Voyage of doubt for US Far East fleet

Elusive new foe emerges as the Soviet threat fades
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The bridge of the Independence, the US Navy's oldest and most famous aircraft-carrier, encourages feelings of confidence, and Captain Tom Fellin, the commanding officer, has them in abundance. Every minute, a warplane is catapulted from the flight deck. From the bridge, you can just make out smaller vessels, American and Japanese, taking part in Operation Keen Sword, an exercise involving 22,000 personnel.

"I have on this boat five thousand of the toughest Americans you're going to find anywhere," he said. "They operate the ship ... they work a 16-hour day non-stop. These guys eat nails for breakfast." Only one question appears to trouble the skipper: why is the Independence here in the first place? Not long ago, the answer would have been obvious. As flagship of the Seventh Fleet, its main role was to deter and repel an attack on Japan or America's other Asian friends by the Soviet Union. But that threat has evaporated, and nothing has yet taken its place.

Capt Fellin mentions Taiwan, where the Independence sailed in April, as China held missile tests in the run-up to Taiwanese elections. He mentions North Korea, suspected of planning its own test missile firing. But the question is tricky. "It's difficult to tell exactly where a contingency might arise in this day and age. The reason we're here is to be ready."

Ready for what? This question has dominated East Asian diplomacy since the Cold War ended. On it depend millions of livelihoods, billions of dollars, and the security of the fastest-growing region in the world. The official answer, on which President Bill Clinton's second-term foreign policy will be based, is in a Defense Department report issued last year. Where US troops once deployed against the Soviet threat, now they face a different enemy: instability. Like Europe earlier, Asia is marked by the rise and fall of great powers.

Regional flash-points, such as North Korea and Taiwan, could endanger new markets in Asia.For its own good, as much as those of its allies, the US has responsibility to act as big brother and honest broker, absolving Japan of the need to defend itself alone and preventing an arms race. "Security is like oxygen," said the author of the Pentagon report, Joseph Nye, an academic. "You tend not to notice it until you begin to lose it."

When published, the report did little more than affirm the status quo, but it has been challenged by academics and by events in the region. Among the former are those who argue that in giving Japan a free ride on defence, the US is being taken for a ride, and that security should be a trade- off, with Tokyo opening markets in return for protection. Others say the US umbrella has contributed to poor relations - Japan has never had to develop mature relations with China and Korea, and remains diplomatically stunted.

The most significant objections came in September last year, when a 12-year old girl was raped by US troops in Okinawa, the small Japanese island which is home to a third of the 100,000 US troops in East Asia. Whatever it did for the rest of the region, Dr Nye's security oxygen suffocated Okinawa, a quarter of which is given to US bases, with their attendant problems. The uproar forced the two governments to come up with a plan to reduce the bases andJapanese diplomats are contemplating a time when US troops may withdraw from their country in large numbers.

In the end, all these cogitations come down to another question: what is the future of China? Early next century, it will have the world's largest economy, matched militarily. Dr Nye and his President use the word "engagement" to describe their policy towards Peking; to their critics, deployment of 100,000 troops and the dispatch of the Independence to Taiwan last April looks like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having seen off one Cold War adversary, they risk, by their presence, contributing to the creation of another.