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Asia is free-riding on Washington

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COMMENTS

24 June 2011 08:45

Outgoing US Defense Secretary Bob Gates is a man with nothing to lose. In Brussels last week, he used one of the final acts of his farewell tour to publicly lash Washington's European allies for refusing to accept a greater share of the burden on behalf of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

While bemoaning European fecklessness is a venerable tradition in Washington, it's also a bit misplaced. For one thing, Europe has never had a Guam doctrine. As Steve Walt points out, Washington's seemingly unconditional willingness to subsidise European security in recent decades has actually encouraged the sort of free-riding that US policy-makers now lament. In any case, is it really that bad?

Burden-sharing is a relative measure. Indeed, compared to most of Washington's Asian allies, the countries of Europe look positively forthcoming. Take one obvious metric, Afghanistan, where NATO's European members have lost hundreds of lives. Ten years after the invasion, Europe still has more than 30,000 troops deployed there, for a cause with no direct bearing on its security.

America's Asian allies, by contrast, with the notable exception of Australia (which is always up for a foreign entanglement), have virtually no commitment in Afghanistan — at least none comparable in scale and scope to those of their European counterparts. South Korea packed up in 2007, returning years later with a handful of engineers. Japan's modest refueling mission in the Indian Ocean was terminated in 2010.

Defence spending trends don't tell a much better story. Although major US allies in both regions spend a roughly comparable amount as a proportion of GDP — in most cases, between 1% and 2.5% — this needs to be set against the varying demands of their respective strategic environments.

Europe today is enjoying one of its most benign eras in 500 years. Competition among the region's major powers — Germany, France and Britain — is held in abeyance by a range of factors. Russia, though busy re-establishing its dominance in Eastern Europe, remains a shadow of its former self. It evinces no overweening territorial ambitions beyond the former Soviet Union (or perhaps Poland), and is in no hurry to arouse the collective balancing efforts of western Europe. Consequently, the risk of war is remote.

Asia is a different story. The region is home to a hegemonic rivalry involving China, a dissatisfied superpower already in the process of establishing new red lines. Asia's strategic environment is also replete with unresolved territorial claims, unreconstructed historical antipathies and interactive patterns of military procurement that betray all the hallmarks of an incipient arms race. From North Korea and Taiwan to the South China Sea, strategic competition is the new regional reality. What does this say about the relative commitment of US allies?

Europe continues to pay a considerable alliance premium for US strategic assurances that it needs less and less. Washington's Asian allies, on the other hand, do little more than Europe, and maybe less, for assurances they need more and more. If Gates thinks European free-riding is bad, just wait until his successors try to outsource greater commitments, and more demanding tasks, to their allies in Asia. Washington is in for a rude awakening.

Photo by Flickr user jackol.

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