Monday, March 05, 2012

Can Asia Accept Obama’s Superpower Suicide?

The Obama administration revealed a new defense strategy at the beginning of this year that articulates the shift of national security focus from the Middle East to the Asia Pacific region. However, we must not dismiss that this new strategy widely known as the “Pivot to Asia” is coincided with massive cuts in military expenditure. In view of the rise of China and its unpredictable impacts, it is understandable that Asian people welcome Obama’s new defense strategy. However, conservative policymakers bitterly criticize precipitous cuts of defense spending and withdrawal from the Middle East, and call the strategy “superpower suicide”. Robert Kagan, Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, stresses indispensable role of US hard power to bolster global stability (“The Importance of U.S. Military Might Shouldn't Be Underestimated”; Washington Post; February 2, 2012). On the Hill, Republican legislators criticize that current cut of defense spending. Senator John McCain argues “[President Obama’s] announcement was unsupported by any type of comprehensive strategic review or risk assessment.” Chairman Buck McKeon of the House Armed Services Committee denounces furthermore that the president wanted to cut “at least $400 billion from defense last April, in advance of any strategic review” (“Fight over Defense budget has familiar ring”; DEFCON Hill; February 21, 2012).

Since the inauguration, President Barack Obama implicitly has been suggesting to scale down US role on the global stage, particularly in the Middle East, in order to placate anti-American sentiments among Islamic nations. The Prague and the Cairo speeches were bitterly criticized by conservative opinion leaders. Nile Gardiner, Director of Margaret Thatcher Center at the Heritage Foundation, commented that Obama was too apologetic to US foreign policy. Therefore, I suspect that the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia will paradoxically ruin security interests of Asia because it is coincided with a superpower suicide. From this point of view, I asked a question at the Japan-US-China Dialogue by the Global Forum Japan on February 24. I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to kind replies to my question from Vice President Douglas Paal at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Professor Akio Takahara of Tokyo University, and Professor Koji Murata of Doshisha University. Having ruminated over the event, I would like to discuss furthermore on this issue.

First, the rise of Chinese military power inflicts critical influences beyond the Asia-Pacific region. It is expanding westward as well. In Central Asia, China tightens its grip on East Turkistan and Tibet by repressing Uighur, Tibetans, and so forth. In addition, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization helps Chinese influence grow toward the Caspian Sea. Moreover, the shadow of China penetrates into the Middle East. China has made a nuclear deal with Pakistan despite global concerns with proliferation to terrorists. Also, Beijing helped Iran make access denial anti-ship missiles despite nuclear ambitions of the Shiite regime. China even considers having a naval base in Iran to dominate the sea lane east of Suez. US withdrawal from the Middle East can provoke China to fill the vacuum. With a rapid increase in defense spending this year, China intends to augment power projection capability around the globe (“China military spending to top $100 billion this year”; Washington Post; March 4, 2012). China’s defense spending can rise more precipitously when Vice President Xi Jinping succeeds the position from President Hu Jintao, as he has much closer contacts with the People’s Liberation Army than his predecessor (“China’s defence spending to rise 11.2%”; Financial Times; March 4, 2012).

The Middle East is an important area for Asian nations as well. Islamic terrorism is a common security issue. Some Asian nations, such as India, Thailand, and the Philippines, also face threats of radical Muslims. Muslims accounts for the majority of population in Indonesia and Malaysia. Regarding the Arab Spring, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, points out that the clash between Muslims and local Christians is being intensified (Ayaan Hirsi Ali:The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World”; News Week; February 6, 2012). Therefore, political stability in the Middle East is a vital security interest for many Asian nations. The advent of a nuclear Iran will bring further political turmoil in the Middle East. Nuclear nonproliferation is a common security agenda for Asia-Pacific nations. More importantly, strategic partnership must be reciprocal. While President Obama mentioned India a key partner in his new strategy, US-Indian relations have deepened since the War on Terror. Unilateral withdrawal from the Middle East will ruin the US-Indian strategic partnership since the Bush administration.

In addition, Asian economy cannot grow by itself. Asian prosperity is strongly tied with natural resource supply and export market outside the region. Rapid industrialization and urbanization in Asia is supported by oil import from the Middle East. Also, the Middle East is the sea lane from Asia to Europe. The Euro zone financial crisis has brought Asian nations home that European market is important for their economy. It is a halfway measure to defend just Senkaku and Spratly Islands. Remember that Asian navies joined counter-piracy operations off Somalia, along with US and NATO forces. This implies how important the Middle East sea lane is for Asia.

Let me mention Asia Pacific interests in the Middle East furthermore. Japan sent troops to Iraq for post Baathist reconstruction, despite substantial pressures from leftwing dogmatist who still dream of free rider diplomacy under the pacifist constitution. It is quite hard to understand why Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia was so naïvely glad to hear Obama’s new strategy despite the fear of “superpower suicide”. Australia is a nation of both the Pacific and the Indian Oceans. It sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq to help US and British forces as a sovereign state. This is completely different from the troop dispatch to Egypt, Palestine, and Mesopotamia, during World War Ⅰ as a loyal dominion of the British Empire. Current Australia made a decision to send its own forces to Afghanistan and Iraq because it was their vital national interest. I wonder why Prime Minister Gillard accepts the “pivot to Asia” so happily.

Defense speeding cut imposes unexpected strains on the allies, particularly as to F-35 joint strike fighter. As the Obama administration reduced the purchase order of F-35, the cost per plane has risen, and the development of this fighter has been delayed furthermore. Therefore, Asian people need to think of the reality behind the new strategy. The problem of F-35 fighter shows deadly impacts of “superpower suicide” by the Obama administration. Should Asians really welcome the “pivot to Asia” so naïvely?

Of course, I agree that the rise of China poses critical challenges to US supremacy and regional security. I do not object to everything of the new Obama strategy. I agree with Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell that security efforts in North East Asia, South East Asia, Australia, and India, need to be well coordinated, in order to manage maritime challenges by China. As Professor Murata replied to my question in the Japan-US-China Dialogue, China will be the primary contender to Pax Americana. The problem is, Asian nations are too passive in security partnership with the United States, as Alexander McLachlan, First Counselor of EU Delegation in Tokyo, commented in the Dialogue. I would like to mention some passive examples. While people in Okinawa express NIMBY wishes over the Futemma US base issue, Japanese policymakers and general public are YIMBY (Yes, in my backyard) to keep US forces nearby, without giving sufficient consideration to global War on terror and Middle East security. Similarly, Indonesians are preoccupied with its neighborhood rather than their Muslim brothers in the Middle East. At the Diplomatic Roundtable by the Japan Forum on International Relations in December 2010, I asked a question about Indonesian contribution to Middle East democracy to Rizal Skuma, Executive Director at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies of Indonesia. He replied to me that Indonesia had no influence on the Middle East, because it was a periphery of Islamic civilization. He even said that my question was quite “European”. It appears to me that such a mindset among Asia-Pacific nations is the very reason why people accept the “superpower suicide” by the Obama administration so innocently, without casting any doubt on it.

From those perspectives I mentioned here, I would like to ask a question again, whether Asia-Pacific nations accept the “pivot to Asia” by the Obama administration with banzai. Professor Murata is right to assert that China will be the most critical challenger to the American world order for a decade or more. However, Iran is the most imminent threat at present. Military tensions over the Strait of Hormuz can push oil price upward, but it will be far more costly to leave Iran’s nuclear ambition intact in the long term. When the debate on the Iran nuclear crisis was held in NHK’s TV program “News in Depth” on January 28, Professor Murata insisted on close US-Japanese ties against Tehran’s ambition. I was impressed with his keen awareness on Iran, because Japanese opinion leaders do not pay sufficient attention to this problem. However, he replied to my question that it is Japan’s interest not to let the United States start another war in the Middle East, to focus on Asia.

The problem is, Iran will be emboldened, if America is reluctant to the war. Remember that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait because he had the slightest idea US intervention. Willingness to fight is the key to deterrence. Frederick Kagan and Maseh Zarif of the American Enterprise Institute warns that Iran is making progress to develop nuclear weapons, while the global community does not take any measures to stop the project (“America's Iranian Self-Deception”; Wall Street Journal; February 27, 2012). Under such a circumstance, Israel even says it will attack Iran by surprise if necessary (“Israelis reportedly don't plan to notify US if decision made to strike Iran”; FOX News; February 27, 2012). Apparently Israel feel worried of Obama’s Chamberlainian attitude to Iran. When the Iraq War broke out, war opponents in Japan argued that the Bush administration did not necessarily represent all American public opinion, and we must be well prepared to possible policy changes if liberals took power. Then, why should we bow down and praise Obama like Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee does.

When we talk of implications of Obama’s new strategy to Asia Pacific nations, it is necessary to reconsider the real meaning of the alliance with the United States. Asia needs a superpower America, not a regional power America. The security umbrella defends Asia from regional contenders, notably China, Russia, and North Korea. Also, it manages threats outside the region and those of non traditional security challenges. Therefore, we must be more alert to the superpower suicide. The problem of the new strategy is not just withdrawal from the Middle East. It hardly mentions how to deal with North Korea, while telling rosy dreams of taking Asian growth into US economy. However, we must remember that any kind of free trade frameworks like the TPP shall never guarantee economic prosperity without solid security foundation globally. Students of US foreign policy must thoroughly reconsider the real implication of “superpower suicide”. As an Asia Pacific citizen, I shall never accept the new strategy of the Obama administration with banzai!