The Skeptics

U.S. China Hawks Perpetuate East Asian Free Riding

Princeton University scholar Aaron Friedberg has fired the latest salvo in the campaign to highlight China’s military buildup and the threat it’s likely to pose to U.S. hegemony in the far western Pacific and East Asia. Much of what he says is warranted by the facts. China’s military modernization is asymmetrical and aimed at achieving an anti-access capability. As Friedberg notes, “rather than trying to match American power plane for plane and ship for ship, Beijing has sought more cost-effective ways to neutralize it.” And unlike the more simplistic hawks, Friedberg concedes that China does not want war with the United States. Instead, China’s military preparations “seem intended mostly to overawe its neighbors while dissuading Washington from coming to their aid if there is ever a clash.”

The evidence suggests that he is correct on all of those points. Where Friedberg goes off the rails is with his assessment of how Washington’s East Asian allies have responded to the protection its superpower patron has provided over the decades and how they are likely to respond if the United States tries to preserve its hegemonic position despite growing financial constraints.

In the real world, the East Asian allies have woefully underinvested in defense and have engaged in shameless free riding on America’s security guarantees. In Friedberg’s alternate universe, the allies are willing to ignore Beijing’s complaints and to “increase their own defense spending.”

If that were true, we would see dramatic surges in the military budgets of all of Washington’s security partners—especially since those budgets started from utterly anemic bases during and immediately following the Cold War. But the data tell a very different story. Despite having the world’s third-largest economy (and the second largest until a year ago), Japan stubbornly keeps its military spending at less than one percent of its Gross Domestic Product. According to the 2011 edition of The Military Balance, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Tokyo’s defense budget for 2010 was $52.8 billion. The IISS estimate of China’s actual military spending is $166.18 billion.

If Japan were deeply concerned about China’s intentions (to say nothing of the more immediate security threat that North Korea poses), one would think that there would be a more serious effort. The same can be said of South Korea, Washington’s other major ally in Northeast Asia. Seoul’s defense budget in 2010 was $25.4 billion—a paltry 2.56 percent of GDP. Taiwan, the political entity that ought to be the most worried about Beijing’s growing military power, still saw fit to spend only $9.3 billion, or 2.14 percent of GDP. Worse, Taipei’s 2010 budget was actually a $300 million decline from the previous year’s budget. Matters are not significantly better with respect to America’s other formal allies or informal security partners elsewhere in East Asia.

Friedberg worries that if the United States does not make a concerted effort to preserve its dominant military position in the region, the allies, “uncertain of whether they can rely on the United States, and unable to match China’s power on their own,” may decide that they “must accommodate China’s wishes.” Beijing’s strategy, he believes, aims at “eroding the credibility of America’s security guarantees” and the “hollowing out of its alliances.”

There are two things wrong with that analysis. First, it would be difficult to imagine the alliances being much more hollow than they are now. Indeed, with the partial exception of Japan, it is a misnomer to refer to the East Asian allies as “allies.” They are security dependents—and not very committed ones.

Second, the East Asian nations don’t have to “match China’s power on their own.” They merely need to adopt the strategy that Friedberg contends Beijing is pursuing with respect to the United States: raise the cost of military intervention to an unacceptably high level. And the prosperous nations of that region have more than enough economic strength to build military forces sufficient to give the leaders in Beijing pause before engaging in bullying behavior.

Those nations have failed to do so not because they can’t, but because they have chosen instead to rely on the United States. As a good conservative, Friedberg should understand that incentives matter. And Washington has created a perverse incentive structure that encourages the East Asian countries to free-ride on the United States. If U.S. policy makers take his advice and have the United States spend even more money (that it does not have) to continue subsidizing the defense of its allies, that problem will only get worse.