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.

Many progressives believe that, at a minimum, the Lee administration violated democratic principles fundamentally and undermined severely the possibility of political good will by pushing the Cheonan investigation too rapidly and in too closed and U.S.-focused a fashion. These progressives preferred a slower, domestically focused process: consulting the minority party carefully through established congressional procedures and building consensus among key political stakeholders before involving other governments—including China’s and Russia’s.

Lee was thus unable to marshal support for a firm North Korea policy. Rather than uniting South Korea against a common threat, the Cheonan incident fragmented it further. Pyongyang could scarcely have designed a better provocation to divide foreign opposition and build internal support for Kim Jong-il’s passing leadership to his third son, Kim Jong-un.

Subsequently, however, the November 2010 Yeonpyeong Island bombardment and continued belligerent rhetoric and nuclear/missile tests afford Lee’s successor Park Geun-hye support for more assertive deterrence of Pyongyang and clearer alignment with Washington. Even with anti-Americanism ebbing for now, as North Korea and China seek to influence and exploit shifting internal dynamics, Washington must develop stronger, more consistent working relationships with political parties both in power and in opposition in South Korea. Doing so effectively can help establish more stable, sustainable mutual expectations about relations that reduce long-term volatility in the Seoul-Washington partnership.


The United States continues to have an important stake in Taiwan’s security, even though the Carter administration abrogated the U.S.-Republic of China (ROC) Mutual Security Treaty in 1980. While Washington does not officially recognize Taiwan, the Taiwan Relations Act formally articulates U.S. concern for Taiwan’s security. American opposition since the Korean War to unilateral changes to the Taiwan Strait status quo remains key to guaranteeing Taiwan’s continued autonomy. Yet, Taiwan’s transition to and consolidation of democracy since the late 1980s made relations more volatile, straining Taipei-Washington ties, particularly between the mid-1990s and late 2000s.

Democratization brought overt efforts by politicians to mobilize popular support by channeling Taiwanese distinctiveness and pride, particularly during competitive island-wide elections. This was apparent with both the Kuomintang (KMT) administration of Lee Teng-hui and the subsequent Democratic Progressive Party administration under Chen Shui-bian. Chen and his party shared strengths and weaknesses strikingly similar to Roh and his Uri party. Chen, a veteran activist, former legislator and ex-Taipei City mayor with little foreign-policy experience, won two presidential terms by mustering electoral support as a champion of Taiwanese identity and internal and external interests. Domestic support for Chen came, in part, from him taking positions to challenge Beijing, even if this sharpened Sino-American differences and Taipei-Washington friction. Chen’s two terms in office were followed by corruption charges directed against both him and close family members.

The foreign-policy and strategic consequences of overt political emphases on Taiwanese identity first appeared with Lee Teng-hui’s efforts to highlight the ROC’s international legitimacy during a 1995 U.S. visit. This elicited strong reactions from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), preceding the island’s 1996 presidential election, including 1995-96 missile tests, the first time since the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis (besides periodic offshore island shelling) that Beijing used outright force to threaten Taiwan. This triggered a robust American response including deployment of two aircraft carrier groups near Taiwan. PRC reactions combined with Taiwanese identity mobilization to boost both Lee and Chen’s campaigns, as voters regarded them as champions of Taiwan against Mainland pressure.

Driving policies on Taiwan were long-held desires to express local identity alongside confidence in American support against PRC use of force. The 1987 lifting of martial law enabled Taiwanese identity expression, as well as pride in the island’s economic success and newfound freedoms. Martial law under the KMT previously suppressed such sentiments with American acquiescence. However, U.S. support for democratization on Taiwan since the early-1980s, coupled with relative quiescence from Beijing over unification’s immediacy, encouraged a view on Taiwan that there was political space to push for greater distinction from China. Such conditions prompted politicians to celebrate Taiwanese identity and seek greater international space and recognition.

Assertions of Taiwan’s separateness from China, counter to Beijing’s position that the island is a renegade province awaiting unification, invite forceful Mainland reactions. Apparent movement toward de jure Taiwan-Mainland division challenges the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s status as guardian of Chinese nationalism, a pillar of its claim to political legitimacy and continued rule. Taiwanese challenges to CCP versions of nationalism may become even more apparent since political affinity toward the Mainland is falling, despite rising economic integration. Multiple recent opinion polls suggest that 20 percent or less of people in Taiwan support unification, and this number is declining steadily. This could put pressure on a PRC leadership eager to burnish its nationalist credentials, and spark cross-Strait tensions embroiling the United States.

Further complicating ties with Washington is Taiwan’s defense underinvestment. Expensive but restricted-capability American defense sales create an impression among Taiwan’s electorate that Washington is forcing Taipei to purchase second-rate equipment while bolstering its own arms industry. U.S. efforts to encourage Taiwan’s defense modernization tend to fuel this view while feeding Beijing’s suspicions that Washington is perpetuating Taiwan’s separation.

American attempts to bolster ties with Taiwan and manage any cross-Strait tensions can strain Washington’s relations with both Taipei and Beijing. Efforts to restrain Taiwanese leaders from making statements and taking actions Beijing finds provocative can seem like American opposition to legitimate expressions of political views from a democratic system or even unjustified intervention.

A parallel dynamic exists when U.S.-Taiwan differences emerge over defense acquisitions. Such developments erode trust between Taipei and Washington, complicating communication and cooperation. Dissuading Beijing from pressuring and threatening Taipei, including efforts to deter use of force by the PRC, increases Chinese suspicion of the United States and can potentially provoke escalation. Insofar as Taiwan and its international status remain important to Beijing, island developments will continue to affect U.S.-Chinese relations. Washington needs to pay attention to Taiwan’s domestic politics and their strategic implications.


In September 2009, Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister of a Japanese government headed by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), unseating the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Although a scion of a political dynasty, Hatoyama shared with leaders of newly liberalized societies a somewhat eccentric, nonmainstream personality. In 1996, he cofounded the DPJ with his brother, which gained support as a force to break the LDP’s previous near-stranglehold on power. The DPJ subsequently shifted leftward, channeling grievances including impacts associated with U.S. forces such as environmental degradation surrounding American bases, and the fact that Japan’s highest crime rates occur in districts adjoining them.

Like Roh and Chen, Hatoyama proposed significant social spending. He sought to make relations with the United States more transparent and “equal,” and reorient Japan towards Asia while pursuing a policy of “friendship” toward China. Relations with Washington suffered immediately as many American policy makers and experts dismissed what they viewed as naiveté. U.S. policy elites exacerbated the situation by failing to anticipate DPJ pronouncements, thanks to an overwhelming LDP establishment orientation in their personal ties, and by criticizing them preemptively in public.

Hatoyama’s government aggravated this discord by ending an eight-year-long mission by Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels operating in the Indian Ocean to refuel U.S.-led forces supporting Operation Enduring Freedom—of symbolic importance to Washington as one of Tokyo’s few direct-support contributions overseas. Lack of Japanese operational assistance compared to complete American commitment to Japan’s security has long strained the alliance. Ultimately, Hatoyama’s campaign vow to close Futenma Marine Corps Air Base and move the replacement facility off Okinawa proved the undoing of his prime minister–ship. Local opposition prevented the station’s relocation elsewhere in Okinawa, Washington’s preferred alternative, given the island’s unmatched strategic position.

Here, a Japan-specific problem manifested itself: unlike Cold War bastion Hokkaido, Okinawa has its own ambivalent alignment with Tokyo. Economic incentives from Tokyo that worked elsewhere in Japan had less effectiveness in this archipelago when facing a robust set of competing interests. Okinawa’s unique history includes vastly disproportionate sacrifices in World War II’s final stages, where fighting with U.S. troops decimated 10-30 percent of the population. Okinawans also believe they bear the brunt of social costs associated with American basing in Japan. Hatoyama’s consequent inability to fulfill his promise, combined with rising North Korean threats, including the Cheonan sinking, compelled him on May 28, 2010 to promise President Obama that Futenma would not be moved off Okinawa. The resulting unpopularity of this and other decisions, amid general charges of incompetence, compelled Hatoyama to resign on June 2, 2010.

Displaying problems common to leaders pursuing alliance adjustment, Hatoyama’s ideas about security and foreign policy were arguably inchoate. He and many of his appointees appeared inexperienced and unwise in their attempts to reduce experienced bureaucrats’ traditional power. Hatoyama’s entente with China lacked a realistic basis, with Beijing reluctant to reciprocate.

Fallout for U.S. foreign and security policy resulting from increasingly competitive Japanese domestic politics appears to be a feature of the U.S.-Japanese relationship that has outlasted Hatoyama. A right-wing effort to purchase three of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands led Yoshihiko Noda, one of Hatoyama’s DPJ successors to the prime minister–ship, to nationalize those islands. While designed to preempt a right-wing purchase and communicated to Beijing in advance, the move sharply increased Japanese-Chinese tensions, and prompted public questioning in both Tokyo and Washington of the extent of America’s alliance commitment to Japan. Following the LDP’s return to office in 2012, pandering to right-wing voters and sentiments included downplaying Japanese World War II atrocities and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visit. Such behavior antagonizes Japan’s neighbors, notably China and South Korea, and complicates American efforts to work simultaneously with Japan and other regional actors.