Pyongyang was emboldened to attempt to make an issue out of the U.S. presence in South Korea during an American election year. When a work party of U.S. and South Korean soldiers went to trim a tree that was obstructing the view from their guard posts, they were set upon by about 30 North Koreans who deployed axe handles and their skills at taekwondo to assault the party. The engagement left two U.S. officers dead, the first ever deaths in the Joint Security Area of the DMZ.
The attack provoked fury in Washington. In its response, the Ford administration proved again that it was willing to escalate and take risks in responding to challenges to its regional position. Kissinger believed that without a response, North Korea might view the administration as “the paper tigers of Saigon.” After ruling out a made-for-Hollywood plan which would involve helicopters with buzz saws flying into the DMZ to cut the tree down, the administration decided on a more forceful response. A large ground force would be sent into the DMZ to cut down the tree as nuclear-capable bombers circled overhead. “The purpose of doing something is to show that we are ready to take risks,” explained Kissinger.
The risks were indeed substantial. One senior U.S. officer in South Korea thought there was a fifty per cent chance the operation would result in war. Yet Operation Paul Bunyan went off without a hitch, and the U.S. willingness to escalate even resulted in that rarest of things – a North Korean apology.
Through a pragmatic adjustment to regional realities married to a willingness to take calculated risks to draw a red line around vital U.S. allies and interests, the Ford administration prevented a rout of U.S. power in the Asia-Pacific after the fall of Saigon. The administration never got any credit from the nascent neoconservative movement for its holding pattern. But Ford and Kissinger realized that in an era of U.S. retrenchment and public disillusionment, the sort of grand crusade against Communism which the neoconservatives yearned for was unrealistic.
For today’s policymakers, the lesson is clear: Washington cannot stop the rise of China from causing its regional allies to want to explore new relationships with Beijing. But Washington should be equally clear that aggression against a U.S. treaty ally or against the principles of international law which underpin commerce in the region will not go unanswered. It would be dangerous for the U.S. to give the impression that its own internal divisions might leave U.S. treaty allies unprotected.
Too much firmness risks getting the U.S. or its allies dragged into a conflict which it is not clear the U.S. public has the stomach for. Too little risks allowing the regional order to be upended, and would perhaps allow the China hawks – today’s neoconservatives – to appear vindicated and gain the ascendancy in Washington. The Ford administration managed a very similar balancing act forty years ago. The Obama administration, and U.S. allies, would do well to study the lessons.
Andrew Gawthorpe is a teaching fellow at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. He has published work on the Ford administration’s security policy.