America's Real Challenge in Asia: The Reassurance Dilemma

"Allies should not expect U.S. protection to be a silver bullet, nor should they expect Washington to use force to respond to every incident that occurs."

Reassuring allies is a never-ending assignment. That task is especially challenging in Northeast Asia, where the usual problems created by geography and different geopolitical interests are compounded by an evolving security environment characterized by North Korea’s continued progress in developing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, China’s steady military modernization and more assertive regional role, growing diffusion of the nature and source of threats (notably due to the rising prominence of the cyber and space domains), and political dysfunction in Washington that makes it more difficult for allies to anticipate America’s reaction to a crisis.

Fortunately, the United States understands the critical importance of honoring its alliance commitments and defending its allies. Failure to do so would spell the end of those security partnerships, which provide Washington with immense benefits. The chief difficulty is not assuring allies that the U.S. commitment to their defense is strong, but reconciling allied expectations of U.S. action with what Washington can and will do.

What, then, should allies expect from Washington? U.S. allies should expect high-level public support from the U.S. government in the form of authoritative statements by the president and secretaries of state and defense, and they should expect those commitments to be regularly affirmed in the documents issued at “2+2 meetings.” Both Japan and South Korea can point to such statements: the Japanese have U.S. President Obama’s affirmation during his April 2014 visit that the Senkaku islands are covered by the U.S.-Japan Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty and the South Koreans have the 2009 joint declaration by Obama and then President Lee Myung-bak that explicitly cited the importance of the extended deterrent to that partnership.

Complementing the work of the highest level of government is day-to-day engagement by a professional and responsive bureaucracy that is experienced and shares the priorities and sensitivities of its ally. That describes the vast majority of individuals working these security partnerships. Even political appointees understand the issues and recognize the value of U.S. alliances.

Our Asian allies should also expect genuine dialogues with the United States on core alliance issues, venues that since their establishment have allowed them to share views and get insight into U.S. policy. Both Japan—in the Extended Deterrence Dialogue, or EDD—and South Korea—in the Extended Deterrence Policy Committee, or EDPC—have regular bilateral meetings with U.S. counterparts to address extended deterrence issues. These track-one discussions are supplemented by a number of unofficial dialogues, some of which the CSIS Pacific Forum runs, to further explore issues and probe still further—and more candidly—differences between each country and their respective roles and responsibilities.

Reassurance is further strengthened by the continuing modernization of alliances. Military capability and readiness is enhanced by new hardware, new doctrines, and joint exercises. A seamless integration of forces is the strongest signal that the United States and its ally are united and that an attack on one is an attack on both. A forward military presence is a core element of U.S. reassurance and it will continue, even if it may diminish in specific locales. Allies should expect the movement and rotation of troops, which they should see as a way of boosting readiness, not reducing a commitment.

Finally, allies should expect new forms of political, diplomatic, and economic engagement to strengthen the ties that bind them to the United States. This is the rationale behind the U.S. “rebalance”: it aims to forge multifaceted connections to Japan, South Korea, and East Asia as a whole to enhance the U.S. commitment to the most dynamic region of the world. Too often overlooked or considered as a secondary dimension by Tokyo and Seoul, non-military U.S. engagement is a critical piece of the reassurance puzzle because it plays a significant role in further coupling the United States with its allies.