This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
In a future update of The Devil's Dictionary, the famed Ambrose Bierce dissection of the linguistic hypocrisies of modern life, a single word will accompany the entry for "Pacific pivot": retreat.
It might seem a strange way to characterize the Obama administration's energetic attempt to reorient its foreign and military policy toward Asia. After all, the president's team has insisted that the Pacific pivot will be a forceful reassertion of American power in a strategic part of the world and a deliberate reassurance to our allies that we have their backs vis-à-vis China.
Indeed, sometimes the pivot seems like little less than a panacea for all that ails US foreign policy. Upset about the fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan? Then just light out for more pacific waters. Worried that our adversaries are all melting away and the Pentagon has lost its raison d'être? Then how about going toe to toe with China, the only conceivable future superpower on the horizon these days. And if you're concerned about the state of the US economy, then the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the regional free-trade deal Washington is trying to negotiate, might be just the shot in the arm that US corporations crave.
In reality, however, the "strategic rebalancing" the Obama administration has been promoting as a mid-course correction to its foreign policy remains strong on rhetoric and remarkably weak on content. Think of it as a clever fiction for whose promotion many audiences are willing to suspend their disbelief. After all, in the upcoming era of Pentagon belt-tightening and domestic public backlash, Washington is likely to find it difficult to move any significant extra resources into Asia. Even the TPP is an acknowledgment of how much economic ground in the region has been lost to China.
There's also the longer arc of history to consider. The US retreat from Asia has been underway since the 1970s, although this "strategic movement to the rear"—as the famous military euphemism goes—has been neither rapid nor accompanied by "mission accomplished" photo ops.
The administration's much-vaunted pivot looks ever more like a divot—a swing, a miss, and a hole in the ground rather than anything approaching a hole-in-one.
The Slowly Shrinking Footprint
During the Cold War, the United States fought more battles and shed more blood in Asia than anywhere else on Earth. From 1950 to 1953, under a U.N. flag, US forces struggled for control of the Korean peninsula, ending up without a peace treaty and with a stalemate at roughly the same dividing line where the war began. At one point, as the Vietnam War expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, US troop levels in Asia swelled to more than 800,000.
Since the disastrous end of that war, however, Washington has been very slowly and fitfully retreating from the region. US military personnel there have by now dropped under 100,000. The low point was arguably during the George W. Bush years when the US military sank into the quicksand of Iraq and Afghanistan, and critics began to accuse his administration of "losing Asia" to a rising China.
Looking at the numbers, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that Washington's attention had indeed drifted from the Pacific. Consider Korea. Peace has hardly broken out on the peninsula. In fact, the North's nuclear weapons and the South's extensive military modernization have only had the effect of heightening tensions.
The United States, however, has repeatedly reduced both the size and the significance of its forces in South Korea in a process of punctuated devolution. On three occasions over the last 45 years, Washington has unilaterally withdrawn forces from the peninsula—each time over the objections of the South Korean government. There were nearly 70,000 US troops in South Korea in the early 1970s when the Nixon administration first recalled an entire division of 20,000 troops. Later, the Carter administration, initially keen to withdraw all US forces, settled for another limited reduction. In 1991, in response to the collapse of Communism in much of the world (but not North Korea), the George H.W. Bush administration unilaterally withdrew tactical nuclear weapons from the peninsula.
In the twenty-first century, the US military footprint shrank yet again from approximately 37,000 troops to the current level of 28,500, this time thanks to negotiations between Washington and Seoul. (A small contingent of 800 troops has just been dispatched to South Korea to send a signal of US "resolve" to the North, but it's only for a nine-month rotation.) In addition, the American troops near the de-militarized zone that separates north from south, long meant as a "tripwire" that would ensure US involvement in any future war between the two countries, are being relocated further south. However, Pentagon officials have recently hinted at leaving behind a residual force. The two countries are still negotiating the transfer of what, six decades after the Korean War ended, is still referred to as "wartime operational control," a long overdue step. The reduction of forces has been accompanied by the closure and consolidation of US bases, including the massive Yongsan garrison in the middle of the South Korean capital, Seoul. It will revert entirely to Korean control over the next few years.
It's not just Korea where the US "footprint" is shrinking. A quieter set of redeployments has reduced US ground forces in Japan, too, from approximately 46,000 personnel in 1990 to the 38,000-strong contingent today. Even larger changes are underway.
In 2000, on a visit to Okinawa, Japan's southern-most prefecture, President Bill Clinton promised to shrink the staggering American military footprint on that island. At the time, Okinawans were furious over a series of murders and rapes committed by US soldiers as well as military-related accidents that had claimed Okinawan lives and health threats from various kinds of pollution generated by more than 30 US bases. Ever since, Washington has been pursuing a plan to close the Futenma Marine Air Force Base—an old facility dangerously located in the middle of a modern city—and build a replacement elsewhere on the island. That plan also involves the relocation of 9,000 Marines from the island to US bases elsewhere in the Pacific. If it goes forward, US forces in Japan will be reduced by up to 25 percent.
Elsewhere in Asia, under pressure from local activists, the United States closed two military bases in the Philippines in 1991, withdrawing nearly 15,000 personnel from the country and replacing a permanent basing arrangement with a more modest "visiting forces agreement." In recent years, Washington has negotiated "cooperation agreements" with various countries in the region, including its former foe Vietnam, but hasn't built any significant new bases. Aside from forces in Japan and South Korea, and personnel aboard ships and submarines, the US military presence in the rest of the region is negligible.
Of course, a reduction of personnel and the closure of bases are not necessarily indicators of retreat. After all, the Pentagon has been focusing on a transition to a more flexible fighting posture, deemphasizing fixed positions in favor of lighter rapid-response units. Meanwhile, the modernization of US forces has meant that its firepower has increased even if its Pacific footprint has decreased. In addition, the United States has emphasized Special Operations forces deployments as part of anti-terror operations in places like the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia, while pushing ahead with several tiers of ballistic missile defense in the region. All of these policies preceded the pivot.
Nonetheless, the trend line since the 1970s is clear enough. Even as their capabilities were being upgraded, US forces were also slowly moving to an over-the-horizon posture in Asia, with bases in Guam and Hawaii gaining importance as those in Korea and Japan were quietly downgraded. As it has given up ground, Washington has also pressured its allies to pay more to support its forces based on their territories, buy ever more expensive American weapons systems, and build up their own militaries. As it once sought to "Vietnamize" and "Iraqize" the military forces in countries from which it was withdrawing troops, the United States has been engaged in its own slow-motion "Asianization" of the Pacific.