A Time of Troubles: This Is Why America Can't Walk Away from Asia
Whoever occupies the Oval Office in 2017 will face security threats around the world—including in Asia.
Stability in Asia is currently being threatened by North Korea’s growing military capabilities, China’s increasingly aggressive behavior, historical animosities, and rising nationalism.
Withdrawing from the world and raising the isolationist drawbridge didn’t work in the 1930s and wouldn’t work today. Instead, the next U.S. president needs to rebuild the strength of the U.S. military, affirm American commitment to defending our allies, and deter opponents’ attempts at intimidation and coercion.
Since the founding of the American republic, Asia has been a key area of interest for the United States for both economic and security reasons. In the 21st century, the importance of Asia to the United States will only continue to grow. As such, control of Asia by a hostile power would threaten American economic and security national interests.
Attaining and defending U.S. national interests in Asia requires bases and access, sufficient forward-deployed military forces to deter aggression, robust follow-on forces, and strong alliances and security relationships with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Taiwan, and Singapore.
The U.S. military presence in the Asia–Pacific theater is an indisputable signal of Washington’s commitment to defend our allies and maintain peace and stability in Asia while enabling immediate reaction to any threats to America’s national interests. Reducing U.S. forward-deployed forces would make America weaker on the world stage.
To be sure, maintaining sufficient military resources is expensive. Japan and South Korea provide significant funding to compensate the United States for its forward-deployed military presence. Last year, Tokyo and Seoul spent $2 billion a year and $900 million respectively to offset the cost of U.S. forces in their countries. According to the U.S. Pacific Command, Seoul and Tokyo will also pay $30 billion of the $37 billion cost of U.S. force realignment in the Pacific, including building new U.S. facilities in Guam.
The United States has long urged its allies to assume more responsibility for their own defense and to confront common security threats by increasing their defense expenditures and accepting new missions. Few allies have done so. However, South Korea spends 2.6 percent of its GDP on defense, more than most European allies.
Due to post-war restrictions, Japan has limited its defense spending to 1 percent of GDP. But, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responded to the deteriorating security environment in Asia by implementing new defense reform legislation last year that enables Japan to play a more comprehensive role in responding to global security challenges. Tokyo recently passed a $44 billion defense budget that is Japan’s largest ever and is the fourth straight annual increase under Abe.
Declining allied trust in U.S. military capabilities and resolve has triggered a debate in South Korea on the necessity either for the return of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula or the development of an indigenous nuclear program.
Neither proposal is practical nor desirable. The U.S. ground-based nuclear weapons removed in the 1990s no longer exist while placing U.S. sea and air-based nuclear weapons into storage bunkers in South Korea would be counter-productive since it could provide Pyongyang with a high-value target to strike preemptively.
Besides triggering international sanctions and diplomatically isolating South Korea, an indigenous nuclear program would divert large portions of the country’s defense budget away from critical requirements to duplicate an existing U.S. capability.
Addressing these challenges will require a fundamental resurgence of American military power to offset massive defense budget cuts of the past 7 years.
This includes maintaining U.S. forward-deployed forces in the western Pacific, augmenting allied missile defense systems including deploying THAAD to South Korea, and augmenting military cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo.
We have seen how dangerous it is when the United States leads from behind—but not leading at all would be catastrophic.
This piece first appeared in The Daily Signal here.