The Challenge of Maintaining American Security Ties in Post-Authoritarian East Asia
The United States faces challenges trying to maintain robust security partnerships with politically liberalizing societies where Washington was perceived complicit in suppression of legitimate indigenous interests. This mixed legacy can inspire electorally empowered publics to raise new complications for continued U.S. presence and influence. Washington must understand and mitigate attendant risks. To explain why and how, we draw on in-depth conversations and interviews with a wide variety of interlocutors in the societies discussed.
New domestic dynamics in politically liberalizing societies demand revisions to relations with Washington, complicating a range of U.S. interests, including forward deployment, ensuring freedom of navigation and maintaining regional stability. Yet, these societies often wish to maintain substantive security cooperation with Washington. Hence, their “ambivalent alignment.” Today, these developments are most readily apparent in East Asian societies, complicating “rebalancing” efforts. Over time, the legacy of American complicity in single-party dominance and even authoritarian rule may likewise affect the U.S. position in other key regions such as the Middle East.
Washington must actively address challenges associated with political transition to better mitigate the attendant volatility and risks associated with such processes. American policy makers have to recognize how American security ties influence the politics of liberalization and consider measures to preemptively dampen fallout that may follow from attempts at using perceptions of the United States for partisan mobilization. The U.S. military, in particular, should minimize negative social effects associated with numerous personnel operating from a given area. These concerns are especially salient in areas where the United States has a long relationship with a previously dominant regime.
Political liberalization in Asian societies where Washington previously supported dominant regimes that suppressed significant indigenous interests fosters alignment ambivalence. Such societies increasingly desire to address the costs, risks and historical baggage of authoritarian rule, including those associated with long-standing strategic relationships with Washington. Even if existing strategic arrangements remain mutually beneficial, attempts to adjust ties with the United States to better meet local needs may impose new restrictions on the quality of cooperation. Resulting incongruity among key partners can hinder, even undermine, American efforts to rebalance toward Asia, and requires special attention.
During the Cold War, Washington cooperated with authoritarian and single-party-dominant governments to defend maritime East Asia from communism. This history embroils Americans in complex national identity and political liberalization struggles. Important as political liberalization is to better governance, domestic stability and cooperation with other liberal polities, it can create multiple short-term stress points for strategic partnerships. These include pressure to revise basing and alliance commitments, intensified regional rivalries and inattention to broader security concerns.
As the more powerful, domestically stable actor, Washington is in a better position than its partners to think ahead about the possibilities and opportunities for redefining relations. Historical East Asian cases highlight key challenges and suggest how to frame responses.
Political Liberalization and Alignment Ambivalence
Many East Asian societies today, freed from Cold War security imperatives and facing political liberalization, are viewing old problems through a new lens. In an oft-repeated pattern, popular political opposition, repressed under U.S.-backed authoritarian or single-party-dominant rule, finally achieves power and pursues policies to overturn elite power structures domestically, strengthen national identity symbolically and put military relations with Washington on more equal terms. Authoritarian rule often facilitated passing social costs of U.S. backing disproportionately to ordinary locals, particularly in places with a heavy U.S. military presence. This legacy incentivizes politicians to at least appear to have some distance from Washington. Basing and related issues give local politicians new ways to channel sincere grievances or profit politically. Problems, often unintended, emerge when they seize opportunities that generate alliance friction for internal or external reasons.
Efforts by new democracies to revise relations with Washington typically result in deteriorating relations that frustrate management of new and ongoing security challenges—including threats that helped motivate partnerships with Washington to begin with. Politicians thus must resume a viable working relationship with Washington. Examples have appeared in South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia and even in long-democratized Japan. Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore represent possible future cases where such concerns may emerge.
What’s at Stake