09 March 2017

With Park’s Impeachment, Both South Korea & The Philippines Face “Ambivalent Alignment”: The Complex Politics of American Security Ties in Post-Authoritarian East Asia

Today’s impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye raises the specter of U.S.-ROK relations once again being buffeted by “ambivalent alignment.” National University of Singapore Professor Ja Ian Chong and I coined this term to describe an important and challenging dynamic. In various East Asian societies that have transitioned from authoritarianism towards or into liberal democracy, the alliances and security partnerships they have sustained with Washington across the different political eras may become entangled in domestic politics and embroiled in struggles to redefine national identity and foreign policy. Widespread in maritime East Asia, this phenomenon is already manifesting itself prominently in U.S. relations with the Philippines. In my article published in The National Interest with Dr. Chong, we explain this potent dynamic and how it has played out in a variety of East Asian societies.

The excerpts appended below offer:

  1. Explanation of “ambivalent alignment”
  2. Summary of how it has played out in the South Korean context
  3. Policy recommendations regarding how to handle and mitigate “ambivalent alignment”


Andrew S. Erickson and Ja Ian Chong, “The Challenge of Maintaining American Security Ties in Post-Authoritarian East Asia,” The National Interest, 29 January 2015.

Washington must address the challenges associated with political transition to better mitigate the various risks associated with the liberal democratization of its East Asian partners.

The United States faces challenges trying to maintain robust security partnerships with politically liberalizing societies where Washington was perceived complicit in suppression of legitimate indigenous interests. This mixed legacy can inspire electorally empowered publics to raise new complications for continued U.S. presence and influence. Washington must understand and mitigate attendant risks. To explain why and how, we draw on in-depth conversations and interviews with a wide variety of interlocutors in the societies discussed.

New domestic dynamics in politically liberalizing societies demand revisions to relations with Washington, complicating a range of U.S. interests, including forward deployment, ensuring freedom of navigation and maintaining regional stability. Yet, these societies often wish to maintain substantive security cooperation with Washington. Hence, their “ambivalent alignment.” Today, these developments are most readily apparent in East Asian societies, complicating “rebalancing” efforts. Over time, the legacy of American complicity in single-party dominance and even authoritarian rule may likewise affect the U.S. position in other key regions such as the Middle East.

Washington must actively address challenges associated with political transition to better mitigate the attendant volatility and risks associated with such processes. American policy makers have to recognize how American security ties influence the politics of liberalization and consider measures to preemptively dampen fallout that may follow from attempts at using perceptions of the United States for partisan mobilization. The U.S. military, in particular, should minimize negative social effects associated with numerous personnel operating from a given area. These concerns are especially salient in areas where the United States has a long relationship with a previously dominant regime.


Political liberalization in Asian societies where Washington previously supported dominant regimes that suppressed significant indigenous interests fosters alignment ambivalence. Such societies increasingly desire to address the costs, risks and historical baggage of authoritarian rule, including those associated with long-standing strategic relationships with Washington. Even if existing strategic arrangements remain mutually beneficial, attempts to adjust ties with the United States to better meet local needs may impose new restrictions on the quality of cooperation. Resulting incongruity among key partners can hinder, even undermine, American efforts to rebalance toward Asia, and requires special attention.

During the Cold War, Washington cooperated with authoritarian and single-party-dominant governments to defend maritime East Asia from communism. This history embroils Americans in complex national identity and political liberalization struggles. Important as political liberalization is to better governance, domestic stability and cooperation with other liberal polities, it can create multiple short-term stress points for strategic partnerships. These include pressure to revise basing and alliance commitments, intensified regional rivalries and inattention to broader security concerns.

As the more powerful, domestically stable actor, Washington is in a better position than its partners to think ahead about the possibilities and opportunities for redefining relations. Historical East Asian cases highlight key challenges and suggest how to frame responses.

Political Liberalization and Alignment Ambivalence

Many East Asian societies today, freed from Cold War security imperatives and facing political liberalization, are viewing old problems through a new lens. In an oft-repeated pattern, popular political opposition, repressed under U.S.-backed authoritarian or single-party-dominant rule, finally achieves power and pursues policies to overturn elite power structures domestically, strengthen national identity symbolically and put military relations with Washington on more equal terms. Authoritarian rule often facilitated passing social costs of U.S. backing disproportionately to ordinary locals, particularly in places with a heavy U.S. military presence. This legacy incentivizes politicians to at least appear to have some distance from Washington. Basing and related issues give local politicians new ways to channel sincere grievances or profit politically. Problems, often unintended, emerge when they seize opportunities that generate alliance friction for internal or external reasons.

Efforts by new democracies to revise relations with Washington typically result in deteriorating relations that frustrate management of new and ongoing security challenges—including threats that helped motivate partnerships with Washington to begin with. Politicians thus must resume a viable working relationship with Washington. Examples have appeared in South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Indonesia and even in long-democratized Japan. Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore represent possible future cases where such concerns may emerge.

What’s at Stake

Ambivalence in East Asia toward security relationships with the United States during and after democratization affects maintenance of an American presence regionally and globally. Bases in Japan critically support U.S. Western Pacific and Indian Ocean deployments and ensure freedom of navigation. Visiting-forces agreements and strategic partnerships across East Asia augment these American interests and regional counterterrorism. U.S. bases in South Korea enable responses to a North Korean contingency, just as America’s security relationship with Taiwanhelps manage cross-Strait tensions.

Maintaining a robust American presence in East Asia is particularly crucial for enhancing U.S. bilateral and regional cooperation with an emergent China. Washington continues to be a key provider of public goods such as global commons security and underwriting of an open international economic system. This undergirds the stable regional environment that supports trans-Pacific development and prosperity while China negotiates internal challenges and reforms necessary for its continued progress.

Moreover, development of a rule-based regional order that incorporates a clear Chinese voice and enables effective management of Sino-American differences hinges on Washington’s ability to work with actors around East Asia regarding common interests. Reliable regional interlocutors for Washington facilitate realization of these gains; shaky or dysfunctional partnerships undermine such benefits. Neglect of security issues during political transition may encourage a U.S. partner’s rivals to alter the existing security situation in ways that heighten regional tension and instability.

Adequately addressing liberalizing partners’ strategic ambivalence can help Washington preempt and mitigate manifold policy complications that can harm regional security and American interests. Continued engagement of security partners during and after liberalization affords Washington a means to avoid crises and manage escalation. Effective American influence can dissuade liberalizing security partners from unnecessarily provoking rivals while encouraging them to pay attention to key strategic and foreign-policy issues. We now examine principal extant cases of alignment ambivalence among key U.S. partners in Asia and their consequences, in descending order of the severity of challenges for Washington.


South Korea

A history of war, national division and regional identity struggle complicates South Korea’s post-authoritarian alignment choices. A complex, volatile domestic situation produces internal policy disagreements and political polarization regarding North Korea. Many conservative South Koreans regard North Korea as a significant nuisance, but one that they would rather handle minimally. Many progressives see the north as misunderstood kin. Pyongyang’s erratic, provocative behavior is seen as business-as-usual; providing limited food aid currently appears most realistic. While many South Koreans still support the U.S.-Korean alliance and its security contributions, a substantial minority does not share these perceptions, and appears suspicious of assertive efforts by either Washington or Seoul vis-à-vis Pyongyang.

Roh Moo-hyun, perhaps ambivalent alignment’s greatest single exemplar, exploited such dynamics in capturing the presidency in 2002. A former student and legal activist jailed briefly before entering politics, Roh expanded “Sunshine Policy” overtures to Pyongyang and subjected the alliance to unprecedented criticism. He drew partially on heightened anti-American sentiment, exacerbated by the latest in a series of controversial incidents involving U.S. military personnel dating to the Korean War. In multiple instances, Korean strongmen engaged in brutal suppression and manipulated public perceptions of American support for their actions. Most prominently, in the 1980 Gwangju massacre, Korean troops loyal to then-president Chun Doo-hwan attacked unarmed civilian protesters while claiming American support. Death toll estimates range widely, from 144 to as many as 1,000-2,000.

In June 2002, a U.S. Army vehicle returning from training killed two schoolgirls in Yangju. Despite American apologies, special access for victims’ families to court proceedings and compensation, the tragedy triggered demonstrations from both veterans of Korea’s existing anti-basing movement and previously uninvolved individuals. At issue: the U.S.-ROK Status of Forces Agreement required American military personnel involved in an incident while performing official duties to be tried by a U.S. court. The tribunal found the American personnel involved “not guilty” of negligent homicide. Then-President Kim Dae-jung, and subsequently Roh, tried unsuccessfully to have a South Korean court hear the case.

Roh ultimately suffered a precipitous collapse in popular support, and bribery charges that ended with his suicide on May 23, 2009. Yet some of the very factors that propelled him to power haunt his successors. A nontrivial South Korean minority has embraced diverse conspiracy theories from Internet websites and even media outlets suggesting that some force other than North Korea—even the Lee Myung-bak government itself—caused the March 26, 2010 explosion and sinking of ROKS Cheonan and death of forty-six of its crew. This cynicism stems largely from widespread ambivalence about South Korea’s own authoritarian legacy, in which Pyongyang’s external threat and Washington’s alliance needs were often invoked to justify harsh, “undemocratic,” even at times repressive, domestic policies. Fueling this view is an instinctive response that sees “Koreans” as intrinsically right and “intrusive” Americans as wrong.

Elites and policy makers have disagreement and internal division at all levels concerning basic principles and priorities. South Korean conservatives and progressives disagree fundamentally on critical issues, including even on the Cheonan report’s basic credibility. Some progressives felt ignored by the Obama administration. They loathed Lee’s government, which they accused of being “undemocratic”; opposed its efforts to coordinate policy more closely with Washington; and advocated closer ties and coordination with China, which they view quite positively and uncritically in some respects.

Many progressives believe that, at a minimum, the Lee administration violated democratic principles fundamentally and undermined severely the possibility of political good will by pushing the Cheonan investigation too rapidly and in too closed and U.S.-focused a fashion. These progressives preferred a slower, domestically focused process: consulting the minority party carefully through established congressional procedures and building consensus among key political stakeholders before involving other governments—including China’s and Russia’s.

Lee was thus unable to marshal support for a firm North Korea policy. Rather than uniting South Korea against a common threat, the Cheonan incident fragmented it further. Pyongyang could scarcely have designed a better provocation to divide foreign opposition and build internal support for Kim Jong-il’s passing leadership to his third son, Kim Jong-un.

Subsequently, however, the November 2010 Yeonpyeong Island bombardment and continued belligerent rhetoric and nuclear/missile tests afford Lee’s successor Park Geun-hye support for more assertive deterrence of Pyongyang and clearer alignment with Washington. Even with anti-Americanism ebbing for now, as North Korea and China seek to influence and exploit shifting internal dynamics, Washington must develop stronger, more consistent working relationships with political parties both in power and in opposition in South Korea. Doing so effectively can help establish more stable, sustainable mutual expectations about relations that reduce long-term volatility in the Seoul-Washington partnership.

[These issues have changed somewhat since this article was published, and are currently in flux.]



Handling Ambivalence

Washington must be attentive to host nations’ domestic challenges. U.S. basing will continue to be sensitive in this era of dynamic domestic political change. But this is about far more than access rights and alliance commitment problems. While the U.S. military rightly remains studiously apolitical, it cannot avoid operating in host nations’ domestic sphere by virtue of basing in and cooperating with allied and partner nations. To address these challenges, Washington needs to treat historical grievances and symbolism carefully, particularly vis-à-vis basing issues. It must maintain robust connections and dialogue with actors across the political spectrum in its partners and allies. Such an approach is important to underpinning robust, sustained relationships that help maintain stability and advance American interests in a world of simmering tensions and heightened uncertainty.

A factor common to all these cases of political liberalization—and potentially others—is the inherent reaction of any polity to a dominant global power with its broad interests coupled with past complicity, if not support, for the suppression and even repression of local interests. Such reactions were previously contained by Cold War concerns and more restrictive domestic politics. That these imperatives no longer override domestic desires spurs pressure to reshape long-standing security ties with Washington, even if persistent security challenges delay and dampen these impulses to varying degrees. That said, the intensity of ambivalence toward Washington varies among these societies, given different experiences with single-party dominance or authoritarianism, the trajectory of transition toward democracy and the timeline and extent of U.S. responsibility therein.

Overall implications are clear. Experience from East Asia suggests that American policy makers need to better anticipate the complications that accompany political liberalization and increased domestic contestation in the societies of U.S. partners. Carefully considering political minefields helps ensure that these long-standing security ties remain effective through political transition. This requires (1) comprehending various political factions’ positions; (2) understanding how they can manipulate the legacy of cooperation with the United States in contemporary domestic politics, particularly if Washington has had a close relationship with the past regime; (3) recognizing how that legacy may resonate, especially with the voting public during electoral contests; (4) devising working relationships with different political factions throughout the political liberalization process; (5) ensuring that foreign counterparts can convince voters and neighboring leaders that alliances serve national interests; (6) pursuing a “whole of government” approach that ensures operational activities are undertaken and coordinated with firm local support; (7) emphasizing transparency and proactive engagement, since the modern media makes concealing most information impossible and rumors flourish when aligned with ambivalence narratives and (8) devising plans to handle potential alignment crises.

A heavy-handed U.S. approach to these issues will likely compound problems by potentially implicating American involvement in partners’ domestic politics. Therefore, U.S. policy makers and officials need to manage the politics of liberalization and contestation in key security partners quietly, but firmly and consistently. Effectively handling the politics of an authoritarian legacy during democratic transition enables the United States to maintain alliances and partnerships capable of addressing geopolitical challenges and containing turmoil.

More careful thinking and preparation for the bumpy processes of political liberalization are particularly important to American foreign and security policy today. The United States needs to work with Asian allies to incorporate China as a partner and innovator in the current international framework. This is in part the rationale behind the Obama administration’s rebalancing strategy. Such an approach becomes more trying when societies across Asia are undergoing their own domestic political transitions. This is as much the case with key treaty allies like South Korea, Japan and the Philippines as it is with partners like Taiwan and Indonesia. Outside East Asia, Washington must work with long-term partners—like Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt—that are undergoing political liberalization. This phenomenon will likely proliferate as existing regimes in places like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore face greater pressure for political reform. Better preparedness in this regard will better safeguard the interests of both the United States and its partners.


Carnes Lord and Andrew S. Erickson, “Bases for America’s Asia-Pacific Rebalance (Part 1 of 2),” The Diplomat, 2 May 2014.

Carnes Lord and Andrew S. Erickson, “Bases for America’s Asia-Pacific Rebalance (Part 2 of 2),” The Diplomat, 6 May 2014.

Carnes Lord and Andrew S. Erickson, eds., Rebalancing U.S. Forces: Basing and Forward Presence in the Asia-Pacific (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014).