The rising Sino-Japanese antagonism is worrisome because of the security treaty between the United States and Japan. Because of its obligations, the United States almost inevitably would find itself involved in a nuclear conflict arising out a military clash between China and Japan. Here, the rival claims asserted by Beijing and Tokyo to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands well could provide the spark. In October 2010, this once obscure dispute became a front page story when a Chinese trawler illegally fishing in Japanese controlled waters rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel - thus setting off a major diplomatic row between the two big Asian powers.
If the fate of these islands only concerned China and Japan, it would not be the potential cause of a grave geopolitical crisis. But it’s not just about them; it’s also about the United States because of Washington’s security treaty with Japan. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, on several occasions, explicitly stated that the United States is obligated by treaty to come to Japan’s assistance if war with China breaks out because of the two powers’ competing claims to sovereignty over the islands. This is not just worst-case scenario thinking. Since the fall of 2010 hardly a week has gone by without some kind of Sino-Japanese crisis concerning these islands.
During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson referred to North Vietnam as a “piss ant” country. By this definition, the Daioyu/Senkaku Islands are a bunch of piss ant rock piles in the East China Sea. They may be important symbolically (or, if speculation about undersea mineral resources is correct, economically) to Beijing and Tokyo. But they have no intrinsic value to the United States, and it is the height of folly to commit the United States to risk a possible nuclear war to defend them. The fact that Hillary Clinton has done so raises troubling questions about her foreign policy judgment.
The fate of Taiwan also poses the risk of a Sino-American War. Although not formally tied by treaty to Taiwan’s security, the United States in practice is committed to defend Taiwan from China. In 1996, there was a crisis when China started lobbing missiles just off Taiwanese controlled waters to influence the Taiwanese elections. The United States responded to Beijing’s actions by sending two aircraft carrier battle groups through the Straits of Taiwan, which resulted in a Chinese climb-down. But few recall is what happened afterward. A senior Chinese official told the American diplomat Chas. W. Freeman that in a future Sino-American crisis, the United States would never repeat its 1996 show of force. As the Chinese official noted, China was growing ever stronger militarily, and in the future, the risks to the United States of challenging it would rise steeply. The United States would not run those risks the Chinese official said, because future Washington policymakers would “care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taiwan.”
As the late football coach George Allen was fond of saying at the start of every season, the future is now. Twenty years have passed since the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis, and in both nuclear and conventional capabilities, China is rapidly closing the gap military gap with the United States. Indeed, as Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work recently observed, “China and Russia are developing battle networks that are as good as our own. They can see as far as ours can see; they can throw guided munitions as far as we can.” In East Asia today, all of the Cold War nightmares about extended deterrence have come back with a vengeance.
Donald Trump has taken lots of flak for suggesting that South Korea and Japan acquire their own nuclear weapons. For sure, Trump lacks the intellectual framework to articulate why such a policy actually is eminently sensible - and Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy thinking is too ossified to understand the logic underlying such a policy. Others, however, have articulate the reasons why the United States should get out of the extended deterrence business, and devolve the primary responsibility for defending themselves to the United States’ security dependents. And the more insightful recipients of those guarantees understand full well that, faced with the real possibility of nuclear war, the United States would not honor them. Certainly, Charles de Gaulle, one of the twentieth century’s towering statesmen, and an astute student of geopolitics, realized this. Understanding that the United States could not be trusted to commit suicide for Western Europe, he grasped the implications of this insight: France needed to acquire its own nuclear arsenal. Today, in South Korea and Japan, a similar discussion among policymakers is taking place. And every now and then it rises to the surface in newspaper stories and journal articles that detail the growing sentiment in official circles that both of these states need to go nuclear because neither can continue to rely on American promises to risk nuclear conflict on their behalf.
The idea of any nuclear proliferation is, of course, anathema to the hidebound U.S. foreign policy establishment. For them, the response to endangered allies in East Asia and the Baltic States is that the United States should step up its efforts to “reassure” its security dependents. This is exactly the wrong policy for two reasons. First, it ultimately will not work. States that have the wherewithal to adopt strategies of direct deterrence, like Japan and South Korea, increasingly are aware that the U.S. strategy of extended deterrence is not credible. Second, giving unconditional security guarantees to other states raises potential strategic moral hazard issues.
Several years ago at a conference in Sweden, a senior Estonian diplomat was asked whether his government was concerned that its discriminatory policies toward its minority ethnic Russian population might prompt Moscow to intervene militarily. His answer was that Estonia neither needed to worry about Russia, nor change its policies because the United States would protect it come what may. When asked during the October 2010 Sino-Japanese crisis in the East China Sea what Tokyo would do a decade or two hence if fiscal and domestic political pressures caused the United States to retrench in East Asia., a senior foreign ministry official said that Japanese leaders did not think about such hypotheticals, because the United States would always protect Japan.
This is not the kind of thinking American policy should encourage. Rather than a policy of reassurance, Washington should adopt a policy of de-assurance and make it clear to our security dependents that they need to do a lot more to defend themselves, even if that means acquiring nuclear weapons. Rather than perpetuating European, Japanese, South Korean dependence on the United States, the United States should be nudging them down the path of a more independent strategic posture. Although it may sound counterintuitive to non-experts, some prominent scholars have argued that the world would actually be more stable if Washington re-considered its blanket opposition to nuclear proliferation.
Decades ago, the late Kenneth Waltz - perhaps the most preeminent U.S. thinker about international politics of the post World War II era - compellingly argued that a world of more nuclear-armed states could be safer and more stable than a world of fewer nuclear weapons states. The reason, he said, is that direct deterrence is credible but extended deterrence is not. Waltz did not advocate promiscuous, indiscriminate, uncontrolled proliferation. But states like Japan and South Korea today meet his criteria. They are modern, wealthy, politically stable states that can build, and maintain, survivable nuclear deterrent forces. And they are not Pakistan; they can safeguard their nuclear forces and ensure they don’t fall into the hands of terrorist groups.
However, the American foreign policy establishment - of which Hillary Clinton is a card-carrying member - is aghast a the idea of retracting U.S. extended deterrence guarantees, and allowing Japan and South Korea to provide for their own security. They prattle on with cliches about the indispensability of America’s leadership, and the continuing importance of U.S. alliances. (Recently Mrs. Clinton called the United States the world’s indispensable nation. This was an act of foreign policy plagiarism because she was regurgitating verbatim the words of Madeleine Albright, her husband’s Secretary of State.) The American foreign policy establishment has its stock arguments for the grand strategic status quo of basing U.S. policy on extended deterrence: the United States must defend its allies, uphold regional security in East Asia and Europe, maintain its credibility, and continually demonstrate its resolve. But except for the rare exceptions of a Herter or Kissinger, members of the foreign policy establishment never level with the American people and acknowledge the risky nuclear strategy that underpins these catch-phrases.
Extended nuclear deterrence is an old think approach to American grand strategy that fails to acknowledge that today’s world is one of profound geopolitical change. The halcyon days of unipolarity and American primacy are over. The American foreign policy establishment clings to shopworn policies devised in a very different age, and refuses to acknowledge the risks of staying the course rather than thinking innovatively about American grand strategy. Most of all, the foreign policy establishment fails to understand that rather being a force for peace and stability in places like the Baltics and East Asia, U.S. alliances are really transmission belts for war that will bring overseas conflicts to American soil. If war breaks out in these regions, the United States will be sucked into potentially nuclear conflicts arising over issues that do not affect America’s fundamental security. Rational policymakers should not want their states to commit suicide for the sake of allies. No ally’s fate is important enough for the United States to risk a nuclear war. In a nuclear world, American lives matter. America First is not an epithet, it is a strategic imperative.