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U.S. to Realign Troops in Asia

Times Staff Writer

The Pentagon is planning a broad realignment of troops in Asia that may include moving Marines out of Japan and establishing a network of small bases in countries such as Australia, Singapore and Malaysia where the U.S. has never had a permanent military presence, senior administration officials say.

The moves in Asia, designed to include the transfer of troops away from the demilitarized zone in South Korea, represent the third phase of a sweeping plan by the Pentagon to reposition U.S. forces around the world to be closer to areas it considers unstable while cutting the U.S. presence in Cold War-era strongholds such as Germany.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 30, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Troop realignment -- In some editions Thursday, a Page 1 headline on an article about U.S. troop realignment in Asia stated that American military personnel in South Korea would be shifted to smaller bases in other countries. In fact, as the article stated, plans reportedly call for U.S. troops in South Korea to be moved away from the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas and out of Seoul.

The shift is also likely to lower the U.S. military’s profile in areas where its presence has provoked resentment and become a troublesome political problem, such as Seoul and the Japanese island of Okinawa.

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The change is already underway in the Middle East, where U.S. forces have largely pulled out of bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey over the last month, and in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where the Pentagon has moved rapidly to establish bases in territories formerly controlled by the Soviet Union.

“Everything is going to move everywhere,” said Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy. “There is not going to be a place in the world where it’s going to be the same as it used to be.... We’re going to rationalize our posture everywhere -- in Korea, in Japan, everywhere.”

Feith declined to divulge details, but some of the moves being considered for Asia were described by other defense officials. The U.S. is considering moving most of the 20,000 Marines on Okinawa to new bases that would be established in Australia; increasing the presence of U.S. troops in Singapore and Malaysia; and seeking agreements to base Navy ships in Vietnamese waters and ground troops in the Philippines.

In South Korea, as previously reported, the Pentagon is hoping to begin moving Army troops away from the demilitarized zone and out of Seoul by October.

The Pentagon has not yet made plans to reduce the overall troop level of nearly 38,000 in South Korea, for fear of sending a signal of lack of resolve to North Korea. But eventually, one senior administration official said, such a reduction is probably in the cards.

“It’s possible the numbers will be lower, but the capabilities will be greater,” the official said.

Up to now, more than 75% of the 100,000 U.S. troops in East Asia have been concentrated in just two countries, South Korea and Japan. An additional 12,500 U.S. military personnel are on ships in the region, with just 1,270 more elsewhere, mostly logistics workers in Singapore.

The rationale for that deployment has been that U.S. forces needed to be prepared to defend Japan and South Korea, mainly against China. But in the post-Sept. 11 world, the threat from China is believed by Bush administration policymakers to pale beside that posed by unstable countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East that are viewed as breeding grounds for terrorists.

At the same time, countries such as Vietnam, Australia and several nations in Central Asia and Eastern Europe are openly seeking a U.S. military presence and the security and economic benefits that American bases could bring.

Such countries are, by virtue of their location, viewed as potential launching pads for moving U.S. forces quickly and clandestinely to future areas of conflict.

“During the Cold War, the general thought was the forces that we had in Europe were going to be used in Europe, the forces we had in Korea were going to be used in Korea, and so on,” Feith said.

But, he said, what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has been saying is that “our history demonstrates that we have no idea where our forces might be used next, and we should not be devising basing arrangements and we should not be creating a force structure premised on the notion that the forces are going to be used where they are based.”

South Korea provides one example. Under the agreement that has kept U.S. troops there since the Korean War, those forces have maintained a focus on just one contingency -- an attack on the South by North Korea.

The Army’s 2nd Infantry Division is deployed along the DMZ. The remaining U.S. forces are headquartered at the Yongsan garrison in central Seoul and the Osan Air Base or are scattered around the country.

“That’s a waste of manpower,” said Derek Mitchell, a former Pentagon special assistant for Asian and Pacific affairs. “In an era where our forces are declining, we need to make those guys deployable. And in an era where [South] Koreans have developed a new [military] capability, they should be allowed to take greater control over their own defense.”

Reducing the number of U.S. troops in South Korea, or at least their visibility, could also serve to remove a major irritant. The troops’ presence has been controversial among South Koreans for years, and the deaths of two girls run over by a U.S. military vehicle last year inflamed anti-American sentiment.

A date for the withdrawal from Yongsan is still being worked out with South Korean authorities, but Bush administration officials say they would like to begin the move in October. The Pentagon plans to then consolidate its troops at several key hubs in South Korea.

“It’s going to make them more capable and efficient. Both governments agree this makes sense,” the senior administration official said.

For the Marines based on Okinawa, most for months without their families, the U.S. is also considering a major shift.

Under plans on the table, all but about 5,000 of the Marines would move, possibly to Australia. The 24,000 or so U.S. troops based with their families elsewhere in Japan would remain where they were.

But the Pentagon would increase the military equipment and weaponry stored and maintained at ports in Japan and elsewhere, allowing it to cut back the number of troops based in the region but leaving it able to deploy them rapidly to conflicts in the area.

Pentagon officials say such options are still being discussed and stress that no final decisions have been made.

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Times staff writer Sonni Efron contributed to this report.


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