Since the founding of the American republic, Asia has been a key area of interest for the United States for both economic and security reasons. One of the first ships to sail under an American flag was the aptly named Empress of China, inaugurating the American role in the lucrative China trade in 1784. In the subsequent more than 200 years, the United States has worked under the strategic assumption that it was inimical to American interests to allow any single nation to dominate Asia. Asia constituted too important a market and was too great a source of key resources for the United States to be denied access. Thus, beginning with U.S. Secretary of State John Hay’s “Open Door” policy toward China in the 19th century, the United States has worked to prevent the rise of a regional hegemon, whether it was imperial Japan in Asia or the Soviet Union in Europe.

In the 21st century, the importance of Asia to the United States will continue to grow. Already, Asian markets absorb over a quarter of American exports in goods and services and, combined, support one-third of all American export-related jobs.1 This number is likely to grow, especially if the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional free trade agreement comes into effect.

Not only is Asia still a major market with two of the world’s most populous countries, but it is also a key source of vital resources such as electronic components. Over 40 percent of the world’s hard drives, for example, are made in Thailand. The March 2011 earthquake that devastated Japan had global repercussions as supply chains for a variety of products from cars to computers were disrupted worldwide.

Asia is a matter of more than just economic concern, however. Several of the world’s largest militaries are in Asia, including those of China, India, North and South Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and Vietnam. The United States also maintains a significant military presence in Asia. Five Asian states (China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Russia) possess nuclear weapons.

The region is a focus of American security concerns not only because of the presence of substantial military forces, but also because of the legacy of conflict. The two major “hot” wars the United States fought during the Cold War were both in Asia—Korea and Vietnam. Moreover, the Asian security environment is unstable. To begin with, the Cold War has not ended in Asia. Of the four states divided between Communism and democracy by the Cold War, three (China, Korea, and Vietnam) were in Asia. Neither the Korean nor the China–Taiwan situation was resolved despite the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Cold War itself was an ideological conflict layered atop long-standing—and still lingering—historical animosities. Asia is home to several major border disputes, among them:

  • Northern Territories/Southern Kuriles (Japan and Russia);
  • Senkakus/Diaoyutai/Diaoyu Dao (Japan, China, and Taiwan);
  • Dok-do/Takeshima (Korea and Japan);
  • Paracels/Xisha Islands (Vietnam and China);
  • Nansha/Spratlys (China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines);
  • Kashmir (India and Pakistan); and
  • Aksai Chin and parts of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (India and China).

Even the various names applied to the disputed territories reflect the fundamental differences in point of view, as each state refers to the disputed areas under a different name. Similarly, different names are applied to the various major bodies of water, such as “East Sea” or “Sea of Japan” and “Yellow Sea” or “West Sea.”

These disputes over names also are indicative of the broader tensions rooted in historical animosities—enmities that still that scar the region. Most notably, Japan’s actions in World War II continue to be a major source of controversy, particularly in China and South Korea, where debates over issues such as what is incorporated in textbooks and governmental statements prevents old wounds from completely healing. Similarly, a Chinese claim that much of the Korean peninsula was once Chinese territory aroused reactions in both Koreas. The Cold War merely applied an additional, ideological layer atop a roiling mass of unresolved issues across Asia; the end of the Cold War did little to resolve any of these underlying disagreements.

It is in this light that one should consider the lack of a political-security infrastructure, or even much of an economic one, undergirding East Asia. Despite substantial trade and expanding value chains among the various Asian states, as well as with the rest of the world, formal economic integration is limited. There is no counterpart to the European Union or even to the European Economic Community, as there is no parallel to the European Coal and Steel Community, the precursor to European economic integration.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a far looser agglomeration of disparate states, although they have succeeded in expanding economic linkages among themselves over the past 47 years. Less important to regional stability has been the South Asia Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The SAARC is largely ineffective, both because of the lack of regional economic integration and because of the historical rivalry between India and Pakistan. And despite attempts, there is still no Asia-wide free trade agreement (although the Trans-Pacific Partnership, if passed, and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership would help to remedy this gap to some extent).

Similarly, there is no equivalent of NATO, despite a mid-20th century effort, ultimately failed, to forge a parallel multilateral security architecture through the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Regional security entities, such as the Five Power Defence Arrangement (involving the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Singapore in an “arrangement,” not an alliance), or discussion forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting have been far weaker. Nor did an Asian equivalent of the Warsaw Pact organization arise. Instead, Asian security has been marked by a combination of bilateral alliances, mostly centered on the United States, and individual nations’ efforts to maintain their own security.

Important Alliances and Bilateral Relations in Asia

For the United States, the keys to its position in the Western Pacific are its five alliances, with Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia. These alliances are supplemented by very close security relationships with New Zealand, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Singapore and evolving relationships with other nations in the region like India, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The U.S. also has a robust unofficial relationship with Taiwan.

The United States enjoys the benefit of sharing common weapons and systems with many of its allies, facilitating interoperability. Many nations, for example, have equipped their infantry with M-16/M-4–based infantry weapons (and share the 5.56mm caliber); F-15 and F-16 combat aircraft; and LINK-16 data links. Consequently, in the event of conflict, the various air, naval, and even land forces will be capable of sharing information in such key areas as air defense and maritime domain awareness. This advantage is further expanded by the constant ongoing range of both bilateral and multilateral exercises, which acclimates various forces to operating together and familiarizes both American and local commanders with each other’s standard operating procedures (SOPs), as well as training and tactics.

Japan. The U.S.–Japan defense relationship is one of the centerpieces of the American network of relations in the Western Pacific. The U.S.–Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, signed in 1960, has provided for a deep alliance between two of the world’s largest economies and most sophisticated military establishments.

Since the end of World War II, Japan’s defense policy has been distinguished by Article 9 of its constitution. This article states in part that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,”2 in effect prohibiting the use of force by Japan’s governments as an instrument of national policy. This article, in turn, led to several other associated policies.

One such policy was a prohibition on “collective self-defense.” Japan recognized that nations have a right to employ their armed forces to help other states defend themselves (i.e., to engage in collective defensive operations) but rejected that policy for itself: Japan would employ its forces only in defense of Japan. While new official interpretations, once fully realized, will make important exceptions for the United States, its only treaty ally, the terms of the U.S.–Japan mutual security treaty had the practical effect of committing the U.S. to defend Japan but not committing Japan to defending the U.S.

A similar policy decision was made regarding Japanese arms exports. Tokyo, for a variety of economic and political reasons, has chosen to rely on domestic production to meet most of its military requirements. At the same time, until very recently, it chose to limit arms exports, banning them entirely to:

  • Communist bloc countries;
  • Countries that are placed by the U.N. Security Council under arms exports embargoes; and
  • Countries that are involved in or likely to be involved in international conflicts.3

One factor driving this decision was the desire not to have Japanese weapons identified with foreign wars.4 Consequently, Japanese weapons are some of the most expensive in the world, since costs cannot be amortized across a larger export base.

As a result of these decisions, Tokyo relies heavily on the United States for its security. In particular, it depends on the United States for deterring nuclear attacks on the home islands. The combination of the pacifist constitution and Japan’s past (i.e., the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) has forestalled much public interest in obtaining an independent nuclear deterrent. Similarly, throughout the Cold War, Japan relied on the American conventional and nuclear commitment to deter Soviet (and Chinese) aggression.

As part of the U.S. relationship with Japan, the United States maintains some 38,000 military personnel and another 5,000 Department of Defense civilian employees in Japan under the rubric of U.S. Forces Japan (USFJ).5 These forces include a forward-deployed carrier battle group (centered on the USS George Washington); a submarine tender; an amphibious assault ship at Yokosuka; and the bulk of the Third Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF) on Okinawa. U.S. forces regularly exercise with their Japanese counterparts; in recent years, these have expanded from air and naval exercises to practicing amphibious operations together.

Supporting the American presence is a substantial American defense infrastructure established throughout Japan, including Okinawa. The array of major bases provides key logistical and communications support for U.S. operations throughout the Western Pacific, cutting travel time substantially compared with deployments from Hawaii or the American West Coast. They also provide key listening posts on Russian, Chinese, and North Korean military operations. This is likely to be supplemented by Japan’s growing array of space systems, including new reconnaissance satellites.

The Japanese government defrays a substantial portion of the cost of the American presence. At present, the government of Japan provides some $2 billion annually to support the cost of USFJ.6 These funds cover a variety of expenses, including utility and labor costs at U.S. bases, improvements to U.S. facilities in Japan, and the cost of relocating training exercises away from populated areas in Japan.

U.S.–Japanese defense cooperation is undergirded not only by the mutual security treaty, but also by the U.S.–Japan Defense Guidelines. As revised in April 2015, the guidelines expand both the geographic scope and the nature of Japan’s security contributions to include operations “involving the use of force to respond to situations where an armed attack against a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan occurs.”7 The revisions make Japan a fuller partner in the alliance.

At least since the 1990 Gulf War, the United States has sought to obtain expanded Japanese participation in international security affairs. This effort had generally been resisted by Japan’s political system, based on the view that Japan’s constitution, legal decisions, and popular attitudes all forbid such a shift. (Changes in alliance guidelines agreed to between the U.S. and Japan are based on a less restrictive interpretation of collective self-defense that requires action on enabling legislation in Tokyo.) Attempts to expand Japan’s range of defense activities, especially away from the home islands, have often been met by vehement opposition from Japan’s neighbors, especially China and South Korea, due to unresolved differences on issues ranging from territorial claims and boundaries to historical grievances and Japanese visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.

These issues have been sufficient to torpedo efforts to improve defense cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo, a fact highlighted in 2012 by South Korea’s last-minute decision not to sign an agreement to share sensitive military data, including details about the North Korean threat to both countries.8 In December 2014, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan signed a minimalist military data-sharing agreement, limited only to information on the North Korean military threat and requiring both allies to pass information through the United States military. Similar controversies, rooted in history as well as contemporary politics, have also affected Sino–Japanese relations and, to a lesser extent, Japanese ties to some Southeast Asian states.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has pushed through a reinterpretation of the legality of Japanese participation in “collective self-defense” situations, as well as a loosening of restrictions on arms sales. The combination of reforms provides the legal foundation for much greater Japanese interaction with other states in defense arenas, including joint production of weapons and components, and the potential for interaction with foreign military forces. It also provides for the possibility of Japanese assistance to friendly nations that are under attack.9

Republic of Korea. The United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) signed the Mutual Defense Treaty in 1953. That treaty codified the relationship that had grown from the Korean War, when the United States dispatched troops to help South Korea fend off North Korea’s invasion. Since then, the two states have forged an enduring alliance that supplements a substantial trade and economic relationship that includes a free trade agreement.

The United States currently maintains some 28,500 troops in Korea, the largest concentration of American forces on the Asian mainland. This is centered mainly on the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division and a significant number of combat aircraft.

The U.S.–ROK defense relationship involves one of the more integrated and complex command and control structures. A United Nations Command (UNC) established in 1950 was the basis for the American intervention, and it remained in place after the armistice was signed in 1953. UNC has access to a number of bases in Japan in order to support U.N. forces in Korea. In concrete terms, however, it only oversaw South Korean and American forces as other nations’ contributions were gradually withdrawn or reduced to token elements.

In 1978, operational control of frontline South Korean and American military forces transitioned from UNC to Combined Forces Command (CFC). Headed by an American officer (who is also the Commander, U.N. Command), CFC reflects an unparalleled degree of U.S.–South Korean military integration. Similarly, the system of Korean Augmentees to the United States Army (KATUSA), which places South Korean soldiers into American units assigned to Korea, allows for a degree of tactical-level integration and cooperation that is atypical.

Current command arrangements for the U.S. and ROK militaries are for CFC to exercise operational control (OPCON) of all forces on the peninsula in time of war, while peacetime control rests with respective national authorities (although the U.S. exercises peacetime OPCON over non-U.S., non-ROK forces located on the peninsula). In 2003, South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, as agreed with the U.S., began the process of transferring wartime operational control from CFC to South Korean commanders, thereby establishing the ROK military as fully independent of the United States. This decision engendered significant opposition within the South Korean polity, however, and raised serious military questions about the impact on unity of command. Coupled with various North Korean provocations (including a spate of missile tests as well as attacks on South Korean military forces and territory in 2010), Washington and Seoul agreed in late 2014 to postpone wartime OPCON transfer.10

Unlike Japan, South Korea’s military does not operate under the same level of domestic political constraints. Thus, South Korea rotated several divisions to fight alongside Americans in Vietnam. In the first Gulf War, the Iraq War, and Afghanistan, South Korea limited its contributions to non-combatant forces and monetary aid. The focus of South Korean defense planning remains on North Korea, however, especially as Pyongyang has deployed its forces in ways that optimize a southward advance. Concerns about North Korea have been heightened in recent years in the wake of the sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan and the shelling of Yongpyeong-do, perhaps the most serious incident in decades. Moreover, in the last several conflicts (e.g., Operation Iraqi Freedom), Seoul has not provided combat forces, preferring instead to send humanitarian and non-combatant assistance.

Over the past several decades, the American presence on the peninsula has slowly declined. In the early 1970s, President Nixon withdrew the 7th Infantry Division, leaving only the 2nd Infantry Division on the peninsula. Those forces have been positioned farther back so that there are few Americans deployed on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Washington has agreed to maintain 28,500 troops in the ROK. These forces regularly engage in major exercises with their ROK counterparts, including the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle series. Both of these series involve the actual deployment of a substantial number of forces and are partly intended to signal and deter Pyongyang, as well as to give U.S. and ROK forces a chance to practice operating together.

The ROK government also provides substantial resources to defray the costs of U.S. Forces–Korea. It provides some $730 million annually in either direct funding or in-kind support, covering cost-sharing for labor, logistics, and improvements in facilities.11

The Philippines. America’s oldest defense relationship in Asia is with the Philippines. The United States seized the Philippines from the Spanish over a century ago as a result of the Spanish–American War. But the U.S., unlike other colonial states, also put in place a mechanism for the Philippines to gain its independence, transitioning through a period as a commonwealth until the archipelago was granted independence in 1946. Just as important, substantial numbers of Filipinos fought alongside the United States against Japan in World War II, establishing a bond between the two peoples. Following World War II and after assisting the newly independent Filipino government against the Communist Hukbalahap movement in the 1940s, the United States and the Philippines signed a mutual security treaty.

For much of the period between 1898 and the end of the Cold War, the largest American bases in the Pacific were in the Philippines, centered around the U.S. Navy base in Subic Bay and the complex of airfields that developed around Clark Field (later Clark Air Base). While the Philippines have never had the ability to provide substantial financial support for the American presence, the base infrastructure was unparalleled, providing replenishment and repair facilities and substantially extending deployment periods throughout the East Asian littoral.

These bases were often centers of controversy, however, as they were reminders of the colonial era. In 1991, a successor to the Military Bases Agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines was submitted to the Philippine Senate for ratification. The Philippines, after a lengthy debate, rejected the treaty, compelling American withdrawal from Philippine bases. Coupled with the effects of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo (which devastated Clark Air Base and damaged many Subic Bay facilities) and the end of the Cold War, the closure of the bases was not seen as fundamentally damaging America’s posture in the region.

Moreover, despite the closing of the American bases, U.S.–Philippine military relations remained extensive, as U.S. forces continued to train the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The U.S. government also provided military aid and assistance, both of which increased after 9/11 as U.S. forces assisted the Philippines in countering Islamic terrorist groups, including Abu Sayyaf, in the south of the archipelago. The U.S. currently rotates some 500 troops regularly to the Philippines, mostly to assist in counterterrorism operations, and another 6,500 participate in combined exercises with Philippine  troops.12

In 2014, the United States and the Philippines announced a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows for an expanded American presence in the archipelago.13 Under the agreement, U.S. forces would rotate through on an expanded basis, allowing a more regular presence in the islands (but would not have new, permanent bases there), and engage in more joint training with AFP forces. It also facilitates the provision of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR). Under the EDCA, the United States also agreed to transfer and sell more military equipment to the AFP to help it modernize. This is an important step, as the Philippine military has long been one of the weakest in the region, despite the need to defend an incredibly large expanse of ocean, shoreline, and territory.

One long-standing difference between the U.S. and the Philippines has been the application of the U.S.–Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty to disputed islands in the South China Sea. While Philippine government officials have long argued that the treaty does not explicitly extend American obligations to disputed areas and territories, official American interpretations of the treaty conclude otherwise.14 While the EDCA does not change that, the growing tensions in the South China Sea, including in recent years at Scarborough Shoal, have highlighted Manila’s need for greater support from and cooperation with Washington. Moreover, the U.S. government has been explicit that any attack upon the Philippines’ government ships or aircraft, or on the Philippine armed forces, would be covered under the Treaty, “thus separating the issue of territorial sovereignty from attack on Philippine military and public vessels.”15

Thailand. The U.S.–Thai security relationship is built on the 1954 Manila Pact, which established the now-defunct Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, and the 1962 Thanat–Rusk agreement. These were supplemented by the 2012 Joint Vision statement for U.S.–Thai relations. Moreover, in 2003, Thailand was designated a “major, non-NATO ally,” giving it improved access to American arms sales.

Thailand’s central location has made it an important component in the network of U.S. alliances in Asia. During the Vietnam War, a variety of American aircraft were based in Thailand, ranging from fighter-bombers and B-52s to reconnaissance aircraft. In the first Gulf War and again in the Iraq War, some of those same airbases were essential for the rapid deployment of American forces to the Persian Gulf.

U.S. and Thai forces regularly exercise together, most notably in the annual Cobra Gold exercises, first begun in 1982. This builds on a partnership that began with the dispatch of Thai forces to the Korean War, where over 1,200 Thai troops died (out of some 6,000 deployed). The Cobra Gold exercises are one of the world’s largest multilateral military exercises.

U.S.–Thai relations have been strained in recent years due to domestic unrest and several coups in Thailand. This strife has limited the extent of U.S.–Thai military cooperation, as U.S. law prohibits U.S. funding for many kinds of assistance to a foreign country in which a military coup deposes a duly elected head of government. Nonetheless, the two states continue to cooperate, including in the vital area of intelligence sharing to prevent terrorism. The Counter Terrorism Information Center (CTIC) continues to allow the two states to share vital information about terrorist activities in Asia. CTIC is alleged to have played a key role in the capture of the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, Hambali, in 2003.16

Thailand has also been drawing closer to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This process has been underway since the end of the Vietnam War but is accelerating due to expanding economic relations between the two states. Between 2005 and 2010, the value of trade between the two states doubled. By 2012, China was Thailand’s second largest trading partner, while Thailand was China’s 14th largest.17

Thai and Chinese military intelligence officers began formal meetings in 1988. Since 2007, Thai and Chinese military forces have engaged in joint counterterrorism exercises, and since 2010, the two nations’ marines have also exercised jointly.18 Thai–Chinese military relations may have accelerated as a result of the U.S. restrictions imposed in the wake of Thai political instability.

Australia. Australia is one of the most important American allies in the Asia–Pacific. U.S.–Australia security ties date back to World War I, when U.S. forces fought under Australian command on the Western Front. These ties deepened during World War II when, after Japan commenced hostilities in the Western Pacific, Australian forces committed to the North Africa campaign were not returned to defend the continent—despite British promises to do so. Consequently, as Japanese forces attacked the East Indies and secured Singapore, Australia turned to the United States to bolster its defenses. American and Australian forces subsequently cooperated closely in the Pacific War. Those ties and America’s role as the main external supporter for Australian security were codified in the Australia–New Zealand–U.S. (ANZUS) pact of 1951, which tied the three states together.

A key part of the Obama Administration’s “Asia pivot” was to deploy additional United States Marines to Australia. Eventually expected to total some 2,500 troops, the initial contingent of forces are based near the northern city of Darwin. Meanwhile, the two nations engage in a variety of security cooperation efforts, including joint space surveillance activities. These were codified in 2014 with an agreement that allows sharing of space information data among the U.S., Australia, the U.K., and Canada.19

The two nations’ chief defense and foreign policy officials meet annually in the Australia–United States Ministerial (AUSMIN) process, addressing issues of mutual concern. These have typically included security developments in the Asia–Pacific region, global security and development concerns, and bilateral security cooperation.20 Australia has also granted the United States access to a number of joint facilities, including space surveillance facilities at Pine Gap, naval communications facilities on the North West Cape of Australia,21
and Marines in the Northern Territory.

Australia and the U.K. are two of America’s closest partners in the defense industrial sector. In 2010, the United States approved Defense Trade Cooperation Treaties with Australia and the U.K. These treaties allow for the expedited and simplified export or transfer of certain defense services and items between the U.S. and its two key partners without the need for export licenses or other approvals under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. This also allows for much greater integration among the American, Australian, and British defense industrial establishments.22

Singapore. Although Singapore is not a security treaty ally of the United States, it is a key security partner in the region. In 2005, the close defense relationship was formalized with the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA). The SFA “expanded the scope of…cooperation in areas such as counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, joint military exercises and training, policy dialogues and defence technology.”23 It builds on the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding Regarding United States Use of Facilities in Singapore, as amended, which allows for U.S. access to Singaporean military facilities.24 The 2005 SFA is the first agreement of its kind since the end of the Cold War,25 thereby making Singapore America’s most critical non-treaty security ally in the Western Pacific.

New Zealand. For much of the Cold War, U.S. defense ties with New Zealand were similar to those between America and Australia. The controversies over U.S. Navy employment of nuclear power and the possibility of deployment of U.S. naval vessels with nuclear weapons led to a fissure in U.S.–New Zealand security ties in the mid-1980s, but defense relations improved in the early 21st century as New Zealand committed forces to Afghanistan and also dispatched an engineering detachment to Iraq. The 2010 Wellington Declaration and the 2012 Washington Declaration, while not restoring full security ties, allowed the two nations to resume high-level defense dialogues. In 2013, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman announced the resumption of military-to-military cooperation.26

Taiwan. When the United States shifted its recognition of the government of China from the Republic of China (on Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (the mainland), it declared certain commitments concerning the security of Taiwan. These commitments are embodied in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the subsequent “Six Assurances.”

The TRA is an American law and not a treaty. Under the TRA, the United States maintains programs, transactions, and other relations with Taiwan, through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). Furthermore, except for the U.S.–China Mutual Defense Treaty, which had governed U.S. security relations with Taiwan, all other treaties and international agreements made between the Republic of China and the United States remain in force. (The Sino–U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty was terminated by President Jimmy Carter following the shift in recognition to the PRC.)

Under the TRA, it is the policy of the United States “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.” The TRA also states that the U.S. will “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” The U.S. has implemented these provisions of the TRA through weapons sales to Taiwan.

The TRA states that it is U.S. policy to “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”27 It also states that it is U.S. policy to “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”28

The TRA requires the President to inform Congress promptly of “any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom.” The TRA then states: “The President and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger.”

Supplementing the TRA are the “Six Assurances” issued by President Ronald Reagan in a secret July 1982 memo, subsequently publicly released and the subject of a Senate hearing. These six assurances were intended to moderate the third Sino–American communique, itself generally seen as one of the “Three Communiques” that form the foundation of U.S.–PRC relations. These assurances of July 14, 1982, were:

In negotating the third Joint Communique with the PRC, the United States:

  1. has not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan;
  2. has not agreed to hold prior consultations with the PRC on arms sales to Taiwan;
  3. will not play any mediation role between Taipei and Beijing
  4. has not agreed to revise the Taiwan Relations Act;
  5. has not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan;
  6. will not exert pressure on Taiwan to negotiate with the PRC.29

Although the United States sells Taiwan a variety of military equipment, unlike its alliance relationships, the United States does not engage in joint exercises with the Taiwan armed forces. Some Taiwan military officers, however, do receive training in the United States, attending American professional military education institutions. There are also regular high-level meetings between senior U.S. and Taiwan defense officials, both uniformed and civilian. The United States does not maintain any bases in Taiwan or its territories.

Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The U.S. has security relationships with several key Southeast Asian countries, none of them as extensive and formal as its relationship with Singapore and its Asian treaty allies, but all still of growing significance. Since shortly after the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1995, the U.S. and Vietnam have also normalized their defense relationship, albeit very slowly. The relationship was codified in 2011 with a Memorandum of Understanding “advancing bilateral defense cooperation” that covers five areas of operations, including maritime security.

The U.S. and Malaysia have maintained a “steady level” of defense cooperation since the 1990s, despite occasional political differences.30 Today, they participate together in more than a dozen bilateral and multilateral exercises a year to “promote interoperability and cooperation.”31

The U.S.–Indonesia defense relationship revived in 2005 following a period of estrangement over American human rights concerns. It now includes regular joint exercises, port calls, and sale of weaponry. The U.S. is also working closely with Indonesia’s defense establishment to institute reforms in Indonesia’s strategic defense planning processes.

Afghanistan. On October 7, 2001, U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, marking the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom to combat al-Qaeda and its Taliban supporters. The U.S., in alliance with the U.K. and the anti-Taliban Afghan Northern Alliance forces, ousted the Taliban from power in December 2001. Most Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders fled across the border into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where they regrouped and started an insurgency in Afghanistan in 2003.

In August 2003, NATO joined the war in Afghanistan and assumed control of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). At the height of the war in 2011, there were 50 troop-contributing nations and a total of nearly 150,000 NATO and U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan.

On December 28, 2014, NATO formally ended combat operations and handed responsibility to the Afghan security forces, currently numbering around 326,000 (including army and police).32 After Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed a bilateral security agreement with the U.S. and a Status of Forces Agreement with NATO, the international coalition launched Operation Resolute Support to train and support Afghan security forces. As of June 2015, approximately 13,200 U.S. and NATO forces were stationed in Afghanistan. Most U.S. and NATO forces are stationed at bases in Kabul and Bagram, with tactical advise-and-assist teams located in Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Gamberi.

While President Obama last year pledged to cut U.S. force levels to around 5,500 by the end of 2015 and then to zero by the end of 2016, he recently announced that the U.S. would retain some 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2015, although he remains committed to a complete withdrawal by the end of 2016.

Pakistan. During the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO relied heavily on logistical supply lines running through Pakistan to resupply coalition forces in Afghanistan. Supplies and fuel were carried on transportation routes from the port at Karachi to Afghan–Pakistani border crossing points at Torkham in the Khyber Pass and Chaman in Baluchistan province. During the initial years of the Afghan war, about 80 percent of U.S. and NATO supplies traveled through Pakistani territory. This amount decreased to around 50 percent–60 percent as the U.S. shifted to northern routes and when U.S.–Pakistan relations significantly deteriorated over U.S. drone strikes, continued Pakistani support to Taliban militants, and the fallout surrounding the U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011.

From October 2001 until December 2011, the U.S. leased Pakistan’s Shamsi airfield southwest of Quetta in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province and used it as a base from which to conduct surveillance and drone operations against terrorist targets in Pakistan’s tribal border areas. Pakistan ordered the U.S. to vacate the base shortly after NATO forces attacked Pakistani positions along the Afghanistan border, killing 24 Pakistani soldiers, on November 26, 2011.

The U.S. escalated its drone strike campaign in Pakistan’s border areas from 2009–2012, leading to the significant degradation of al-Qaeda’s ability to plot, plan, and train for terrorist attacks. The U.S. began to curtail drone strikes in 2013, largely as a result of Pakistan’s growing complaints that the drone campaign infringed on its sovereignty and criticism from international human rights organizations about the number of civilian casualties resulting from the attacks. All told, there have been around 370 drone strikes since January 2008 and 24 reported strikes during 2014.33

The U.S. provides significant amounts of military aid to Pakistan and “reimbursements” in the form of coalition support funds (CSF) for Pakistan’s military deployments and operations along the border with Afghanistan. Pakistan has some 150,000 troops stationed in regions bordering Afghanistan and recently conducted a robust military campaign against Pakistani militants in North Waziristan. Since 2002, the U.S. has provided over $7 billion in security-related assistance and over $12 billion in CSF funds to Pakistan.34

India. During the Cold War, U.S.–Indian military cooperation was minimal, except for a brief period during the Sino–Indian border war in 1962 when the U.S. sided with India and supplied it with arms and ammunition. The rapprochement was short-lived, however, and mutual suspicion continued to mark the Indo–U.S. relationship due to India’s robust relationship with Russia and the U.S. provision of military aid to Pakistan, especially during the 1970s under the Nixon Administration. America’s ties with India hit a nadir during the 1971 Indo–Pakistani war when the U.S. deployed the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise toward the Bay of Bengal in a show of support for Pakistani forces.

Military ties between the U.S. and India have improved significantly over the past decade as the two sides have moved toward establishment of a strategic partnership based on their mutual concern over rising Chinese military and economic influence and converging interests in countering regional terrorism. The U.S. has supplied some $10 billion in military equipment to India including C-130J and C-17 transport aircraft and P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft.

Defense ties between the two countries are poised to expand further as India moves forward with an ambitious military modernization program and following two successful summit-level meetings between President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in recent months. During President Obama’s January 2015 visit to India, the two sides agreed to renew and upgrade their 10-year Defense Framework Agreement, to co-produce UAVs and equipment for military transport aircraft, and to explore co-development of aircraft carrier and jet engine technology. New Delhi and Washington regularly hold joint exercises across all services, including an annual naval exercise in which Japan, Australia, and Singapore have also participated.

Quality of Allied Armed Forces in Asia

Because of the lack of an integrated, regional security architecture along the lines of NATO, the United States partners with most of the nations in the region on a bilateral basis. This, in turn, means that there is no single standard to which all the local militaries aspire; instead, there is a wide range of capabilities, influenced by local threat perceptions, physical conditions, historical factors, and budgetary considerations. Moreover, assessing the quality of Asian armed forces is difficult due to the lack of recent major conflicts in the region. Most Asian militaries have limited combat experience; some (e.g., Malaysia) have never fought an external war since gaining independence in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The Indochina wars, the most recent high-intensity conflicts, are now over 30 years in the past. Consequently, it is unclear how well Asian militaries have trained for future warfare and whether their doctrine will meet the exigencies of wartime realities.

Based on examinations of equipment, however, it is assessed that several Asian allies and friends have substantial military capabilities supported by robust defense industries and significant defense spending. Japan’s, South Korea’s, and Australia’s defense budgets are estimated to be among the 15 largest in the world. Each of their military forces field some of the world’s most advanced weapons, including F-15s in the Japan Air Self Defense Force and ROK Air Force; airborne early warning (AEW) platforms; AEGIS-capable surface combatants and modern diesel-electric submarines; and third-generation main battle tanks. All three nations are currently committed to purchasing F-35 fighters.

At this point, both the Japanese and Korean militaries are arguably more capable than most European militaries, at least in terms of conventional forces. Japan’s Self Defense Forces, for example, field more tanks (777), principal surface combatants (47), and fighter/ground attack aircraft (340) than their British opposite numbers (227, 18, and 230, respectively).35 Similarly, South Korea’s military fields a larger military of tanks, principal surface combatants, submarines, and fighter/ground attack aircraft (over 1,000, 28, 23, and 468, respectively) than their German counterparts (322, 19, four, and 209, respectively).36

Both the ROK and Japan are also increasingly interested in developing missile defense capabilities. Notably, South Korea is concerned that participation with the United States might antagonize Beijing or Moscow.37 Rather than abandoning missile defense plans, however, South Korea is pursuing an indigenous capability, devoting some 14 percent of its defense budget to that end.38

Singapore’s small population and physical borders limit the size of its military and therefore its defense budget, but in terms of equipment, it nonetheless fields some of the highest-quality forces in the region. For example, Singapore’s ground forces can deploy third-generation Leopard II main battle tanks; its fleet includes five conventional submarines (including one with air-independent propulsion systems), six frigates, and six missile-armed corvettes; and the Singapore air force not only has F-15E Strike Eagles and F-16s, but also has one of the largest fleets of airborne early warning and control aircraft in Southeast Asia (six G550 aircraft) and a tanker fleet of KC-130s that can help extend range or time on station.

At the other extreme, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are among the weakest military forces in the region. Having long focused on waging counterinsurgency campaigns while relying on the United States for its external security, the AFP has one of the lowest budgets in the region—and one of the most extensive coastlines to defend. With a defense budget of only $2.5 billion and confronted with a number of insurgencies, including the Islamist Abu Sayyaf and New People’s Army, Philippine defense resources have long been stretched thin. The last squadron of fighter aircraft (1960s vintage F-5 fighters) was retired several years ago; the Philippine Air Force (PAF) has had to employ its S-211 trainers as fighters and ground attack aircraft. The most modern ships in the Philippine navy are two former U.S. Hamilton-class Coast Guard cutters; its other main combatant is a World War II destroyer escort, one of the world’s oldest serving warships.

Current U.S. Presence in Asia

The U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) is the oldest and largest of American unified commands. Established on January 1, 1947, PACOM, “together with other U.S. government agencies, protects and defends the United States, its territories, allies, and interests,” according to its mission statement.39 To this end, the U.S. seeks to preserve a “geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable” regional force posture within the PACOM area of responsibility that can effectively deter any potential adversaries.40


Tyranny of Distance: Mobilizing the U.S. Navy to the South China Sea


PACOM’s area of responsibility includes not only the expanses of the Pacific, but also Alaska and portions of the Arctic, South Asia, and the Indian Ocean. It includes 36 nations holding more than 50 percent of the world’s population, two of the three largest economies, and nine of the 10 smallest; the most populous nation (China); the largest democracy (India); the largest Muslim-majority nation (Indonesia); and the smallest republic in the world (Nauru). The region is a vital driver of the global economy and includes the world’s busiest international sea-lanes and nine of the 10 largest ports. By any meaningful measure, the Asia–Pacific is also the most militarized region in the world, with seven of the world’s 10 largest standing militaries and five of its declared nuclear nations.41

Under PACOM are a number of component commands, including:

  • U.S. Army Pacific. USARPAC is the Army’s component command in the Pacific. It supplies Army forces as necessary for various contingencies. It administers one infantry division, the 25th Infantry Division, which has two of its brigades based in Hawaii and two in Alaska (U.S. Army Alaska), as well as various other elements in Japan and Hawaii.
  • U.S. Pacific Air Force. PACAF is responsible for planning and conducting defensive and offensive air operations in the Asia–Pacific region. It has four numbered air forces under its command: 5th Air Force (in Japan); 7th Air Force (in Korea); 11th Air Force (headquartered in Alaska); and 13th Air Force (on Guam). These field two squadrons of F-15s, two squadrons of F-22s, five squadrons of F-16s, and a single squadron of A-10 ground attack aircraft, as well as several squadrons of E-3 early-warning aircraft, tankers, transports, and electronic warfare aircraft. Other forces that regularly come under PACAF command include B-52, B-1, and B-2 bombers.
  • U.S. Pacific Fleet. PACFLT normally controls all U.S. naval forces committed to the Pacific. These currently include 41 nuclear-powered attack submarines (including cruise missile subs); five carrier groups; and at least one amphibious group, plus various support ships. PACFLT is organized into Seventh Fleet headquartered in Japan and Third Fleet headquartered in California. Seventh Fleet comprises the forward-deployed element of PACFLT and includes some 60–70 ships and 200–300 sea-based and land-based aircraft at any time. This includes the only American carrier strike group (CTF-70) and amphibious group (CTF-76) home-ported abroad, ported at Yokosuka and Sasebo, Japan, respectively. The Third Fleet’s area of responsibility spans the West Coast of the United States to the International Date Line and includes the Alaskan coastline and parts of the Arctic.
  • Since the announcement of the “Asia pivot,” it has been reported that the United States will shift more naval and air force assets to the Pacific. It is expected that eventually, some 60 percent of U.S. Navy assets will be deployed to the Pacific (although it remains unclear whether they will be permanently based there). That percentage, however, will be drawn from a fleet that is shrinking in overall size, so the net effect may actually be fewer forces deployed than before.
  • U.S. Marine Forces Pacific. MARFORPAC controls elements of the U.S. Marine Corps operating in the Asia–Pacific region. Its headquarters are in Hawaii. Because of its extensive responsibilities and physical span, MARFORPAC controls two-thirds of Marine Corps forces: the I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), centered on the 1st Marine Division, 3rd Marine Air Wing, and 1st Marine Logistics Group, and the III Marine Expeditionary Force, centered on the 3rd Marine Division, 1st Marine Air Wing, and 3rd Marine Logistics Group. The I MEF is headquartered at Camp Pendleton, California, and III MEF is headquartered on Okinawa, although each has various subordinate elements deployed at any time throughout the Pacific on exercises, maintaining presence, or engaged in other activities. MARFORPAC is responsible for supporting three different commands. It is the U.S. Marine Corps component to PACOM, provides the Fleet Marine Forces to PACFLT, and provides Marine forces for U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).
  • U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific. SOCPAC has operational control of various special operations forces, including Navy SEALs; Naval Special Warfare units; Army Special Forces (Green Berets); and Special Operations Aviation units in the Pacific region, including elements in Japan and South Korea. It supports the Pacific Command’s Theater Security Cooperation Program as well as other plans and contingency responses. This includes extensive activities in the Philippines, assisting Manila in countering Islamic fundamentalist elements such as Abu Sayyaf. SOCPAC forces also support various operations in the region other than warfighting, such as counterdrug operations, counterterrorism training, humanitarian assistance, and de–mining activities.
  • U.S. Forces Korea and U.S. Eighth Army. Because of the unique situation on the Korean peninsula, two subcomponents of PACOM are U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) and U.S. Eighth Army. USFK is a joint headquarters led by a four-star U.S. general. It is in charge of the various U.S. military elements on the Korean peninsula. U.S. Eighth Army operates in conjunction with USFK as well as the United Nations presence (in the form of United Nations Command).

Other forces, including space capabilities, cyber capabilities, air and sealift assets, and additional combat forces, may be made available to PACOM depending on requirements and availability.

U.S. Central Command—Afghanistan. Unlike the U.S. forces deployed in Japan and South Korea, there is not a permanent force structure committed to Afghanistan; instead, forces rotate through the theater under the direction of PACOM’s counterpart in that region of the world, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). As of February 2015, these forces included:

  • Resolute Support Mission, including U.S. Forces Afghanistan.
  • Special Operations Joint Task Force—Afghanistan. This included 3/3 Special Forces, out of Bagram Airfield, and additional allied special operations forces at Kabul.
  • 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force. This includes the 155th Air Expeditionary Wing, providing air support from Bagram airfield; the 152st Air Expeditionary Group and 455th Expeditionary Operations Group, operating from Kandahar and Bagram airfields, respectively, providing air support and surveillance operations over various parts of Afghanistan; and the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, providing close air support from Bagram airfield.
  • Combined Joint Task Force 3/3rd Infantry Division, centered on Bagram airfield. This is the main U.S. national support element. It includes seven battalions of infantry, air defense artillery for counter-artillery missions, and explosive ordnance disposal across Afghanistan. It also includes three Army aviation battalions, a combat aviation brigade headquarters, and two additional joint task forces to provide nationwide surveillance support.
  • Five Train, Advise, Assist Commands in Afghanistan, each of which is a multinational force tasked with improving local capabilities to conduct operations.

Key Infrastructure That Enables Expeditionary Warfighting Capabilities

Any planning for operations in the Pacific will be dominated by the “tyranny of distance.” Because of the extensive distances that must be traversed in order to deploy forces, even Air Force units will take one or more days to deploy, while ships measure steaming time in weeks. For instance, ships require four days to get from the West Coast of the United States to Hawaii. From there, it takes a further seven days to get to Guam, six days to Japan, and eight days to Okinawa or Australia—if ships move at top speed, undertake no evasive measures, and encounter no interference.

China’s growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, ranging from an expanding fleet of modern submarines to anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, increase the operational risk for deployment of U.S. forces in the event of conflict. China’s capabilities not only jeopardize American combat forces that would flow into the theater for initial combat, but also would continue to threaten the logistical support that would sustain American combat power for the subsequent days, weeks, and months.

American basing structure in the Indo–Pacific region, including access to key allied facilities, is therefore both necessary and increasingly at risk.

American Facilities

Much as in the 20th century, Hawaii remains the linchpin of America’s ability to support its position in the Western Pacific. If the United States cannot preserve its facilities in Hawaii, then both combat power and sustainability become moot. The United States maintains air and naval bases, communications infrastructure, and logistical support on Oahu and elsewhere in the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii is also a key site for undersea cables that carry much of the world’s communications and data, as well as satellite ground stations.

The American territory of Guam is located 4,600 miles farther west. Obtained from Spain as a result of the Spanish–American War, Guam became a key coaling station for U.S. Navy ships. Seized by Japan in World War II, it was liberated by U.S. forces in 1944 and after the war became an unincorporated, organized territory of the United States. Key U.S. military facilities on Guam include U.S. Naval Base Guam, which houses several attack submarines and may add an aircraft carrier berth, and Andersen Air Force Base, one of a handful of facilities that can house B-2 bombers. U.S. task forces, meanwhile, can stage out of Apra Harbor, drawing weapons from the Ordnance Annex in the island’s South Central Highlands. There is also a communications and data relay facility on the island.

Over the past 20 years, Guam’s facilities have steadily improved. B-2 bombers, for example, began operating from Andersen Air Force Base in 2005.42 These improvements have been accelerated and expanded even as China’s A2/AD capabilities have raised doubts about the ability to sustain operations in the Asian littoral. The concentration of air and naval assets as well as logistical infrastructure, however, makes the island an attractive potential target in the event of conflict.

The U.S. military has non-combatant maritime prepositioning ships (MPS), containing large amounts of military equipment and supplies, in strategic locations from which they can reach areas of conflict relatively quickly as associated U.S. Army or Marine Corps units located elsewhere arrive in the areas. The U.S. Navy has units on Guam and in Saipan, Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, which support prepositioning ships that can supply Army or Marine Corps units deployed for contingency operations in Asia.

Allied and Friendly Facilities

For the United States, access to bases in Asia has long been a prerequisite for supporting any American military operations in the region. Even with the extensive aerial refueling and underway replenishment skills of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy, it is still essential for the United States to retain access to resupply and replenishment facilities, at least in peacetime. The ability of those facilities not only to survive, but also to function will directly influence the course of any conflict in the Western Pacific region. Moreover, a variety of support functions, including communications, intelligence, and space support, cannot be accomplished without facilities in the region.

At the present time, it would be extraordinarily difficult to maintain maritime domain awareness or space situational awareness without access to facilities in the Asia–Pacific region. The American alliance network outlined previously is therefore a matter both of political partnership and also of access to key facilities on allied soil.

Japan. In Japan, the United States has access to over 100 different facilities, including communications stations, military and dependent housing, fuel and ammunition depots, and weapons and training ranges. This access comes in addition to major bases such as air bases at Misawa, Yokota, and Kadena and naval facilities at Yokosuka, Atsugi, and Sasebo. The naval facilities support the USS George Washington carrier strike group (CSG), which is home-ported in Yokosuka, as well as a Marine Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) centered on the USS Bonhomme Richard, home-ported at Sasebo. Moreover, the skilled work force at places like Yokosuka is an integral part of maintaining American forces and repairing equipment in time of conflict. Replacing them would take years.

This combination of facilities and work force, in addition to physical location and political support, makes Japan an essential part of any American military response to contingencies in the Western Pacific. Japanese financial support for the American presence also makes these facilities some of the most cost-effective in the world.

South Korea. The United States also maintains an array of facilities in South Korea, with a larger Army footprint than in Japan, as the United States and South Korea remain focused on deterring North Korean aggression and preparing for any possible North Korean contingencies. The Army maintains four major facilities (which in turn control a number of smaller sites) at Daegu, Yongsan in Seoul, and Camps Red Cloud/Casey and Humphreys. These facilities support the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, which is based in South Korea. Other key facilities include air bases at Osan and Kunsan as well as a naval facility at Chinhae near Pusan.

The Philippines. In 1992, The United States ended nearly a century-long presence in the Philippines when it withdrew from its base in Subic Bay as its lease there ended. Clark Air Base had been closed earlier due to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo; the costs of repairing the facility were deemed too high to be worthwhile. In 2014, however, with the growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, including against Philippine claims such as Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal, the U.S. and the Philippines negotiated the EDCA, which will allow for the rotation of American forces through Philippine military bases.

While no specific facilities have thus far been announced, it is expected that, at a minimum, Subic Bay (one of the world’s finest harbors) and the runways at Clark Field will be utilized. The naval air station at Subic, Cubi Point, may also be reopened. Additional locations that have been reported in the press include Oyster Bay and Brooke’s Point in Palawan, both of which are near the disputed Spratly Islands.43

It remains unclear what forces would be rotated through the Philippines as a part of this agreement, which in turn affects the kinds of facilities that would be most needed. Some have suggested, for example, that in the face of China’s A2/AD capabilities, access to a number of suitable airfields might complicate Chinese targeting of American airpower.

Singapore. The United States does not have bases in Singapore but is allowed access to several key facilities that are essential for supporting American forward presence. The United States has been allowed to operate the principal logistics command for the Seventh Fleet out of the Port of Singapore Authority’s (PSA) Sembawang Terminal since the closure of its facilities at Subic. The U.S. Navy also has access to Changi Naval Base, one of the few docks in the world that can handle a 100,000-ton American aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, a small U.S. Air Force contingent operates out of Paya Lebar Air Base to support U.S. Air Force combat units visiting Singapore and Southeast Asia, and Singapore hosts two new Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) (with the option of hosting two more), as well as a rotating squadron of F-16 fighter aircraft.44

Australia. A much-discussed element of the “Asia pivot” has been the 2011 agreement to deploy U.S. Marines to Darwin in northern Australia. While nominally amounting to 2,500 Marines, the actual daily presence fluctuates. It is expected, however, that the USMC contingent will eventually also include fixed-wing aircraft and associated ground-support personnel.45 The Marines do not constitute a permanent presence in Australia, in keeping with Australian sensitivities about permanent American bases on Australian soil.46 Similarly, the United States jointly staffs the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap and the Joint Geological and Geophysical Research Station at Alice Springs and has access to the Harold E. Holt Naval Communication Station in Western Australia, including the space surveillance radar system there.47

Finally, the United States is granted access to a number of facilities in Asian states on a contingency or crisis basis. Thus, U.S. Air Force units transited Thailand’s U-Tapao Air Base during the first Gulf War and in the Iraq War, but they do not maintain a permanent presence there. Additionally, the U.S. Navy conducts hundreds of port calls throughout the region.

Diego Garcia. Essential to U.S. operations in the Indian Ocean and Afghanistan and providing essential support to both the Middle East and East Asia are the American facilities on the British territory of Diego Garcia. The island is home to the 12 ships of Maritime Prepositioning Squadron (MPS)-2, which can support a Marine brigade and associated Navy elements for 30 days. There are also several elements of the U.S. global space surveillance and communications infrastructure on the island, as well as basing facilities for the B-2 bomber.


The Asian strategic environment is extremely expansive, as it spans half the globe, with a variety of political relationships among states that have wildly varying capabilities. The region includes long-standing American allies with relationships dating back to the beginning of the Cold War, as well as recently established states and some long-standing adversaries such as North Korea.

American conceptions of the region must therefore start from the physical limitations imposed by the tyranny of distance. Moving forces within the region, never mind to it, will take time and require extensive strategic lift assets, as well as sufficient infrastructure (such as sea and aerial ports of debarkation that can handle American strategic lift assets) and political support. At the same time, the complicated nature of intra-Asian relations, especially unresolved historical and territorial issues, means that, unlike Europe, the United States cannot necessarily count on support from all of its regional allies in event of any given contingency.

Scoring the Asia Operating Environment

As with the operating environments of Europe and the Middle East, we assessed the characteristics of Asia as they would pertain to supporting U.S. military operations. Various aspects of the region facilitate or inhibit the ability of the U.S. to conduct military operations to defend its vital national interests against threats. Our assessment of the operating environment utilized a five-point scale, ranging from “very poor” to “excellent” conditions and covering four regional characteristics of greatest relevance to the conduct of military operations:

  1. Very Poor. Significant hurdles exist for military operations. Physical infrastructure is insufficient or nonexistent, and the region is politically unstable. In addition, the U.S. military is poorly placed or absent, and alliances are nonexistent or diffuse.
  2. Unfavorable. A challenging operating environment for military operations is marked by inadequate infrastructure, weak alliances, and recurring political instability. The U.S. military is inadequately placed in the region.
  3. Moderate. A neutral to moderately favorable operating environment is characterized by adequate infrastructure, a moderate alliance structure, and acceptable levels of regional political stability. The U.S. military is adequately placed.
  4. Favorable. A favorable operating environment includes good infrastructure, strong alliances, and a stable political environment. The U.S. military is well placed in the region for future operations.
  5. Excellent. An extremely favorable operating environment includes well-established and -maintained infrastructure, strong capable allies, and a stable political environment. The U.S. military is exceptionally well placed to defend U.S. interests.

The key regional characteristics consisted of:

    1. Alliances. Alliances are important for interoperability and collective defense as allies would be more likely to lend support to U.S. military operations. Various indicators give insight into the strength or health of an alliance. These include whether the U.S. trains regularly with countries in the region, has good interoperability with the forces of an ally, and shares intelligence with nations in the region.
    2. Political Stability. Political stability brings predictability for military planners when considering such things as transit, basing, and overflight rights for U.S. military operations. The overall degree of political stability indicates whether U.S. military actions would be hindered or enabled and considers, for example, whether transfers of power in the region are generally peaceful and whether there been any recent instances of political instability in the region.
    3. U.S. Military Positioning. Having military forces based or equipment and supplies staged in a region greatly facilitates the United States’ ability to respond to crises and, presumably, more quickly achieve successes in critical “first battles.” Being routinely present in a region also assists in maintaining familiarity with its characteristics and the various actors who might act to assist or thwart U.S. actions. With this in mind, we assessed whether or not the U.S. military was well-positioned in the region. Again, indicators included bases, troop presence, prepositioned equipment, and recent examples of military operations (including training and humanitarian) launched from the region.
    4. Infrastructure. Modern, reliable, and suitable infrastructure is essential to military operations. Airfields, ports, rail lines, canals, and paved roads enable the U.S. to stage, launch operations from, and logistically sustain combat operations. We combined expert knowledge of regions with publicly available information on critical infrastructure to arrive at our overall assessment of this metric.48

For Asia, we arrived at these average scores (rounded to the nearest whole number):

  • Alliances: 4.6 (5) – Excellent
  • Political Stability: 3.1 (3) – Moderate
  • U.S. Military Positioning: 3.9 (4) – Favorable
  • Infrastructure: 3.6 (4) – Favorable
  • Aggregating to a regional score of: Favorable


Operating Environment for U.S. Forces in Asia

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  2. Constitution of Japan, May 3, 1947, (accessed December 2, 2014).  

  3. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan’s Policies on the Control of Arms Exports,” (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  4. Interview with Japanese officials, on file with The Heritage Foundation.  

  5. U.S. Forces, Japan, “Welcome,” (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  6. Emma Chanlett-Avery, William H. Cooper, Mark E. Manyin, and Ian E. Rinehart, “Japan–U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, updated February 20, 2014, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  7. Chang Jae-soon, “U.S., Japan Announces [sic] New Defense Cooperation Guidelines,” Yonhap News Agency, April 28, 2015, (accessed May 21, 2015).  

  8. K. J. Kwon, “South Korea and Japan Put Military Intelligence Pact on Hold After Outcry,” CNN, June 29, 2012, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  9. Martin Fackler and David Sanger, “Japan Announces a Military Shift to Thwart China,” The New York Times, July 1, 2014, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  10. For further details, see Bruce Klingner, “The U.S. and South Korea Should Focus on Improving Alliance Capabilities Rather Than the OPCON Transfer,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 2935, August 7, 2014,  

  11. U.S. Department of Defense, Inspector General, “Host Nation Support of U.S. Forces in Korea,” Report No. D-2008-118, August 2008, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  12. Joel Guinto and Norman Aquino, “Philippines to Let U.S. Build Military Facilities on Bases,” Bloomberg News, March 14, 2014, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  13. “Fact Sheet: United States–Philippines Bilateral Relations,” The White House, April 28, 2014, (accessed November 15, 2014).  

  14. Ben Dolven, Shirley Kan, and Mark Manyin, “Maritime Territorial Disputes in East Asia: Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, January 30, 2013, pp. 28–29, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  15. Walter Lohman, “Scarborough Shoal and Safeguarding American Interests,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3603, May 14, 2012,  

  16. Emma Chanlett-Avery and Ben Dolven, “Thailand: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service Report, updated June 19, 2014, p. 9, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  17. Ian Storey, “From Strength-to Strength: Military Exercises Bolster Sino–Thai Relations,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief, Vol. 12, Issue 12 (June 22, 2012),[pointer]=3&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=39529&tx_ttnews[backPid]=663&cHash=c405231cb92f8709323951846f968da5#.VAjCSGMWnHQ (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  18. Phuong Nguyen and Brittany Billingsley, “China’s Growing Military-to-Military Engagement with Thailand and Myanmar,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Asia Program, September 12, 2013, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  19. Aaron Mehta, “U.S., UK, Australia, and Canada Announce Combined Space Ops,” Defense News, May 20, 2014, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  20. Bruce Vaugh, “Australia: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, August 15, 2013, pp. 4–5, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  21. Minister for Defence Stephen Smith, “Ministerial Statement on Full Knowledge and Concurrence,” Australian Government, Department of Defence Ministers, June 26, 2013, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  22. Embassy of the United States, Australia, “Fact Sheet on U.S. Defense Trade Cooperation Treaties with the United Kingdom and Australia,” (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  23. News release, “Factsheet—The Strategic Framework Agreement,” Ministry of Defence, Singapore, July 12, 2005,
    (accessed May 15, 2015).  

  24. Ibid.  

  25. Emma Chanlett-Avery and Ben Dolven, “Singapore: Background and U.S. Relations,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, updated July 26, 2013, pp. 3–4, (accessed May 15, 2015).  

  26. Nick Simeone, “U.S., New Zealand Announce Expanded Defense Cooperation,” American Forces Press Service, October 28, 2013, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  27. Taiwan Relations Act, Public Law 96-8, 22 U.S.C. 3301–3316.  

  28. Ibid.  

  29. Shirley A. Kan, “China/Taiwan: Evolution of the ‘One China’ Policy — Key Statements from Washington, Beijing, and Taipei,” Congressional Research Service Report, October 10, 2014, (accessed September 21, 2015).  

  30. Ian E. Rinehart, “Malaysia: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service Report, May 23, 2014, p. 13, (accessed May 15, 2015).  

  31. Embassy of the United States, Malaysia, “About Us,” (accessed May 15, 2015).  

  32. Josh Smith, “Casualties, Desertions Spike as Afghan Forces Take the Lead,” Stars and Stripes, March 4, 2015,  

  33. Bill Roggio, “Charting the Data for U.S. Airstrikes in Pakistan 2004–2015,” The Long War Journal  

  34. K. Alan Kronstadt, “Direct Overt U.S. Aid Appropriations for and Military Reimbursements to Pakistan, FY 2002–FY2015,” Congressional Research Service Report, December 22, 2014, (accessed May 19, 2015).  

  35. International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2015, pp. 186–191 and 306–309.  

  36. Ibid., pp. 137–140 and 312–315.  

  37. Samuel Songhoon Lee, “Why Wouldn’t S. Korea Want U.S. Missile Defenses?” CBS News, June 3, 2014,, and Sang-Ho Sung, “Korea, U.S. to Discuss Missile Defense,” Korea Herald, September 1, 2014,
    (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  38. Zachary Keck, “South Korea Goes All In on Missile Defense,” The Diplomat, July 26, 2013, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  39. Donna Miles, “PACOM: Asia–Pacific Focus Represents ‘Whole of Government’ Rebalance,” American Forces Press Service, August 3, 2012, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  40. U.S. Department of State, “Joint Statement of the Security Consultative Committee,” April 26, 2012, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  41. U.S. Pacific Command, “USPACOM Strategy,” (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  42. Airforce Technology, “B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber, United States of America,”
    (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  43. Armando J. Heredia, “New Defense Agreement Between The Philippines and U.S.: The Basics,” USNI News, April 29, 2014, (accessed December 2, 2014), and Trefor Moss,
    “5 Philippine Bases Where the U.S. Military Will Look to Gain a Footing,” The Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2014,
    (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  44. Marcus Weisgerber, “Singapore Will Now Host 4 Littoral Combat Ships,” Navy Times, June 2, 2012,
    (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  45. Seth Robson, “Growing U.S. Presence in Australia to Include Aircraft,” Stars and Stripes, August 21, 2013, (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  46. Agence France-Presse, “No Permanent U.S. Bases in Australia, Aussie FM Says,” Defense News, August 25, 2012,
    (accessed September 17, 2014).  

  47. Smith, “Ministerial Statement on Full Knowledge and Concurrence.”  

  48. One example of a very accessible database is World Bank, “Logistics Performance Index: Quality of Trade and Transport-Related Infrastructure (1=Low to 5=High),” (accessed October 24, 2014).