An emerging military alliance between China, the West, and Japan may be one of the greatest global changes of the 1980s. Veteran US defense analysts say the purpose of this new troika would be to counter increasingly assertive Soviet moves in the Pacific and Far East.
Worldwide, analysts expect American military strength, political will, and ingenuity in peacemaking to be challenged by a variety of Russian pressures and local conflicts.
As competition sharpens between the United States and the Soviet Union for the third world's oil, gas, and other resources, and as Asia in the '80s polarizes around the Chinese-Soviet feud, guerrilla wars and territorial disputes will tempt the bigger states to intervene in order to defend local clients or to advance their own interests.
Furthermore, new studies from the Center for Defense Information (CDI) in Washington and the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif., note the intensity of local wars is likely to grow in the '80s. Terrorism, too, is expected to continue to be a problem, and even to grow. Estimates based on the latest Defense Department strength figures are that out of 2,027,000 men and women in the volunteers US armed services, 325,000 now are stationed in Europe -- nearly 5,000 fewer than last year. Europe is where the US and its European allies have , through the '70s, judged the Soviet military threat to be greatest.
As the 1980s begin, 131,600 American service personnel (6,700 fewer than a year earlier, before the US ended its formal commitment to defend Taiwan) are stationed in Far Eastern countries. The majority are at bases in Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines.
But since the Iranian revolution began a year ago, the Middle East-Indian Ocean region has become the "most dangerous politically and militarily for the US," says the CDI, with 10 active conflicts in the Islamic states.
Despite the Middle East threat to Western and Japanese oil supplies, US strength in the region, apart from its two naval battle groups cruising at sea, is limited to a few thousand military personnel and civilian technicians in Saudi Arabia and about 5,000 troops and some technicians in Turkey. The Shah's fall ended the US presence in Iran.
The US Navy has pared its Pacific strength to the bone to put the present two- carrier battle force into the Arabian Sea and so try to meet the new challenges of Islamic radicalism and Soviet expansion in places like Iran and Afghanistan.
This worries leaders of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and other Asian states that traditionally look to Washington for protection. The growing Soviet involvement in Asian conflicts, and China's dramatic turn toward the West in the '70s, after its split with the Soviets and its isolation in the '60s, places a difficult choice before the Us: Should the now-normal Washington-Peking relationship be extended, sooner or later, to a defensive military one?
US Defense Secretary Harold Brown will have to examine this choice during his Jan. 5- 14 trip to China. For the Chinese, the Soviet takeover in Afghanistan, an Islamic abutment on China's mountainous great western wall, adds urgency.
In Africa, the United States has virtually no troops committed. But it is seeking use of former Soviet bases in Somalia, next door to the new Soviet-Cuban bastions in Ethiopia and South Yemen. Five interrelated wars in southern Africa (although the one in Rhodesia may have ended) combine racism, nationalism, ethnic disputes, and superpower rivalry in a highly combustible mix.
North Africa, where the US gave up its military footholds in Morocco and Libya in the '70s, faces a share of Islamic turmoil: a proxy war between Algeria and Morocco in the Western Sahara, and pressures by Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's militant government in Libya on neighbors like Egypt and Chad. Oil and minerals are at stake here, too, and will be more so in the '80s.
The Caribbean is host to 15,000 US troops -- in increasingly restless Puerto Rico; at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and in the Panama Canal Zone. Throughout Latin America, tough police-state tactics by local rulers, and the US wish to limit Cuba's widely stretched military and political support to revolutions elsewhere, will pose major challenges in the '80s.
Apart from regional problems, the Center for Defense Information report warns , "When Iran and other irresponsible nations acquire nuclear weapons, war-fighting and the conduct of international affairs will be dramatically altered".
* In Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the superpowers, either by proxy or directly, as in the latest Soviet move into Afghanistan, are being increasingly drawn into a maelstrom of ethnic and sectarian conflict.
* Saudi Arabia, the main US oil supplier and its staunchest friend in the Arab wolrd, fears encirclement by outside foes (Soviet- backed South Yemeni Marxists, militant Shia Muslims from Iran, and Russians pushing toward the Indian Ocean) and subversion from within (an example of which was the dramatic sectarian assault on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November).
* As Israel and Egypt continue their American-sponsored peace process, most other Arab countries remain uninvolved or hostile. A million Palestinian Arabs, Jordan's West Bank, and Syria's Golan Heights remain under the Israel conquest of 1967. Lebanon remains weak and divided by the Palestinian problem.
* The February 1979 Chinese-Vietnamese war settled nothing, and may be repeated on a larger scale. Like their occupation of Afghanistan and Ethiopian bases, the Soviets' growing military and naval presence in Southeast Asia raises pressure on Western sea lanes, where oil and the industrial world's other supplies must freely move.
* The 26-year-old armistice and military standoff between North and South Korea continues. President Carter halted withdrawal of 39,000 US ground troops from South Korea after American intelligence revised its estimate of the North Korean Army from 430,000 troops to 600,000 in early 1979.
* Africa's brightest spot, as 1980 begins, is the cease-fire and tentative peace in Rhodesia, reached under British auspices, after 20 years of warfare. A Commonwealth security force is helping to preserve calm between rival black nationalist factions as white rule phases out. But the potential for future conflict remains strong.
* Urban terrorist and government counterterrorist movements continue in Argentina, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, and even, in a lower key, southern Mexico.Guatemala is especially turbulent. The independence-seeking FALN (Armed Forces of National Liberation) in Puerto Rico has turned to violence against US service personnel and corporate and government installations. Cuban involvement in all these insurgencies, known or suspected, worries US planners.
* In Europe, the US now has qualified approval to put new nuclear weapons in NATO states to respond to Soviet Backfire bombers and SS-20 missiles. But debate over Europe's future defenses and trouble on NATO's southeast flank (Greece and Turkey) both continue.
Europe's only remaining territorial dispute is division of Cyprus between its Greek majority and a Turkish minority backed by mainland Turkish troops and settlers. US and United Nations peacemaking efforts so far have failed but seem bound to continue.
Urban terrorist and separatist guerrilla movements -- not aimed specifically against the US -- operate in Spain, Northern Ireland, and Italy. The Irish Republican Army insurgency saps British military and economic strength, and Italy may compete with Turkey in the Western world in the number of terrorist acts registered in 1979: Italy reported about 1,300 as against 2,365 a year earlier.