Washington’s East Asian Allies May Learn the Perilous Cost of Security Dependence

Ted Galen Carpenter

Washington has long encouraged its East Asian allies to rely
heavily on the United States for their security. Despite occasional
grumbling, the allies have willingly accepted that arrangement. The
receptive attitudes are not surprising on either side. For the
allies, depending on the United States for defense offered some
important advantages and benefits. It reduced the need for large,
expensive military establishments, thus freeing up financial
resources for economic progress and an assortment of domestic
needs. Today, the Republic of Korea (ROK) spends a mere 2.5 percent
of its Gross Domestic Product on the military, while Japan still
adheres to its self-imposed limit of 1 percent. The expenditures by
Australia and the Philippines are equally modest.

In addition to the financial savings, it seemed highly
beneficial to the allies to have a superpower guaranteeing their
security. During the Cold War, that arrangement discouraged
bullying (or worse) on the part of the Soviet Union or China, and
East Asian populations welcomed the greater sense of security.
There were always potential drawbacks and risks involved in being
so dependent on the United States, but until recently the perils
were not terribly obvious. Now, though, alarm bells should be going
off in those East Asian capitals.

The advantages for the United States were always a bit subtler,
but policymakers deemed them important. Most notably, U.S. security
primacy reduced the danger that a current ally might someday become
a challenger. That concern was especially acute with respect to
Japan. The original draft of the Pentagon’s 1992 policy planning guidance document
contained language conveying thinly disguised worries that another
nation (implicitly Japan) might seek to exercise independent power
and influence in a way that would not benefit U.S. interests. The
document asserted bluntly that Washington’s policy needed to
prevent any country from challenging America’s regional or global

In addition to that concern, U.S. leaders encouraged continued
security dependence to reduce the risk that an ally might engage in
rash action that could draw America into an unwanted crisis. As
time passed, Washington did press Japan, South Korea, the
Philippines, and Australia to do more for their own
defense-especially to increase their defense budgets modestly. But
there was no corresponding pressure for them to take independent
security initiatives. Quite the contrary, the focus was on
enlisting those countries to become more supportive in helping to
advance U.S. policies in the region. Thus, over the past 15 years
or so, Washington has sought to transform its alliances with Japan,
the ROK, and Australia from purely bilateral arrangements to defend
the homelands of those countries into broader arrangements to deal
with “regional contingencies.” The latter is little more than a
code phrase for a subtle containment policy directed against

The nature of Washington’s alliance network was always based on
the assumption that the United States was firmly in charge of
policy decisions. The risk inherent to America’s allies from that
arrangement is now becoming increasingly evident. The Trump
administration’s erratic, often hardline statements regarding North Korea
underscore the danger to America’s security dependents. South Korea
and Japan would both have a tremendous amount to lose if an armed
conflict broke out between Washington and Pyongyang. Yet the
decision to escalate to that level would be made by U.S. leaders
rather than South Korean or Japanese leaders. The United States
might or might not show its allies the courtesy of consulting them
and seeking their input, but the final determination would be made
in Washington, not Seoul or Tokyo.

That point should have become apparent during the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis, when Bill
Clinton’s administration seriously considered launching air strikes to
destroy Pyongyang’s embryonic nuclear weapons program. Fortunately,
that crisis was averted when former President Jimmy Carter
successfully negotiated the preliminary provisions of what became a
few months later the Framework Agreement freezing North Korea’s
nuclear program.

Decisions about war and
peace in the region will be made in Washington, not the East Asian
capitals, even though any adverse consequences of such decisions
would be borne primarily by nations in the region.

But the crisis could easily have resulted in war, and that would
have been horrific for South Korea. The location of Seoul, the
capital and largest metropolitan area, barely 50 kilometers from
the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas, would have
guaranteed massive destruction and civilian casualties from a North
Korean counterattack in the form of an artillery barrage. The
situation may be even more perilous today, since Pyongyang has
missiles that can strike targets throughout South Korea and Japan.
Even if North Korea has not yet miniaturized nuclear warheads to
place on those missiles, the damage could be considerable. And if
the North has perfected that technology, the consequences to Japan
and the ROK would be catastrophic.

A confrontation between the United States and North Korea is not
the only scenario that could expose the perilous potential cost to
the allies of an overreliance on Washington. The growing tensions
between the United States and China are another source. Beijing’s
increasingly assertive policies in both the East China Sea and the
South China Sea, and the mounting tensions between the mainland and
Taiwan, have produced expressions of grave concern in U.S. policy
circles. Although there is no imminent danger of war between the
two great powers, their policies seem to be on a collision course
over the long term. Again, despite the potential hazards to their
countries, the allies would have little ability to restrain their
American protector if U.S. leaders decided on a confrontational
policy to rein-in Beijing’s ambitions.

The benefits to the East Asian allies of their security
dependence on the United States have been considerable. But there
is a very substantial downside, and that aspect is becoming
increasingly apparent and worrisome. The allies give up their
decision-making autonomy when they rely on America for essential
aspects of their defense. Decisions about war and peace in the
region will be made in Washington, not the East Asian capitals,
even though any adverse consequences of such decisions would be
borne primarily by nations in the region. That reality should
convey to America’s allies that free-riding on U.S. security
efforts is not really free. Indeed, the price of continued security
dependence could turn out to be ruinous.

Ted Galen Carpenter is senior fellow for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. 

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