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.