Thu, Mar 05, 2009 - Page 8 News List

US strength crucial to Asia peace

By James Holmes

A conventional arms race could ensue as China, Japan and even South Korea looked to their own defenses, hedging against one another’s military endeavors.

Worse, the unthinkable — a nuclear-armed Japan — could become thinkable under such nightmare circumstances. There’s no denying the potency of Japanese antinuclear sentiment. But even Japan’s “peace constitution,” which codifies these attitudes, is not a suicide pact. Should the US nuclear umbrella become unreliable — or be viewed as such — Tokyo would see the nation’s survival as at risk. This could warrant measures like developing a submarine-based deterrent.

There’s precedent for a conventional US drawdown spurring efforts at nuclear proliferation. South Korea interpreted the pullout of a US combat division from the Korean Peninsula in 1971 as a precursor to a withdrawal of the US nuclear guarantee — and launched a crash nuclear-weapons program in response. Similarly, China’s nuclear breakout in the 1960s, followed by US force reductions on Taiwan in the 1970s, prompted Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) to initiate clandestine research into a Taiwanese bomb.

Washington prevailed on Taipei and Seoul to forego the nuclear option, in part by convincing them it remained committed to their defense and possessed the wherewithal to fulfill its commitment. Now as then, as Lippmann might counsel, the repercussions could be dire if Asian leaders lose confidence in the US armed forces’ staying power in the region.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College. The views expressed here are his alone.

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