- - Tuesday, May 28, 2013

As the Obama administration descends into a long summer of scandal investigations, its domestic weakness could serve to exacerbate long-standing Asian political fault lines that heretofore were calmed by the assurance of American strength.

Such assurance of overwhelming U.S. naval and nuclear power has meant that Japan need not build offensive military power and that South Korea could forgo its own nuclear force to deter a North Korea that was building nuclear weapons. American military dominance on the Taiwan Strait made workable the morally and strategically deficient “One-China Policy” — in which commerce is allowed, but sovereign recognition is denied to the democracy on Taiwan — while most states other than the United States maintain timorous neutrality regarding China’s long-standing threat to destroy Taiwan. Furthermore, most Asian states could forgo individual means sufficient to deter China from enforcing its expansive claims to territory in the East and South China seas as long as the U.S. was there in strength.

Overwhelming American power also compensated for the lack of Asian collective-security mechanisms, akin to NATO. This is now a growing problem for Washington, however, as China’s pursuit of regional military dominance increasingly requires better regional military coordination among U.S. allies and friends that could allow for greater efficiencies and even encourage mechanisms for America’s friends to build confidence and better resolve their own differences.

One case where this requirement has come to fore was in a May 9 incident in which a Philippine coast guard ship fired on a Taiwanese fishing ship in a disputed area, an overlapping Economic Exclusion Zone, killing one Taiwanese fisherman. This sparked a real crisis in relations between two democracies that otherwise should long have had in place cooperative mechanisms to prevent such tragedies. Taiwanese outrage is compounded by real security fears of China, plus its long-standing diplomatic isolation illustrated by Manila’s refusal to pursue a “joint” incident investigation, justified in part as a violation of its One-China Policy. Instead of encouraging a humane resolution, China seeks to manipulate and divide. Chinese state media cheer on Taiwanese outrage, while Chinese navy ships are now intimidating Philippine islands in the South China Sea that Manila cannot defend, as Beijing balks at long-standing proposals for a South China Sea “Code of Conduct.” Because Washington and Taipei conceal from their publics the extent of military cooperation under the aegis of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (a U.S. deference to its One-China Policy), this current crisis with Manila ironically has caused some rise in Taiwanese perceptions that China is their protector.

China can be expected to further exploit Asian fears and divisions to burnish an image of American weakness. China can now manage multiple small military engagements in the East China Sea targeting Japan’s Senkaku Islands, plus Philippine and Vietnamese islands in the South China Sea. Even a small-scale action could undermine the credibility of American alliance commitments to Japan and the Philippines, especially if Washington limited its response to avoid a larger Chinese action. However, recent suggestions by Chinese academics and military officers that Beijing should re-examine Japan’s sovereignty over Okinawa — the location of strategic Japanese facilities for U.S. military forces — point to even greater future Asian instability as China builds nuclear and power-projection capabilities that could rival or exceed U.S. power in East Asia by the 2020s.

Despite the administration’s necessary strategic “rebalance” toward Asia in 2011 and 2012, insufficient military investments and diplomatic creativity could still allow the development of twin strategic nightmares for Washington: a China that is not deterred from militarily intimidating U.S. allies and friends, who in turn would be forced into seeking new deterrent capabilities, possibly nuclear weapons, which then would exacerbate historic inter-Asian tensions — largely held in check by America’s military commitments since 1945.

In addition to ongoing investments in new radar and missile-defense systems in East Asia, the United States should consider a more robust regional radar and satellite sensor network that could provide all members with a broader continuous picture of Chinese military activities, as well as allowing for better monitoring to prevent maritime incidents. This can help to deter China and encourage neighboring states to establish enforceable codes or agreements to prevent tragic incidents. This sensor network should also be tied to new long-range offensive-missile capabilities that the United States can help to enable, which would allow American and allied forces to respond immediately and accurately to Chinese maritime aggression. Secure tactical nuclear weapons should be put back on U.S. submarines to better deter North Korea and to respond to China’s blatant assistance for Pyongyang’s new nuclear missiles.

It is also time for the United States to promote Taiwan’s participation in the region’s security architecture — perhaps starting with regional coast guard networks, including visits by U.S. Coast Guard ships that today only visit China — which could allow Taiwan to build confidence and cooperation with Japan and the Philippines. Beijing will be outraged at this humanitarian initiative, but it should be ignored, just as Washington now ignores China’s spite over U.S. vocal promotion of a regional Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. Domestic political preoccupation in Washington need not prevent smart maneuvering that allows the United States to deter Chinese aggression.

Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Va.