From the Mediterranean to the Western Pacific, it seems many countries are increasingly distrustful of the Obama administration and by extension of U.S. as an ally.
Whether it’s abandoning Egypt’s Mubarak, being ineffective when Putin invaded Crimea and carved up Ukraine, inaction when Syria crossed a red line with chemical weapons, silence when Hamas attempted nuclear terrorism by targeting rockets at Dimona nuclear reactor, timidity when China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that overlapped with U.S. allies Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, or presenting the recent ceasefire plan that placates the enemies of Israel, countries around the world are pondering whether U.S. is still a trustworthy and dependable friend.
In East Asia, the answer seems increasingly a resounding no. In the aftermath of Russia invading Crimea and meekness of U.S. response, Tokyo threatened Washington that if it does not react should China attack Senkaku Islands, Japan would immediately abrogate the bilateral defense treaty, kick U.S. troops out of Japanese bases, and build nuclear weapons.
When confronted whether Japan acquiring nuclear weapons would mark the end of global nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) regime, a Japanese defense expert retorted, “What’s wrong with it? The NPT was already dead when DPRK [North Korea] carried out a series of nuclear tests, and when the U.S. could not take any effective countermeasures. The inertia of U.S. hegemony, maybe only its facade, continues.”
This loss of U.S. credibility is reverberating throughout East Asia and the Middle East. Given Washington’s inability to dismantle North Korea and Iran’s illicit nuclear programs or disarm Iran’s proxy Hamas, U.S. allies are changing their security calculus. Unfortunately, one unintended consequence is likely the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
On February 12, 2013, when North Korea conducted its third nuclear test – a miniaturized nuclear device small enough to be mounted on a long-range missile –South Korea moved onto center stage a once-fringe debate on acquiring nuclear weapons. Kerry and the international community should take notice.
Over the past decade, South Korean public opinion polls have consistently demonstrated a 64-66% majority support for an indigenous nuclear weapons effort due to increasing distrust of U.S. security guarantee. Korean articles express contempt for the Six-Party Talk, that Seoul “…can no longer entrust our lives and territorial security to the incompetence of world powers that have failed to settle the North Korea nuclear issue for over two decades.”
Ironically, it was at a nuclear non-proliferation conference in 2013 at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that prominent South Korean parliament member Chung Mong Joon slammed the Six-Party Talk and argued for Seoul to acquire nuclear weapons.
“The story of how the global community failed to prevent an isolated, failing state from acquiring the ultimate weapon will go down in the annals of diplomatic history as one of the most spectacular and consequential failures,” Chung—a 2002 presidential candidate—solemnly warned. He concluded that ultimately, South Korea cannot depend on the U.S. to back it up, and that “the lesson of the Cold War is that against nuclear weapons, only nuclear weapons can hold the peace.”
This option is real – South Korea possessed a clandestine nuclear weapons program in the 1970s until the CIA rolled it back.
Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal is also changing Tokyo’s security calculus. During a February 2013 US-Japan Strategic Dialogue in Hawaii, a Japanese representative warned U.S. officials that continued “Failure to check North Korea’s capabilities could shift Japanese public opinion [toward] the desirability of developing indigenous power-projection capabilities, and perhaps even nuclear weapons.”
Just as Seoul threatens to withdraw from the NPT regime and Tokyo distrusts a U.S. nuclear umbrella that it fears has a “hole over Japan,” a former Taiwanese deputy defense minister similarly doubts that “…given the defense budget cuts and other domestic problems, Washington these days would come to Taiwan’s rescue if attacked.” Taiwan also possessed the clandestine “Hsin Chu” nuclear weapons program in the 1970s until CIA rolled it back.
Thus in light of wavering U.S. leadership, East Asian allies and Israel are hedging themselves by seeking alternative security options to Washington and new geopolitical realignment. In May, after decades of cool bilateral relations, Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to strengthen their defense and intelligence cooperation. Bibi’s visit in Tokyo highlighted Japan and Israel’s growing common bond: both are threatened by neighbor’s nuclear ambitions, and they both have deep but sometimes-uneasy alliances with Washington.
What was not reported was that Bibi visited Japan just before Shinzo Abe announced a review of the constitutional reinterpretation of Japan’s right to collective self-defense on May 15. With declining confidence in a U.S. security guarantor, Japan is taking remedial measures to eventually have the ability to defend itself.
Kunihiko Miyake, former adviser to Prime Minister Abe and now research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo, issued what may be a prescient warning to America that failure to defend Japan would mean “it is time from the Americans to pull out” of their bases and that “Without those bases, America is not going to be a Pacific power anymore. America knows that.”
Indeed. What Secretary Kerry does not seem to understand is, without trust and credibility among allies, U.S. loses influence and power projection in their region. While the Pentagon spends much treasure and effort analyzing China’s military anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy against U.S. power projection in the Western Pacific, the biggest A2/AD threat U.S. faces in both East Asia and the Middle East, is loss of trust from its allies.