ALTHOUGH nearly every review of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has concluded that America must stay militarily engaged in East Asia, the costs and hazards of remaining there are never explored. The military organizations of East Asia are on the verge of a major breakthrough that will inevitably encumber the greatest military power in the region: the United States. The problem for America is not that rogue states are trying to make trouble. Nor is it that China is challenging America, unless possessing the semblance of an advanced military itself constitutes a challenge. Rather, the gradual, routine military modernization of East Asia -- specifically the development of ballistic missiles -- is transforming military geography and making America's bases there, its "forward bases," vulnerable. Viewing the military modernization that inevitably accompanies economic modernization -- which every Western nation has gone through -- as a presumptuous challenge to the United States virtually ensures confrontation in Asia. How this new capacity is interpreted, and whether a futile attempt to oppose it will lead to a new Cold War, is for the United States the central strategic question of the twenty-first century.
When East Asia's military power was measured in peasant infantry divisions, their limited reach allowed America to maintain a presence close to Asia without being threatened in return. Against peasant armies, even if they were upgraded by tanks and artillery, the United States was overwhelmingly powerful. Against their labor we had military capital.
But Asia no longer squanders human life in peasant charges against Western firepower, as Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung, and Ho Chi Minh once did. Economic growth makes life more precious, in Asia as in Europe. In place of enormous armies shaping national identity through armed struggle against colonial and capitalist oppressors, advanced-technology weapons have become the new hallmarks of successful statehood and the symbols of progress.
The U.S. strategy of "forward engagement" means using ground, naval, and air forces in East Asia to exert military dominance in the region to stabilize international politics there. It was conceived when U.S. power in the region was unquestioned. Forward engagement is practical when small dispersed forces can efficiently dominate a vast geography. But such dominance cannot last much longer in Asia. Very soon forward engagement there will have to be actively defended, or re-evaluated, as what was an efficient strategy becomes costly, with fresh investments in defensive missile systems needed to shield America's presence. Absent some sober rethinking, forward engagement is likely to produce an American Maginot Line around Asia's rim, as myopic demands to stay there automatically lead to costly missile defenses.
The American foreign-policy community loves simple choices. The policy process essentially maps a problem, no matter how complex, on binary possibilities. The foreign-policy community debates whether China will follow a policy of cooperation or of confrontation with the United States. Reality is not so simple.
For China to halt routine military development would entail a level of cooperation that would mean virtual unilateral disarmament. It is not a case of embracing or rejecting arms control, as is usually made out in U.S. foreign-policy debates (another binary choice). For the United States to remain militarily superior in East Asia, China would have to forgo the missiles that her neighbors (Russia, India, Pakistan, North Korea) have, and that are cheap compared with bombers or aircraft carriers.
China is not going to reconstruct a five-million-man infantry armed with rifles as the backbone of her security. But China's unwillingness to forgo routine military modernization might well be seen in the United States as a challenge to forward engagement in Asia at a time when America's position there is already stretched thin.
AFTER the Cold War, Washington reorganized its military forces and strategy, shifting the emphasis from Europe to Asia. From 1988 to 1996 the strength of the armed forces, active-duty and reserve, was cut from 3.3 million to 2.4 million. Two hundred and ten thousand soldiers were removed from Europe -- 86 percent of the total reduction in active-duty personnel. Numbers in the Middle East actually saw a small increase, and those in the Pacific were cut by only 32,000. For its investment in East Asia, Washington gets more than it deserves. The United States may be the greatest military power in the most critical region of the world, but our thin deployments there and their relatively low price tag make us more a superpower lite. U.S. military power in East Asia is concentrated in three vital staging areas: Guam, Japan, and South Korea. As long as declining post-Cold War defense budgets can maintain the superior ability that defines superpower status, our global leadership is politically palatable.
But the assumption that the price of leadership is declining is invalid. Such optimism is based on extrapolation from a particular moment -- after the Gulf War was won and the Soviet Union fell, and before East Asia had moved beyond research-and-development programs and begun to deploy ballistic missiles in quantity.
The spectacular images of technological invincibility from American wizard weapons in the Gulf War make forward engagement an easy policy to sell to the public. In the world of CNN and PBS the war seems to have consisted largely of U.S. laser-guided missiles zapping Iraqi buildings with pinpoint accuracy. Among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, the most enduring image is a photograph showing the supplies needed to fight the war -- an iron mountain of arms and munitions that the armed forces constructed in Saudi Arabia from August of 1990 to January of 1991. The Gulf War was a testament to the extraordinary ability of the United States to move enough equipment halfway around the world to build a military base in the middle of a desert. Forward engagement depends on pre-existing forward bases. A military force that has no airfields or ports to accept reinforcements is impotent. Without bases there can be no concentration of military power: weapons cannot be stored, let alone massed for use. The vulnerability of bases is America's singular military weakness in Asia. Naval forces are not a substitute for land bases. Aircraft carriers and other ships cannot generate anything like the military power or psychological effect of fixed bases.
Ballistic missiles are made to destroy bases. They can disarm an opponent before he can move to an offensive position. It is nearly impossible to engage in military operations where incoming warheads are bursting, because of the danger to troops, secondary explosions of ammunition, and the disruption to the maintenance of complex weapons. And if incoming missiles contain atomic, chemical, or biological weapons, or even the threat of these, forward engagement without active defense is hopeless.
BECAUSE of the new threat from ballistic missiles, America's superpower-lite strategy in Asia hinges on arms control, which has been somewhat successful. That Beijing has agreed to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, for instance, which bans all testing of nuclear warheads, is a major diplomatic victory for Washington. China is probably ten years behind the United States in miniaturizing its nuclear weapons to fit into battlefield missiles, and this treaty essentially halts its further progress.
However, thinking about arms control as a scorecard that totes up advances and setbacks misses a larger pattern. Arms control is now being used to sustain asymmetrical advantage. By locking countries into a low state of military development, arms control lets the United States maintain its superiority on the cheap.
In arguing for arms control the United States can claim that such agreements are in the general interest of mankind -- a case much easier to defend publicly than one based on cold calculations of strategic advantage. Placing arms control at the center of diplomacy also makes it seem as if a new cooperative security system is emerging, in which countries go out of their way not to threaten one another. Yet reality is not so simple. To preserve the situation in which the greatest military power in Asia is the United States, not any Asian country, arms-control agreements must prevent ballistic missiles from rendering impotent America's system of bases, the key to our forward-engagement strategy.
The problem is fundamental, because missiles are changing the military geography throughout Asia. The rivalry between Pakistan and India is a case in point. Both sides are developing long-range missiles and nuclear warheads, bringing new dimensions to an old antagonism. And China and India can now reach each other, as they could not with armies of infantry separated by the Himalayas. China can also threaten India indirectly by building up Pakistan's missile force. Similarly, Israel once worried only about its immediate neighbors, Egypt and Syria. Now its major problem is Iran, because the range of Tehran's missiles has increased such that they can now reach Tel Aviv. The military space in the Middle East has grown, from one where tank and air forces were strategic instruments to one where missiles dominate.
The question is how the world's only military superpower will adapt to these changes.
Illustrations by Alison Seiffer
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1998; America's Maginot Line; Volume 282, No. 6; pages 85 - 93.