Archive for the ‘Taiwan’ Category

The State of the US-Japanese Alliance

January 21, 2010

This week, three similar articles about the state of the US-Japanese alliance were published in major newspapers (two in The Economist and one in the New York Times), and in each piece  the authors argue that the relationship between the two nations is on the brink of major deterioration.  They cite the dispute over the relocation of the American airbase on Okinawa and the strengthening ties between Japan and China as key reasons for the supposed breach.  They note the fact that Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has thus far sought more independence from Washington than his predecessors; last September, his Democratic Party took power from the Liberal Democratic Party, which had ruled the country for 53 years.

These analysts exaggerate the threat of a permanent rift between the long time allies.  The US and Japan still have major strategic interests in common, and the benefits that Japan derive from the relationship mitigate against a political divorce.  America remains the primary guarantor of security and stability in East Asia because of its military, economic and diplomatic clout.  The Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security enables Japan to spend less on defense and more on social programs, and it removes the impetus for the country to develop a nuclear deterrent against other regional powers who have the Bomb, including China and North Korea (the US also assists Japan with missile defense systems).  On an economic level, a falling out between the close trading partners would encourage protectionist policies in the US which would further hurt Japan’s relatively stagnant economy.

Although America and Japan disagree on some issues and many Japanese would like to assert more independence from Washington, it is highly unlike that the government in Tokyo would allow the alliance to fall apart because doing so would not serve its interests.  Domestic politics complicate the Futenma airbase problem for Mr. Hatoyama and it is unclear how it will be resolved, but when it comes to the big picture his political fortunes, and those of his party, will be jeopardized if he repeatedly pursues policies that alienate the US and undermine his country’s security and economic position.  American policymakers certainly need to pay attention to Japan’s concerns and keep relations as amicable as possible because the US benefits greatly from the trans-Pacific partnership; but people should not fear the dissolution of one of the strongest alliances in the world anytime soon.

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US Sells More Arms to Taiwan

January 13, 2010

On Monday, the Chinese government responded to America’s decision to sell Patriot missile defense batteries to Taiwan by testing a land-based missile defense system of its own, according to Chinese officials.  The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has placed hunderds of missiles within striking distance of Taiwan, which is one reason why the island wants a missile defense system.

Most Chinese consider Taiwan to be a renegade province that should be part of the People’s Republic, whereas the US treats Taiwan like a separate country despite its so-called “One-China” policy, according to which America supports the idea of a peaceful reunification of the two territories at an indeterminate point in the future.  For decades the US has sold weapons to its longtime ally, which infuriates Chinese leaders.  Under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress passed in 1979 after America recognized the communist regime in Beijing as the legitimate Chinese government and closed its embassy in Taipei, the US is obligated to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive nature and maintain the capability to respond militarily to any use of force or coercion that threatens Taiwan’s security or independence.

Taiwan has no inherent strategic value to the US.  But the American government offers support to the de-facto nation for three main reasons:

1. It wants to deter a Chinese attack that could destablize the East Asia region, where the US has vital economic and security interests.

2. The ability to provide or withhold specific weapons systems to Taiwan is a diplomatic bargaining chip that can be used in negotiations with China.

3. Pro-Taiwanese  and anti-Chinese constituencies in the US encourage American politicians to help Taiwan improve its defensive posture.

It is unclear if the Obama administration or its successors would intervene with force in response to a Chinese attack on Taiwan.  They would not be legally obligated to do so by any treaty, and the American government maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity”  toward this potential conflict to insure political flexibiliy.  

The desire to protect Taiwan’s independence would not justify a war with China, which is one of America’s most important international partners.  A military conflagration with the People’s Republic could prove costly to US forces, especially since the PLA has been procuring area denial weapons like submarines and anti-ship cruise missiles that could target American naval vessels, including aircraft carriers (a few years ago a Chinese diesel submarine surfaced in the middle of a US carrier battle group before it was detected).  Moreover, America’s security commitments to its other allies in the region would still be credible if the US did not join the fight because of the unique nature of Taiwan’s situation; in fact, a battle between China and Taiwan would probably strenghten the US-Japanese alliance, which has been somewhat weakened lately, partly due to a dispute over the location of a Marine air base on Okinawa.

Kristof on Costa Rica

January 8, 2010

Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in which he discusses the relative “happiness” of countries around the world, focusing primarily on Costa Rica, which ranks number one according to various indeces.  The World Happiness Index ranks the US 20th, with Togo and Tanzania coming in last; another study ranks America 19th and puts Zimbabwe at the bottom of the list.

Mr. Kristof argues that the main reason that Costa Ricans are so happy is that they have low levels of military spending (the country has no armed forces) and they invest a relatively large amount in education per capita, which in turn has led to political stability.  He also credits the nation’s environmental conservation efforts as a contributor to public contentment.  Based on this assumption, he argues that the US should spend less on defense (including foreign military assistance) and more on social programs like education.  He also suggests that America should do more to protect the environment.

I respect Mr. Kristof for his efforts to highlight humanitarian disasters and violations of human rights, particularly in Darfur, but his latest article is highly flawed.  Comparing the US with Costa Rica when it comes to military expenditures is nonsensical.  Costa Rica faces no serious internal or external threats, whereas America is responsible for underwriting international security and protecting the world’s oil supply, on which the global economy is dependent.  Partly as a consequence of America’s foreign policy commitments and interventions, terrorists and insurgents are determined to attack the US and its interests overseas, and policymakers have found it necessary to provide materiel and financial assistance to governments battling anti-American militants in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.  Withholding such aid could have disastrous consequences, and reducing the size and capability of the American military would undermine the liberal international order that Mr. Kristof claims to support.

Another weak point in his argument is his assertion that “happiness” is based on social spending.  He mentions that Mexico and Colombia rank higher than the US on happiness indeces, but both nations spend less on education and medical care than America, and they are also plagued by higher levels of drug-related violence.  He himself acknowledges that a “cultural emphasis on family and friends” might be responsible for the disparity in contentment; although such things are difficult to measure and his claim that Latin Americans value family and friends more than Americans is certainly disputable.  One thing that Mr. Kristof fails to note is that Latin Americans generally work fewer hours per week than Americans do (as do Europeans, who are reportedly “happier” than people in the US), which could be an important factor when it comes to reported personal satisfaction.

I am not suggesting that education and other forms of social spending are not important, or that federal and state governments in the US should not spend more in these areas (I believe they should).  I am merely saying that Mr. Kristof’s prescriptions for increasing “happiness” in America may not have the intended results  in light of geopolitical and social conditions. 

On a separate note, Mr. Kristof’s insistense that the US reduce military spending reinforces public perceptions that liberals are weak on national defense, which inhibits the electoral success of liberal candidates and inhibits their ability to promote the political causes that Mr. Kristof supports.