Unlike European allies, Asia’s U.S. friends are showing a growing inclination to take care of their own defense needs.
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Tokyo still spends far less than it could, but its capabilities are likely to grow as the international threat environment becomes more unsettled. In May Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasoni visited Australia and called China’s military build-up an “issue of some concern.” Japanese officials have begun debating the unthinkable: creating the capability to preemptively take out North Korean missiles and even developing nuclear weapons. “Calls for the debate are escalating,” explained Takehiko Yamamoto, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University. The growing number of Japanese advocates of a larger military split between those who would amend Article Nine or simply interpret the pacifist provision away. “We won’t sit and wait for death,” said Gen Nakatani, a former civilian defense chief now heading the Liberal Democratic Party panel on security policy, in May.
Other East and South Asian nations too, are arming. The International Institute of Strategic Studies notes “substantial evidence of continuing efforts by several Southeast Asian states to modernize their armed forces.” For instance, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam all are constructing submarines. A plethora of better-armed smaller states may be unnerving to some, but will further constrain the dominant regional powers. Such a build-up also puts a premium on America’s democratic friends doing more, since they can ill afford to rely on Washington to protect them from everyone else.
Indeed, the most important incentive for Australia to strengthen its forces is recognition that America is likely to do less. Canberra’s White Paper lauds the continuing U.S.-Australian alliance, but delicately warns of changes to come: “the United States might find itself preoccupied and stretched in some parts of the world such that its ability to shift attention and project power into other regions, when it needs to, is constrained.” In fact, Americans concerned about paying for Medicare, Social Security, and accumulated debts aren’t likely to want to keep spending as much as the rest of the world combined to protect wealthy friends, like Australia. And as Beijing develops its own potent military with the ability deter U.S. involvement, Washington will be far less likely to risk war to micro-manage local and regional disputes in East Asia.
The U.S. should make the same point to Japan and South Korea, as well as other friendly states, such as the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. It is time for them to take over their own defense responsibilities, instead of sitting idly by assuming that Washington will come to the rescue in any crisis.
The U.S. cannot forever be the world’s 911 number. While most of America’s allies hope the good times of U.S. subsidies go on forever, Australia is more realistic. Recognizing that Washington is not likely to forever patrol the globe, the Rudd government is preparing Australia to be militarily self-sufficient. The rest of America’s military dependents should do likewise.
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