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Bush Troop Plan Vague on Movements in Asia, say Analysts - 2004-08-17

President Bush's plan to withdraw up to 70,000 troops from overseas bases contained few specifics, particularly about Asia. Some experts think the United States may leave much of its Asia force intact.

Although Pentagon officials have said the troop realignment plan includes pulling about 30,000 soldiers from Germany, they have said nothing about Asia.

President Bush on Monday said he wanted to move 60,000 to 70,000 foreign-based troops back to the United States over the next decade. The move, he said, would help make the U.S. military more flexible and would reduce costs. He gave no other details about the plan, and officials in Washington told reporters that most of the specifics would be ironed out in the coming years in talks with U.S. allies.

It is not even clear if the figure of 70,000 includes the 12,000 soldiers that the Pentagon said last month would be pulled out of South Korea in the next two years.

Some analysts say there are few ways to withdraw large numbers of troops from Asia without reducing the United States' commitment to the region. Plus, they note, the Department of Defense actually has been talking about moving troops into Asia.

Sheila Smith is an expert in Asia security issues at the East-West Center in Hawaii. She says that other than the Army's infantry troops in South Korea, the only other large ground combat force in Asia is the Marine Corps's Third Marine Expeditionary Force, or MEF, on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The MEF has more than 15,000 Marines.

"If you were going to take out the Third MEF in its entirety, you would get up to big numbers from Japan. But I don't see that happening, not in the near term, anyway, or near to medium term," said Ms. Smith.

But, she says, the Japanese government is unlikely to want the Marines to leave, because it might give the impression that Washington's resolve to stand with Tokyo against North Korea is weakening.

The only choice, Ms. Smith says, would be to cut naval forces in the Pacific, which would work against the U.S. aim of creating a mobile force with global reach.

Hideshi Takesada, a professor at Japan's Institute for Defense Studies, thinks it is possible the United States might move some Marines or other troops out of Japan, but only as far as the U.S. territory of Guam. They would still be in the Pacific, and near potential hot spots - but on U.S., not foreign, territory.

Mr. Takesada says, however, that he expects any large troop withdrawals from Asia would come out of South Korea. He says that is largely because the current Seoul government perceives North Korea, and its weapons of mass destruction, as less of a threat than do the United States and Japan.

"I think the South Korean government still thinks the North Korean WMD is like a tool to negotiate with the outside world, to get more food or get more oil," he said. "But the U.S. and the Japanese government still think the North Korea may sometime use WMD."

Mr. Takesada notes that Washington and Tokyo have been discussing moving several hundred additional soldiers to Japan. The United States wants to move the Army's First Corps to Camp Zama, outside Tokyo, from its current home at Fort Lewis in Washington state.

Lee Dong-bok is a Korea specialist in Seoul with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says a U.S. decision to shrink its force in South Korea would not necessarily reduce its ability to defend the country against an attack from North Korea.

However, Mr. Lee says, many South Koreans are worried that the effort to create a more mobile, flexible global force might distract Washington from the realities of the Korean Peninsula. Communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea are divided by a heavily armed border. The two countries are technically still at war, since they never signed a peace treaty at the end of the Korean War in 1953.

One concern, he says, is that the United States will no longer base a four-star Army general in South Korea, to command both American and South Korean forces in case of war. Instead, he says, there will be a four-star Army general in Japan, but that general will command forces across much of the Pacific, and will not focus primarily on the Korean Peninsula.

"It is going to create a lot of complications. This is something which is going to ultimately affect a lot of other things as well, for example the kind of war plans we have, in terms of operational plan," said Mr. Lee.

Mr. Lee expects, however, that overall, the U.S. force in the Pacific will not be significantly reduced. He notes that although the number of ground troops in South Korea will fall, Washington has pledged to increase its Air Force and Navy presence in Northeast Asia, and those units can help protect South Korea.

Also, for more than a year, the Pentagon has discussed moving a second aircraft carrier group to the Pacific, in addition to the one now in Japan. That would bring as many as 10,000 more sailors to the region, although most likely, they would be based in the U.S. state of Hawaii or on Guam - again, not on foreign soil.

The United States has about 90,000 troops in foreign countries in the Asia-Pacific region, almost all of them in Japan and South Korea. A few thousand are in Australia and a few hundred in Singapore, while there are about 15,000 troops on Guam and Hawaii.

The last major draw down of troops came in the early 1990's, when the U.S. bases in the Philippines were closed after they were badly damaged by a massive volcano eruption. Then, about 20,000 troops were moved back to the United States.