Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s weeklong visit to Asia and Eastern Europe has cast a revealing spotlight on the subtly shifting lineup of U.S. defense allies, partners and potential adversaries.
Rumsfeld flew home Monday after meetings with his counterparts from some of NATO’s newest members, including Lithuania. Some of them also are among the most enthusiastic supporters of the Bush administration’s approach to fighting terrorism.
Rumsfeld’s unusual itinerary also included China, South Korea and Mongolia, setting the stage for an Asian visit next month by President Bush.
The chief purpose of Rumsfeld’s NATO appearance was to advance the prospect of keeping Ukraine, the former Soviet republic, on track to joining NATO eventually — over Moscow’s strong objections.
Absent from the talks were some of Washington’s oldest European allies, including France and Germany, which opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and have dropped a notch on the Pentagon’s list of priority partnerships.
In the capital of another of the U.S. government’s most important allies of the 20th century, South Korea, the emphasis of Rumsfeld’s talks showed that the character of that partnership also is changing.
It is high time that South Korea take more responsibility for its own defense, Rumsfeld said repeatedly. A half-century has passed, after all, since the South was ravaged by war, and it now commands one of the strongest economies and more modern armies in the world.
Rumsfeld was in Seoul for annual consultations on a military alliance that was born in the 1950-53 Korean War in which U.S. forces, aided by other United Nations countries, intervened after the North Korean army invaded. China later joined on North Korea’s side and the fighting ended with a cease fire — and tens of thousands of American troops have been stationed in the South ever since.
“We’re at an interesting place in that relationship,” Rumsfeld told reporters after he left Seoul, in a suggestion that further change in the U.S.-South Korean alliance could lie ahead.
U.S. out of South Korea?
Could the United States end its military presence in South Korea some day soon? It already has decided to withdraw 12,500 of the 37,500 troops stationed there. By the end of this year, about three-quarters of that pullout is scheduled to be completed.
The South Koreans told Rumsfeld they foresee a second phase to this transition away from dependence on U.S. forces. It’s not yet clear what those additional changes would be, or when they might come, but the South Koreans would like to end the arrangement in which a U.S. general would command the combined U.S.-South Korean forces in the event of war with the North.
The South Koreans also are taking over from the Americans more key military missions, even as they modernize and strengthen their forces while reducing the total number of troops.
Communist North Korea is not the South’s only perceived threat in Asia. The United States is also concerned about the rise of China, whose long-term intentions are viewed with skepticism by Rumsfeld.
First stop: Beijing
Rumsfeld made Beijing the first stop on his globe-circling trip, his first visit there as a member of the Bush administration. And although he made clear to the Chinese that they should be more open about their defense spending and national security strategy to alleviate suspicion in the region, he discovered some things to his liking.
The Chinese allowed Rumsfeld and top aides to visit the headquarters for the Second Artillery, which operates China’s nuclear missile forces — some of which are capable of reaching U.S. territory. They were the first foreigners ever to visit the compound, and Rumsfeld aides said it offered a chance to learn about the structure of the nuclear missile force.
Yet Rumsfeld appears convinced that China may eventually turn into a threat to U.S. interests in Asia and beyond, despite the Beijing government’s stated intentions to seek peaceful relations.
In Mongolia, Rumsfeld sought to nurture a new relationship that may serve as a hedge against a shift in China’s current path.
Sandwiched between China and Russia, Mongolia has embraced Washington’s war on terrorism, even sending small numbers of troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush’s visit will mark the first by an American president to the homeland of the legendary horseman-warrior, Genghis Khan.
“They’re interested in being connected to us,” Rumsfeld said.