Military misbehaving: Troubled times for US forces in AsiaBy David Slatter Mar 06, 2013 12:20PM UTC
Will ugly incidents involving US soldiers on the ground put America’s ‘pivot’ to Asia in danger?
The large military presence the US maintains across Asia may be popular, indeed integral, to many of the leaders and governments in the region, but the US military’s relationship with the public has always been fraught to say the least, see-sawing from peaceful acceptance (if not quite approval) to outright hostility.
These past few weeks have seen the relationship reach its lowest point in recent years in both Korea and Japan.
First, Japan sentenced two US sailors to lengthy prison terms for the rape of a woman on Okinawa. The incident took place last October and since then there has been a curfew imposed for US forces and the Okinawa legislature has passed a resolution protesting the US forces’ status. These actions and the prosecution did little to appease the Okinawa public, and protests against a new naval base are continuing.
Koreans can perhaps relate. Last month saw a harassment case between US soldiers and a Korean woman on the subway, and the past weekend witnessed the now infamous drunken rampage of US armed forces members in the Itaewon district of Seoul. The dramatic story is a long and still unfolding one, but the ‘Ask a Korean’ blog summarizes briefly:
So, to reiterate: a foreign army is occupying the middle of the city, and some of them are dumbasses who were threatening civilians with guns, engaged in a late night car chase, tried to kill a police man and got away with only injuring him in the process. And Koreans cannot do anything about it unless USFK voluntarily turns the soldiers over.
Actually, and apparently surprisingly to that blog writer, the US forces did hand over two of the suspects, and the third will likely join them once out of hospital. Korean public opinion has not ‘gone off the deep end’ as seen in 2002, but strong words were still commonplace. The HankYoreh said: “Each year there are 200 to 400 crimes committed by US forces in Korea, and this trend is continuing because stern punishments are not being assessed.” The Chosun Ilbo was amongst many to blame the affair on the SOFA: “The U.S. must cooperate with Korean police and come up with fundamental steps to reduce offenses committed by its troops. If not, it will face mounting calls for a far more drastic revision to the SOFA.”
The video below shows a Korean news report on the Itaewon incident:
These cases are, of course, shameful for US forces, and hurtful to the native populations, but beyond this, could these events on the ground begin to harm America’s wider considerations, namely the ‘pivot towards Asia?’ It’s not far-fetched; the US withdrawal from Subic Bay (Philippines) was in part due to such public pressure.
Korea is already looking for more ways to become militarily independent from the United States. This process has begun with the ROK military set to take operational control on the peninsula in 2015. There has also been renewed talk from some in parliament of South Korea developing its own nuclear arsenal. With these plans bubbling under the surface, the actions of the US troops could not have come at a worse time. Some politicians and anti-American groups have previously tried to capitalize on this ill-will to drum up protests and support. If others find US army-bashing to be a vote-winner, then we may see more jumping on the anti-US military bandwagon.
In Japan, however, the story is different. The anti-American feeling is much more overt and entrenched in Okinawa than in Korea, but Okinawa is both geographically and politically on the outskirts of Japan. Michael Penn from Shingetsu News Agency explains:
There is a sharp division of public opinion between the people of Okinawa and the people of main island Japan. In Okinawa, local residents had basically had enough of the US military bases and the crimes committed by US servicemen by the time of the horrific September 1995 gang rape incident. If democracy had anything to do with it, the US Marines would have been ejected from Okinawa in the late 1990s. However, the Japanese central government has not respected popular sentiment in Okinawa; at least, they have seen it as being less important than the smooth maintenance of the US-Japan alliance.
Despite the unrest, realistically it seems will be no immediate changes in the situation of US forces in East Asia. However, the ‘pivot’ is a long-term plan and if troops on the ground continue to cause controversy and alienate the people, the US may find it a harder and harder ‘sell’ to increase its presence and personnel in the region, especially in new regions such as Guam and Indonesia that it covets. The ‘pivot’ is by no means a done deal.