Afghanistan, alliances, allies, Asia, Asia-Pacific, AUKUS, Australia, Biden, China, credibility, Donald Trump, extended deterrence, globalism, Indo-Pacific, Japan, nuclear umbrella, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, semiconductors, South Korea, submarines, Taiwan, transactionalism, United Kingdom, vital interests
Lots of stuff going on lately in security affairs in the Asia-Pacific region (which foreign policy congoscenti have been calling the Indo-Pacific region, reflecting India’s new prominence). And I’m not just talking about the new agreement (which goes by the awkward acronym “AUKUS”) by which Australia will acquire nuclear-powered submarines provided by the United States and the United Kingdom (acing out the furious French in the process), and gain access to lots of advanced militarily-relevant American technology, like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
I’m also talking about long overdue signs that key U.S. allies in the region are starting to take the threat they face from growing Chinese aggressiveness as seriously as the United States has been taking it. The interesting policy questions are (1) why they seem finally to be waking up and (2) what if anything the United States can or should do to convince Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan in particular to assume more of the burden of defending themselves, thereby enabling America to take a less risky, less costly role in the region.
For the time being, unfortunately, the United States is going to have to stay deeply involved in the defense of these countries, and to keep accepting a degree of nuclear risk that I’ve long described as unacceptable, and still consider unnerving. I’ve changed my mind, however, because the globalist and free trade-happy U.S. foreign policy establishment and the tech companies that write so many of its members’ paychecks boneheadedly let South Korea and especially Taiwan seize global leadership in the manufacture of the world’s most advanced and powerful semiconductors.
These devices are simply too valuable to the American economy as a whole and to its continuing military superiority to take the chance that the relevant Taiwanese and South Korean facilities and knowhow fall into Chinese hands. As for Japan, it continues to produce many of the materials and equipment on which cutting-edge semiconductor production relies, so it’s got to be kept safe from the likeliest threat it faces from China – which is some form of blackmail. (See this recent Biden administration report, and especially pp. 45 ff.)
As a result, until the United States gets its semiconductor act back together, the American nuclear umbrella needs to remain over Japan and South Korea – which means that America could well be sucked into a nuclear war with China and especially North Korea if hostilities break out. And such “extended deterrence” may need to be extended to Taiwan (which Washington is not yet as tightly committed to defend).
That’s why it’s not good that not only the Australians will be getting nuclear-powered (but not – so far – nuclear-armed) submarines. Because of their superior capabilities, these which will add quantitatively and qualitatively to the forces China would need to think about when contemplating, say, moves to increase its sway over the regional sealanes through which so much of the world’s trade flows.
It’s also good that South Korea has decided to build (so far non-nuclear) ballistic missiles that can be launched from its own submarines (in response to North Korea’s progress toward the same capabilities). Deserving of applause as well are Japanese and Taiwanese plans to boost defense spending – and acquire some impressive weapons along the way. Japanese officials are even talking seriously about what steps Tokyo can and should take to help defense Taiwan if the stuff hits the fan with China – although nothing like a clear decision had been made.
Defense spending levels in all three countries are still measly, especially considering what dangerous neighborhoods they live in. And it’s not as if time is necessarily on their side. But something new seems astir, and I’m not convinced that China’s worsened behavior is entirely responsible. Some credit undoubtedly goes to the Trump administration. Since his initial White House campaign, the campaign, the former President insistently asked why Americans should risk their own security for that of allied freeloaders, and foot so much of the bill. And throughout his presidency, he kept so much pressure on that the Asia allies clearly worried that the Uncle Sucker days were over, and that Trump’s complaints reflected much and possibly most American public opinion. (See, e.g., here.)
President Biden deserves some credit here, too – but I would argue in part in spite of himself. Mr. Biden of course is a card-carrying globalist who for the entirety of his long career in public life has agreed wholeheartedly with the need to maintain strong U.S. alliance relationships. Hence it was no surprise that during the 2020 campaign and immediately after his inauguration, he took great pains to assure U.S. allies that the United States would “be back” after years of Trump-ian neglect. And indeed, earlier this year, Mr. Biden showed every sign of coddling continued Asian defense free-riding.
But ironically, the biggest Biden spur to more Asian defense burden-sharing might be his botched withrawal from Afghanistan. In other words, whereas the Asians (and other allies) were worried mainly that Trump would cut them loose because he was unwilling to protect them if they didn’t change their deadbeat ways, it’s entirely possible that they fear Mr. Biden won’t be able to ride to their rescue – at least not in any effective way.
I know that there’s little evidence of such mistrust in official Asian rhetoric so far. And of course, one of the President’s main stated reasons for leaving Afghanistan in the first place was to free up more American energies and resources to focus on China. But some unofficial Asian voices seem less sure, and it would be surprising to see any governments pushing the panic button in almost any circumstances. And could it be a total coincidence that the aforementioned spate of Asian defense decisions came in the wake of the Afghanistan pullout?
I seriously doubt it. And as a result, if Mr. Biden wants to turn America’s Asian protectorates into genuine allies, he should continue his own strategy of stepping up exports of advanced weapons to them (and to many of their neighbors, depending on each one’s solidarity), signaling his willingness to go even further (as with this excellent decision) and employ some of the Trump-ian “transactionalism” that’s had so many globalists clutching their pearls for so long.
But instead of threatening American withdrawals if they don’t pony up more defense-wise, the President should promise them more hardware if they do. Casually floating the idea of OKing the acqusition of nuclear weapons by various allies wouldn’t hurt, either.
And he should stop pretending that none of this activity is directed against China. Not only does such rhetoric signal credibility-shaking skittishness. It contradicts yet another example of transactionalism that should become part of the Biden strategy: Making clear to China that staying on its current belligerent course will be a great way to guarantee that it’s ringed with ever more neighbors that are armed to the teeth.