The Challenge of Maintaining American Security Ties in Post-Authoritarian East Asia

January 29, 2015 Topic: Foreign PolicySecurity Region: East AsiaUnited States

The Challenge of Maintaining American Security Ties in Post-Authoritarian East Asia

Washington must address the challenges associated with political transition to better mitigate the various risks associated with the liberal democratization of its East Asian partners.


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

Ambivalence in East Asia toward security relationships with the United States during and after democratization affects maintenance of an American presence regionally and globally. Bases in Japan critically support U.S. Western Pacific and Indian Ocean deployments and ensure freedom of navigation. Visiting-forces agreements and strategic partnerships across East Asia augment these American interests and regional counterterrorism. U.S. bases in South Korea enable responses to a North Korean contingency, just as America’s security relationship with Taiwan helps manage cross-Strait tensions.

Maintaining a robust American presence in East Asia is particularly crucial for enhancing U.S. bilateral and regional cooperation with an emergent China. Washington continues to be a key provider of public goods such as global commons security and underwriting of an open international economic system. This undergirds the stable regional environment that supports trans-Pacific development and prosperity while China negotiates internal challenges and reforms necessary for its continued progress.

Moreover, development of a rule-based regional order that incorporates a clear Chinese voice and enables effective management of Sino-American differences hinges on Washington’s ability to work with actors around East Asia regarding common interests. Reliable regional interlocutors for Washington facilitate realization of these gains; shaky or dysfunctional partnerships undermine such benefits. Neglect of security issues during political transition may encourage a U.S. partner’s rivals to alter the existing security situation in ways that heighten regional tension and instability.

Adequately addressing liberalizing partners’ strategic ambivalence can help Washington preempt and mitigate manifold policy complications that can harm regional security and American interests. Continued engagement of security partners during and after liberalization affords Washington a means to avoid crises and manage escalation. Effective American influence can dissuade liberalizing security partners from unnecessarily provoking rivals while encouraging them to pay attention to key strategic and foreign-policy issues. We now examine principal extant cases of alignment ambivalence among key U.S. partners in Asia and their consequences, in descending order of the severity of challenges for Washington.

South Korea

A history of war, national division and regional identity struggle complicates South Korea’s post-authoritarian alignment choices. A complex, volatile domestic situation produces internal policy disagreements and political polarization regarding North Korea. Many conservative South Koreans regard North Korea as a significant nuisance, but one that they would rather handle minimally. Many progressives see the north as misunderstood kin. Pyongyang’s erratic, provocative behavior is seen as business-as-usual; providing limited food aid currently appears most realistic. While many South Koreans still support the U.S.-Korean alliance and its security contributions, a substantial minority does not share these perceptions, and appears suspicious of assertive efforts by either Washington or Seoul vis-à-vis Pyongyang.

Roh Moo-hyun, perhaps ambivalent alignment’s greatest single exemplar, exploited such dynamics in capturing the presidency in 2002. A former student and legal activist jailed briefly before entering politics, Roh expanded “Sunshine Policy” overtures to Pyongyang and subjected the alliance to unprecedented criticism. He drew partially on heightened anti-American sentiment, exacerbated by the latest in a series of controversial incidents involving U.S. military personnel dating to the Korean War. In multiple instances, Korean strongmen engaged in brutal suppression and manipulated public perceptions of American support for their actions. Most prominently, in the 1980 Gwangju massacre, Korean troops loyal to then-president Chun Doo-hwan attacked unarmed civilian protesters while claiming American support. Death toll estimates range widely, from 144 to as many as 1,000-2,000.

In June 2002, a U.S. Army vehicle returning from training killed two schoolgirls in Yangju. Despite American apologies, special access for victims’ families to court proceedings and compensation, the tragedy triggered demonstrations from both veterans of Korea’s existing anti-basing movement and previously uninvolved individuals. At issue: the U.S.-ROK Status of Forces Agreement required American military personnel involved in an incident while performing official duties to be tried by a U.S. court. The tribunal found the American personnel involved “not guilty” of negligent homicide. Then-President Kim Dae-jung, and subsequently Roh, tried unsuccessfully to have a South Korean court hear the case.

Roh ultimately suffered a precipitous collapse in popular support, and bribery charges that ended with his suicide on May 23, 2009. Yet some of the very factors that propelled him to power haunt his successors. A nontrivial South Korean minority has embraced diverse conspiracy theories from Internet websites and even media outlets suggesting that some force other than North Korea—even the Lee Myung-bak government itself—caused the March 26, 2010 explosion and sinking of ROKS Cheonan and death of forty-six of its crew. This cynicism stems largely from widespread ambivalence about South Korea’s own authoritarian legacy, in which Pyongyang’s external threat and Washington’s alliance needs were often invoked to justify harsh, “undemocratic,” even at times repressive, domestic policies. Fueling this view is an instinctive response that sees “Koreans” as intrinsically right and “intrusive” Americans as wrong.

Elites and policy makers have disagreement and internal division at all levels concerning basic principles and priorities. South Korean conservatives and progressives disagree fundamentally on critical issues, including even on the Cheonan report’s basic credibility. Some progressives felt ignored by the Obama administration. They loathed Lee’s government, which they accused of being “undemocratic”; opposed its efforts to coordinate policy more closely with Washington; and advocated closer ties and coordination with China, which they view quite positively and uncritically in some respects.