Gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea and a resurfacing of territorial tensions with Japan suggest China is ready to reassert itself on the world stage.
China’s increasingly forceful foreign policy has prompted a chorus of voices in Australia to call on the United States to adopt a more conciliatory stance towards the Middle Kingdom.
Although motivated by understandable concerns about potentially disastrous Sino-American strategic competition in the Asia-Pacific, arguments for a US drawdown betray a lack of appreciation of the moral dimension of the US military presence in the region.
Indeed, the case of the two Koreas shows that the United States has underwritten prosperity, democracy and human rights in the Asia-Pacific.
The United States threw its military weight behind South Korea to repulse North Korea’s Soviet and Chinese-backed invasion during the Korean War (1950–53), and still stations approximately 28,000 troops south of the 38th parallel.
South Korea’s achievements under the enduring aegis of US power are remarkable.
Rough economic parity between North and South Korea at the time of partition has become a gaping chasm between poverty and prosperity.
By contrast, the North Korean economy cannot meet people’s basic needs. While the South Korean economy was expanding as much as 9% a year during the 1990s, up to 3.5 million North Koreans died of starvation as their country was gripped by one of the worst famines of the twentieth century.
The contrast between South Korea’s economic vibrancy and North Korea’s moribund economy is hardly surprising: According to the Heritage Foundation, South Korea’s market-based economy is the 31st freest in the world, while North Korea’s centrally planned economy languishes in last place.
The two Koreas are not just economically divided: While South Koreans enjoy extensive political freedoms, their northern counterparts live under a communist dictatorship.
Freedom House considers South Korea’s electoral democracy free and gives it the highest possible score for its political rights and the second highest score for its civil liberties.
By contrast, North Korea is rated not free and receives the lowest possible score for both political rights and civil liberties.
For 50 million South Koreans, US military might has been a prerequisite for prosperity, democracy and human rights.
If we add to this the US military’s role in keeping some of the world’s busiest sea lanes open and acting as a security guarantor for other East Asian democracies, such as Japan and Taiwan, the case for a large and sustained US military presence in the Asia-Pacific is compelling.
Benjamin Herscovitch is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies.