At the end of the cold war, many people believed that alliances were obsolete. We were told that geo-economics had replaced geopolitics. But every market operates within a political framework, and in East Asia that framework is created by the United States military presence.
Those who ignore this security framework are like those who forget about the air they breathe. We rarely think about oxygen until we begin to miss it. Then we can think of nothing else. The US security presence in East Asia has provided the oxygen that allowed the region to flourish and the American economy to benefit from that growth.
The Clinton administration's initial policy toward Japan ran the risk of making such a mistake. Trade frictions were eroding the relationship. But in February 1995, the Clinton administration issued a report, "United States Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region," which outlined a four-part plan: (1) reinforce existing alliances; (2) maintain about 100,000 troops in the region so long as existing conditions require them; (3) gradually build multilateral regional institutions; (4) constructively engage China, the rising power in the region.
The report was warmly welcomed in the region, and the administration proceeded to implement it. In April 1996, President Clinton and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto reaffirmed that the US-Japan security treaty was no longer related to the cold war but was now a reassurance for stability in the region. They also agreed on measures to gradually reduce the impact of the Marine bases in Okinawa. In September, the two announced new defense guidelines for Japanese support of American forces within the widely accepted constraints of Japan's "peace constitution."
Under the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, Japan provides a stable, secure, low-cost environment for our military operations and training. Despite the breakup of the Soviet Union and the ensuing decreased military threat to the region, our presence in Japan remains a vital aspect of our global forward-deployed posture. US forces operating from bases in Japan are committed not only to the defense of Japan, but also to the preservation of peace and security in the entire Asian region.
Polls show that two-thirds of Japanese support the US alliance. The vast majority of Asian countries understand that our bilateral security ties with Japan are one of the key factors supporting regional stability. Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew termed it "essential." The US-Japan security relationship also underscores key vital American security interests and remains fundamental to both our Pacific security policy and our global strategic objectives.
Unlike Europe, Asia lacks a strong multilateral system of security guarantees. We'll continue to depend primarily on our bilateral relationships with Japan and other allies. Multilateral institutions may develop. For example, we're trying to strengthen the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Regional Forum. In the meantime, our alliances in the region remain crucial. We also rely on a robust partnership with Japan to advance our regional and global agenda at the UN, in global nonproliferation regimes, and in other multilateral forums.
And as long as we have the troops, Japanese bases may save us money. Japan has agreed to provide $25 billion to support the presence of US troops over the next five years - making it cheaper to station our troops there than in the US. Japan's global role is evolving toward greater contributions to regional and global stability. Japan also is the world's largest Official Development Assistance provider and has increased its involvement in humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts around the globe, including Cambodia, Mozambique, Zaire, and the Golan Heights.
The US and Japan share interests in avoiding war on the Korean Peninsula; stopping proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and coordinating constructive engagement in China. But above all, both countries share an interest in a stable security framework that will allow regional economic growth from which all countries can benefit. That is the new purpose of the US-Japan alliance, and the two countries have made great progress in that direction in the three years since the East Asian strategy report was issued.
* Joseph S. Nye Jr. is dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. In 1994-95, he served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.