Thursday, December 10, 2009
Rethinking the Pacific
It is natural for America’s attention to be focused on the cost in blood and money of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But a more permanent security issue is the U.S. presence in the Western Pacific, where America provides a security umbrella under which Japan, South Korea and others have prospered. Access to U.S. markets has been a part of this arrangement, playing a key role in China’s rise.
Given America’s budgetary problems, massive trade deficits and unemployment problems will it be long before the U.S. public begins to question policies, entrenched since the 1950s, of providing both military security and market access for this region?
Can the United States afford keeping 50,000 service personnel in Japan and another 28,000 in Korea? Can South Korea not defend itself, at least against conventional attack, from an impoverished North? For how long will Japan be allowed to hide behind a U.S. nuclear shield while proclaiming its opposition to nuclear weapons? Should the United States take risks to defend Taiwan, which shows scant interest in spending on its own defense?
For how long will America tolerate the hypocrisy of nations that feel free to trash the U.S. publicly while covertly aiding U.S. military presence? For how long will the United States put up with its free trade ideals being exploited by a mercantilist China? When will U.S. voters decide that local employment matters more than U.S. corporate profits?
These questions not only have to be asked as the U.S. faces what will probably be a prolonged period of adjustment to overspending on the military and on imports. They are beginning to be asked, at least implicitly, in East Asia.
Note the recent words of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew on a visit to the United States: “The 21st century will be a contest for supremacy in the Pacific because that’s where the growth will be. If you do not hold your ground in the Pacific you cannot be a world leader.”
Mr. Lee’s concern that the United States might retreat set off sharp criticism from Chinese commentators who see the U.S. presence as the main obstacle to China’s regional hegemony. In the past, Mr. Lee has emphasized the need for good relations with China. Now he apparently sees a need for a regional balance that only the U.S. can provide.
In Japan much is made of the new government’s efforts to be seen as independent of Washington, which include a show of sympathy to Okinawa’s problems in hosting the U.S. military. Yet China’s arms build-up has emphasized that a nuclear Japan is the only viable alternative to the U.S. As a result, far from rejecting Washington, Tokyo has quietly been pressing it not to retire Tomahawk nuclear missiles.
Referring to the Tomahawk, the Congressional Commission on Strategic Posture recently noted: “One particularly important ally has argued to the commission privately that the credibility of the U.S. extended deterrence depends on the specific capability to hold a variety of targets at risk in a way that is either visible or stealthy as circumstances warrant.”
Asia must face the fact that U.S. priorities have shifted, its self-confidence and fiscal capacity have been eroded. A newly published biography of the former Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, relates how, back in the 1980s and 1990s when Mahathir was renowned for his attacks on the U.S., he was secretly giving the U.S. access to many facilities and encouraging joint military exercises. Washington felt secure enough to tolerate Mahathir’s abuse in return for cooperation.
To this day, Malaysia likes to say nice things about China but keep its U.S. military links. Yet the U.S. outlook may be changing. Should allies not only refrain from verbal abuse but actively support the U.S.? Should they pay toward the cost of the security the U.S. provides?
The questions are not asked openly but they are implicit in the need for the U.S. to adjust its strategic goals in line with its trade and budgetary capacity. East Asia recognizes that the days of economic expansion based on exports to the U.S. are over and that greater regional cooperation is needed to compensate. But achieving that is difficult. The argument that the U.S. itself has benefited immensely from its relationship with the world’s fastest expanding region may carry intellectual weight. But political weight in a U.S. beset by deficits and unemployment is another matter. By PHILIP BOWRING for International Herald Tribune
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