East Asia Braces as American Influence Fades
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
China and North Korea are the catalysts for virtually all defense procurement and policy decisions being made in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
At the same time, there appears to be no overall policy from Washington guiding East Asia on how to deal with a new emerging superpower — one that is clearly interested in pushing the United States out of the region.
“Japan and South Korea are hedging against fears of a potentially diminished U.S. military-leadership capacity in Northeast Asia, due to fears that Washington will increasingly accommodate growing Chinese military power in East Asia,” said Richard Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Reuben Johnson, a Ukraine-based aerospace and technology analyst and consultant, argues, “There is almost no intelligent analysis or thinking in Washington about what China will be like — what the nature of the state and its policies will be — when Beijing is a true superpower.
“What disturbs China’s neighbors is that there is little — if any — sort of strategic vision emanating from D.C. on this subject. In the absence of anything other than the usual polemics, they will seek to go their own way in developing a response to the implications of China,” he said.
Japan, South Korea and Taiwan appear to be going in different directions in dealing with China’s rise to power and North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling. Very little in the way of military exercises or cooperation exists between any of these three countries. All three are developing separate ballistic missile defense (BMD), C4ISR, early warning radar and other systems.
Taiwan has been almost totally isolated by Beijing’s political bullying, with no official diplomatic relationship with either Seoul or Tokyo. South Korea continues relentlessly to complain of Japanese sex slavery escapades that occurred more than 60 years ago. And Japan is using North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapon development to throw off six decades of self-imposed restrictions on its military, with the upgrading of the Japan Defense Agency to a ministry and pushing forward on an aggressive BMD program that encompasses all branches of the military.
“As such, Tokyo and Seoul have for many years invested in independent surveillance systems like imaging satellites and missile technologies like space launch vehicles, that could quickly form the basis for long-range deterrent systems,” said Fisher.
Regional Arms Sales
Though Russian weapon sales to China have declined in recent years, there are real fears in the region that China might procure the Tu-22 Backfire bomber and the thrust-vectoring Su-35 fighter.
“Russia made use of the joint military exercises with China in August 2006 to display new weapons for sale, including the deadly Tu-22 Backfire bomber,” said Sumihiko Kawamura, deputy director of the Okazaki Institute, Tokyo.
“China has shown strong interest in purchasing Backfire for many years. The sale of the Backfire to China is only one instance out of many to come. Even the potential sale of the Backfire will have a direct impact not only on U.S. naval strategy, but Japan’s sea-lane defense planning also. China’s introduction of deadly weapons such as the Backfire and full-fledged aircraft carriers is likely to become a source of serious concern among Japan’s defense planners,” he said.
The potential sale by Russia of advanced bombers and fighters to China has pushed countries in the region to move ahead on the procurement of advanced fighters. Japan is looking at a variety of fighters, including the F-22 Raptor, for its FX program. South Korea is debating its next round of fighter purchases to supplement its F-15 fighters, and Taiwan is pushing for the release of 60 F-16 Block 50/52s from the United States.
Japan is hungry for the F-22, but resistance in Washington is causing problems.
“Japan certainly needs a fifth-generation fighter, given the tremendous expansion in China’s fourth-generation fighter fleet. The F-22 is a proven killer to anything China can put in the skies. It would make budget sense for Japan to have a fighter that can kill 50 Chinese Su-27s without suffering a loss, as opposed to the F-15, which is merely an even match for the Su-27,” said John Tkacik, senior research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center. “The unfortunate thing, however, is that the State Department seems to be hesitating on the approval for the F-22 sale to Japan.”
Tkacik believes Washington needs China to deal with the North Korean problem and that too many in the U.S. government fear that approving the F-22 for Tokyo would anger Beijing.
Russia and China have always been concerns for Tokyo.
“Japan sees itself as a small, vulnerable island nation precisely because it has two gigantesque neighbors overshadowing it from the continent. While cooperation between China and Russia is historically rare and short-lived, cooperation — or conflict — between the two that might adversely affect Japan is a natural and enduring concern to strategic planners,” said Peter Woolley, author of “Geography and Japan’s Strategic Choices.”
“Japan’s best remedy is patient diplomacy, an alliance with the United States, and high-tech defense procurements,” Woolley said.
Perhaps the biggest fear in Asia is the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Japan and South Korea. Some analysts see this as part of a long-term trend by the United States started at the end of the Vietnam War. U.S. forces left Vietnam in 1975, Taiwan in 1979 and the Philippines in 1992, and pullouts from Japan and South Korea are expected within the next 10 to 20 years. This is fueled by rampant anti-Americanism in South Korea, and anti-U.S. military protests are a constant headache for U.S. forces in Japan.
There are concerns among traditional allies of the United States that Washington might forgo strategic partnerships in return for greater Sino-American cooperation.
“Fears that potential American accommodation with China’s new power will come at the expense of traditional alliance commitments in Asia are very real. There are also anxieties caused by China’s rapid military expansion, with indications it is not just seeking regional dominance, but is pushing for global military reach,” warned Fisher.
The questions for many in the Asia-Pacific region are how China and Russia will take advantage of U.S. realignment in Asia, and how Japan, South Korea and Taiwan will work together to form an overall defense posture against an increasingly aggressive China.