54. Paper Prepared in the National Security Council Staff1


It is useful at the outset to recognize that there is no such thing as a grand strategy for Asia. If we can restrain the natural impulse to package a grand strategy, future discussions of American policy in Asia will be more illuminating than past ones. Most treatment of possible U.S. post-Vietnam Asian policies has tended to compartmentalize them neatly under strategic labels that describe U.S. base postures and imply U.S. political postures, e.g., “mainland”, “offshore”, “Pacific outposts”. Such treatment is misleading. The strategic headings are oversimplified and just won’t hold up under the glare of Asian complexities. It is fruitless to try and draw abstract defense lines which represent “vital interest” boundaries on which we would “fight”. And even if we could construct a master plan, we would not adhere rigidly to it for the sake of consistency if events dictated tactical aberrations.

The Nixon Doctrine Is Already Being Implemented

In current discussion of U.S. policy for post-Vietnam Asia, the conventional wisdom is that:

  • —The President, Vice-President and Secretary of State during their Asian trips have sketched the outlines of a significant new policy for the region in the 1970s.
  • —However, this outline has as yet little operational significance, and we must await specific actions in order to assess the real implications of any new policy.

This is not really true:

  • —Our various statements are very significant, demonstrating a new tone and suggesting a new direction. However, if read literally, the proposed policy is not all that different from the rhetoric of past policy.
  • —What is even more significant is the many concrete actions that we have already taken or plan to take which have us moving down a clear policy path. These actions, although often not taken with a strategic concept in mind, are already putting flesh on our pronouncements and demonstrating that there is indeed a significant new policy thrust.

We are beginning to implement what in the past we attempted only in part, paid lip service to, or postponed to a vague longer term. There are already many examples and they are beginning to form a consistent pattern, even if this has not been consciously constructed. In some cases our actions have been proposed to us by others—but we have not resisted as we might have previously. In other cases we are taking actions for reasons not primarily keyed to an Asian strategy—but they are consistent with our approach nevertheless. In many cases we are making moves with an awareness of the general direction they are taking us. We do not yet appear to be following any policies which are strikingly discordant with our overall approach. However, Laos—where we have yet to make a clear choice—holds the potential for a very serious diversion.

Major examples of concrete actions that are already reflecting and implementing the Nixon doctrine include:

  • Vietnam. Turning the war over to the South Vietnamese and reducing American presence to a supporting role illustrate the precept that the target country bear the brunt of battle.
  • General Purpose Forces. Our projected cut in post-Vietnam ready forces underlines the policy that our friends must provide the bulk of the manpower for their defense against non-nuclear aggression.
  • Japan. The Nixon-Sato Communiqué2 points up U.S.-Japanese partnership and the need for greater regional contributions by our ally.
  • Thailand, Philippines, Japan. U.S. troop withdrawals and/or consolidation of bases lowers the American profile.
  • China. Trade and travel moves, the Warsaw talks, neutrality in Sino-Soviet dispute punctuate our approach of diminishing confrontation, dealing with countries on the basis of their actions, not their ideology; we recognize Peking’s impact on the region while we maintain our treaty commitments for Taiwan.
  • Cambodia. Reestablishment of diplomatic relations was pragmatic step designed to improve communications and prevent misunderstandings.
  • Australia-New Zealand. Our encouragement of their forward deployment in Malaysia-Singapore reflects our emphasis on allied contributions and regional cooperation.
  • Safeguard. Protection against Chinese-scale attack is a component of our nuclear shield for Asia.
  • Overseas Reduction of U.S. Personnel. The 10 percent cutback worldwide slims the American presence in Asia.

Therefore it is now moot to debate, as the forthcoming NSSM 383 on this subject does, whether we should continue to follow our past approach to Asia (“high strategy”) or whether we should move to a lower profile and a more supporting role (“low strategy”). This Administration is already set on the latter course, through actions as well as words. What remains to be determined—and this of course is crucial—is how we manage the trend and cumulative impact of our policy and how we apply our new approach to the really tough questions that we will face in the 1970s.

Some Hard Issues for the 1970s

It is useful to run through the major components of our Asian approach and suggest some of the difficult questions that they could involve during the next decade. The following is by no means exhaustive and includes some relatively unlikely contingencies as well as predictable issues. There is no attempt to explore the questions in depth or recommend U.S. actions. In some cases the policy implications of our new approach seem clear. In many instances—unsurprisingly—the general guidelines don’t give us the answer now. We cannot paint in all the factors in advance; a degree of ad hocism is necessary. This section is designed to locate some of the issues imbedded in our Asian policy components and to begin exploring their ramifications. These issues are not treated in any particular order of importance.

Commitments—The U.S. will keep all of its treaty commitments.

Issue: How do we interpret them when their fuzzy edges are involved?

“Commitment” is a slippery concept. Our actions on specific cases will be guided not by legal phrases but by an assessment of the significance of our interests involved and the nature of the threat. We have said we will “honor” our formal treaty obligations and these are imprecise in the areas where the definition of our interests is especially imprecise. [Page 177] Some specific examples come to mind. Our defense obligations for the offshore islands have been purposely ambiguous to maintain our flexibility and keep Peking guessing. Our explicit commitment is to help defend Taiwan and the Penghus only. Presidential discretion is formally reserved for the offshore islands, which the U.S. would defend only if the President deems such action necessary to secure Taiwan/Penghus. There are no indications that Peking intends to move against the islands, but such a contingency is plausible in the 1970s, if, for example, the communists misread the reduction in our Taiwan Straits patrol. Our new Asian approach does not predict our reaction, especially if we are confronted with pressures like a blockade rather than a naked assault.

We have encouraged Australia and New Zealand to maintain ground and air forces in Malaysia and Singapore after 1971 when the British will have withdrawn. To date our allies have agreed to do so and have not pressed us very hard on the applicability of our ANZUS commitments to their forces in the Malaysia-Singapore area. However, Australian and New Zealand intentions are not firm and they continue to seek general reassurance of American help if their forces get into trouble. As 1971 draws near they could press us for more specific understandings under ANZUS (which obligates us only in the “Pacific area” as well as homelands) as the price for maintaining a forward presence. We would then have to weigh our objectives of regional cooperation and a greater allied defense role against the principle of no new “commitments.” The threat to Malaysia-Singapore seems sufficiently remote and our aversion to new obligations sufficiently strong to suggest that we might forego the forward allied presence.

We are committed to defense of the Philippines, and the enemy need not be “communist”. Presumably we would choose to stay out of Philippine hostilities with Malaysia over Sabah, but this could involve some bending of our mutual treaty.

Our obligation to defend South Korea is unambiguous. How would we interpret this obligation if our allies initiated hostilities or if it were at least clear that Seoul provoked Pyongyang? Such a contingency might look more likely if there were a substantial reduction in U.S. troops, and with it U.S. operational control, in South Korea.

Nuclear Policy—We will maintain a nuclear shield for our allies or for nations whose survival we consider vital to our security.

Issue: Which is the lesser of two evils—nuclear proliferation or the extension of more concrete American nuclear assurances?

India is likely to pose this issue. It has a nuclear capability, fears the Chinese and is very reluctant to sign the NPT. The obligations of the [Page 178] nuclear powers toward non-nuclear signatories of the NPT are imprecise. While suggesting their importance to countries like India we stressed their unimportance to Senators like Fulbright. Indian nationalism and the Chinese threat could induce New Delhi to demand from us (and the Soviets) much more explicit nuclear assurances as the price of nuclear abstention. We would have to choose between our objectives of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and non-proliferation of U.S. “commitments”.

Japan is the other prime nuclear candidate in Asia—it too is on the nuclear threshold and has been slow to sign the NPT. Unlike the Indian case, we cannot be much more explicit in our nuclear assurances for Japan. If it inclines towards the nuclear club it will mean that it is shedding its unique nuclear aversion and it prefers to assume its own defense against China. Such a development would be a function of growing Japanese nationalism/militarism and declining confidence in the American umbrella. Would this necessarily be against our long range interests? If so, what steps, if any, would we take—could we take—to keep Japan from going nuclear?

Conventional Aggression—We will assist our allies but expect them to provide the bulk of the manpower.

Issue: How do we square reaffirmation of treaty obligations with the reductions in our standing forces in Asia?

The NSSM 34 projected cutback in our ready divisions after Vietnam is a fundamental manifestation of the Nixon doctrine for Asia. It was based on a realistic downgrading of likely threats, the feeling that five or six divisions couldn’t stop Chinese hordes anyway, the aversion to another Asian ground war, and the need for defense budget savings. We have recognized in effect that for Asia we have been spending a great deal of money for forces that we suspect are insufficient against a threat which we do not believe will materialize.

Closely related to the numbers of our Asian divisions is their deployment. Our main decision will be in South Korea where the return of capable ROK forces from Vietnam (if not before) will provide a logical opportunity to implement our new approach of greater allied self-reliance and a lower American profile by slicing our two divisions.

The fact remains that we are taking a gamble, albeit sensible and conscious. We judge conventional aggression in Asia to be both unlikely and containable by our allies, including in Korea where the threat is [Page 179] most plausible. Reduction of our capabilities, however, at best will not decrease the threat of conventional aggression (although some would argue that a less “provocative” American posture could ease tensions). It might tempt potential adversaries. Our new Asian approach does not—cannot—instruct us in advance on how we would meet our treaty obligations and assist an overwhelmed ally when we have substantially less power than we do now. We would have to explore our options of military assistance, air and naval support, mobilization, tactical and strategic nuclear response.

Insurgency—U.S. supporting role only.

Issue: Would we ever provide American manpower—even where there is massive external intervention—so long as there were an indigenous movement?

Our public and background statements have all but ruled out the use of U.S. troops in any future insurgency. This is an unchallengeable policy where the conflict is wholly domestic, such as Malay-Chinese communal strife in Malaysia. Or where external support for the insurgency is clearly limited, such as Burma (where in addition we have little interest). Or where outside help, though significant, does not tip the scales against the target government, such as Thailand today.

Our new Asian approach is, however, obscure on those cases where massive external intervention shades the nature of the conflict from insurgency towards conventional aggression, such as happened at some point (whether before or after American intervention is debatable to say the least) in South Vietnam. Laos, with 50,000 North Vietnamese troops, and perhaps 5,000 Chinese, is the obvious present case. Our equivocation there reflects not only what we inherited in the past and the linkage with Vietnam but also our uncertainty about how to apply our Asian doctrine in the future. One doubts, for example, that a couple of years ago we would have displayed our current restraint on the Chinese road-building exercise. No one advocates committing American ground forces to Laos, but American manpower is there, however we may choose to label pilots and Meo advisers as non-combat personnel. We do not know what we will do if the enemy, who can overrun Laos if they wish, decide to do so. Our diplomatic and military maneuvers are designed to forestall this contingency, but if we fail we presumably will let Laos go rather than risking another Vietnam-type quagmire.

This would bring us of course to Thailand. A communist takeover of Laos could lead to greatly increased external support for the Thai insurgents. There might be the prospect of semi-conventional aggression, with thousands of North Vietnamese forces, Chinese advisers. In this situation Bangkok could present us with two choices: massive U.S. [Page 180] reassurances or Thai accommodation with their adversaries. The former would have to consist of actions, such as increased military assistance and probably American deployments, as well as words, which would sound hollow to our ally after Vietnam and Laos. Our other option would be acquiescence in Thai overtures to Hanoi and Peking which would no doubt have to include Thai neutrality, renunciation of SEATO, and removal of all American bases and troops. Would this be more palatable than direct American intervention and would it be consistent with our new Asian approach?

Foreign Assistance and Trade—No clear policy yet.

Issue: Are increased aid levels and greater access to the American market necessary components of our new approach and are we willing to push a reluctant Congress on these matters?

Although we have not been precise on the point, increased assist-ance to our friends might seem to be a logical corollary to our moving toward a supportive, less conspicuous role. Reduction in the American presence, both in Vietnam and generally, will have both military and economic impact on various countries. We expect them to become more self-reliant, but at least for certain countries for a certain transitional period compensatory American assistance might be in order. This need runs up against a Congress that has steadily whittled down Presidential requests for foreign assistance. A coherent Administration approach and strong Presidential leadership will be required. Perhaps the political and budgetary appeal of a leaner American deployment abroad will produce Congressional support for the aid levels needed to ease the way. However, if Congress remains balky, we might face choices on slowing down our Asian slimming process or running some security, political or economic risks in the area. This general problem will translate into specific issues such as which countries should receive priority; the tradeoffs between military and economic assistance; the proper use of Vietnam surpluses, etc.

Our future emphasis on Asian prescriptions has relevance for our aid programs. This emphasis suggests that we will encourage Asian nations (and regional groupings) to fashion their own security and development needs and then come to us with their proposals. Aside from aid levels and priority recipients, we might face some sticky questions concerning the nature of the proposed hardware or projects. As donor—but less as seller—of the goods and services, we obviously have a strong say on what transactions make sense. Nevertheless our new themes of Asian initiative and Asian definition may make it more awkward for us than now to turn down a request for a jet plane (which we don’t think fits the country’s security needs) or a steel mill (which we [Page 181] think deserves a lower priority) that the recipient country deems important. It would be more awkward still if a regional grouping presented the request. For economic assistance, we can often use multilateral groups—such as the IBRD or ADB—as a buffer; we cannot do so on military requests.

Our aid and trade policies are closely related, and we face some tough Asian trade issues in the 1970s. The goal of our aid program is to help developing countries stand on their own: Taiwan is a recent graduate, Korea a prospective one. Both are prospering, bolstered by healthy exports in fields our aid programs have encouraged. Their economic performances rely heavily on the American market as our textile manufacturers well know. They will in any event need to find new markets for their expanding exports, but restricting their access to our own greatly exacerbates their difficulties. So will the fading of economic stimuli from the Vietnam War. There may be good domestic reasons for limiting our imports from our friends, but such a policy clashes with our aid policy and our objectives of greater Asian development and self-reliance.

Alliances—No changes.

Issue: What do we do about SEATO?

Our approach to our non-SEATO formal Asian alliances seems relatively clear. We will continue to maintain them—and negotiate their terms if necessary—on the basis of mutual perceptions of national interest. Thus the joint reaffirmation of U.S.-Japanese ties and the upcoming adjustments in our Philippine arrangements. Our formal ties with Korea present no immediate issue. As already noted, possible problems with Taiwan concern the offshore islands, with ANZUS the Malaysia-Singapore area.

Our handling of SEATO is less clear. It is essentially an anachronism, designed against unlikely threats, filled with unenthusiastic members. Its main purpose is to cover our defense obligations to Thailand. French and Pakistani membership are meaningless, the British almost so. What would be our reaction if any or all of these countries decide to leave SEATO? Presumably we would acquiesce in their definition of their national interest, but the exodus would prompt a debate about the future of the organization. Our Philippine and ANZUS treaties cover the SEATO Asian members except Thailand, where our formal commitment remains multilateral, although the 1962 Rusk-Thanat communiqué5 stipulated that we would be prepared to [Page 182] act on our own if necessary. The Thai recently professed unhappiness with the organization, but they have done this before to reflect uneasiness over U.S. intentions; when pressed by Vice President Agnew they backed off from their threat to opt out of SEATO.

There is little inclination from any quarter to attempt to revitalize SEATO, find new tasks for it or draw other Asian nations into the organization. Any fresh regional security efforts will flow from Asian initiatives, perhaps evolving from existing economic and technical groupings like ASEAN. Thus our options on SEATO boil down to either maintaining its facade of a multilateral commitment to Thailand or dismantling the alliance and making our Thai commitment strictly bilateral. Secretary Rogers’ attendance and statements at the SEATO Ministerial last spring were essentially a holding action. The Vice-President was more positive about the organization in Thailand. As our Asian doctrine continues to be fleshed out we will have to decide on our SEATO policy in the context of our overall approach to Asian regional security and our relationship with Bangkok.

Regionalism—We welcome and support.

Issue: To what extent do we attempt actively to promote regional cooperation?

Being against regionalism is like being against motherhood. We have always endorsed the principle of regional cooperation, with the major policy questions centering on the extent to which we led and shaped regional efforts. We are now set on a more reactive and supportive course where we will encourage Asian leadership. However, our encouragement can take many forms. For example, we recently tried to relate prospective arms sales to Singapore to its cooperation with Malaysia and to regional Commonwealth defense efforts with Australia, New Zealand and the UK. This proved somewhat premature and we have backed off from anything more than suggesting that Singapore keep its partners informed.

This minor issue shadows significant future decisions wherein we will have to weigh other countries’ national prerogatives and U.S. restraint against our desire to encourage regionalism. Will we balk at an Asian country’s prescription when it appears to undercut regional cooperation? Will we try to induce regionalism through our assistance policies even though this suggests a more aggressive American role in shaping Asian ventures? Does our emphasis on Asian initiative mean that we merely sit back and wait for regional groupings to get together, no matter how faltering the pace, or will we be prepared to make suggestions to promote their cooperation?

Japan is at the center of any discussion on Asian regionalism. Our policy, culminating in the Nixon-Sato communiqué, has been to prod [Page 183] our ally towards a leadership role in the region that reflects its dominant power, in part to relieve us of some of our responsibilities. We know that we want Japan to increase its economic assistance, its political clout, even its self-defense capacity. We do not know the degree to which we want Japan to participate or take the lead in regional security efforts. Are we—and the rest of Asia—not too close to World War II to contemplate easily a remilitarized Japan? Even a strong Japanese economic and military presence could disturb other Asians. For example, Indonesian Foreign Minister Malik has just told our Ambassador of his apprehension over Japan’s growing influence in the region. Certain aspects of Sato’s speech to the National Press Club might be interpreted as an impulse toward a U.S.-Japanese blueprint for Asia. We will need to avoid suggestions that our two countries might play the type of dominant regional role that could disturb other Asian countries and would clash with our new doctrine of Asian self-expression.

The Quadrilateral Relationship of Major Asian Powers—No clear policy yet.

Issue: How do we reconcile our policies toward China, Japan, and the Soviet Union?

The interaction of the four great powers in Asia will clearly be crucial, and our policies toward any one of them will have to take into account the impact on the others. Several factors converge to highlight the quadrilateral relationship. These include:

  • —The general shift in the Asian scene from bipolar confrontation between united blocs toward multipolarity and regionalism.
  • —Movement in our China policy which will bring into play both the Soviets and the Japanese.
  • —The Sino-Soviet dispute which makes both communist nations especially sensitive to Japanese and American designs.
  • —The growing Soviet interest in Asia, including its vague collective security scheme.
  • —The growing power of Japan and the new U.S.-Japanese partnership whose future health depends greatly on how the two allies manage China policy.
  • —Japan’s conflicting historical, political, and commercial interests in both mainland China and Taiwan.
  • —Japan’s ambivalent relations with the Soviet Union which include the northern territories question and possible Siberian interests.

In the past we have generally focused on our bilateral relationships, although lately we have been sensitive to the U.S.-USSR-China triangle. Japan must clearly be brought into the equations from here on out.

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New Neutralism—No clear policy yet.

Issue: What kind of Asia are we prepared to see?

This is a fundamental question that lurks behind all the other issues. It is not the same as asking what kind of Asia we want. While we can influence events, we cannot control, nor do we wish to prescribe, the region’s future.

The cumulative impact of the Nixon doctrine—implemented against the backdrop of a world-weary American public, Congressional assertiveness and domestic problems—could move certain of our Asian allies toward neutralism. The doctrine has some suggestive ingredients —our reluctance to commit manpower, fewer U.S. forces and bases, gestures toward Peking, lower American profile.

Are we willing to witness an evolution toward neutralism in Asia? What would this concept mean? Is it a pattern we can or should be trying to encourage? If not, why not? If so, how?

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Policy Planning Staff Files: Lot 77 D 112, Director’s Files, Selected Lord Memos. Confidential. The paper was sent to Kissinger on January 23 under a covering memorandum from Winston Lord of the NSC Staff. (Ibid.) No drafting information is provided but Lord’s covering memorandum suggests that it was drafted by Lord or by Lindsey Grant, another Asian specialist on the NSC Staff. Kissinger subsequently returned the memorandum to Lord with the following handwritten comment: “Winston—I’ve read belatedly—1st class. How do you suggest we get policy resolutions of unresolved issues”?
  2. Reference is to the joint communiqué issued in Washington on November 21, 1969, at the conclusion of a 3-day State visit by Prime Minister Eisaku Sato. For text, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1969, pp. 953-957.
  3. Reference is to anticipated agency responses to NSSM 38, which on April 10, 1969, tasked the Departments of State and Defense and the CIA to assess post-Vietnam Asian policy. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 365, Subject Files, National Security Study Memoranda (NSSMs) Nos 1-42)
  4. NSSM 3, issued on January 21, 1969, instructed the Departments of State and Defense and the CIA to analyze the U.S. military posture and the balance of power. (Ibid.)
  5. Secretary of State Rusk and Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman issued a joint communiqué in Washington on March 6, 1962, at the conclusion of a visit by Thanat to the United States. The communiqué addressed the related issues of the SEATO treaty and the security of Thailand. For text, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1962, pp. 1091-1093.