Stephen M. Walt

Balancing act in Asia: The U.S. does less; Japan does more

Question: What happens when other major powers face growing security problems, and begin to wonder whether the United States will continue to protect them?  Answer: They stop free-riding quite so much and start doing more themselves. Case in point: Japan. As the New York Times reports today, Japan has responded to fears of a rising ...

KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images
KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Question: What happens when other major powers face growing security problems, and begin to wonder whether the United States will continue to protect them? 

Answer: They stop free-riding quite so much and start doing more themselves.

Case in point: Japan. As the New York Times reports today, Japan has responded to fears of a rising China, potential dangers from North Korea, and concerns about the U.S. commitment to Asia not by "bandwagoning" with China or opting for neutrality, but by bolstering its own defenses and reaffirming its security ties with America.  Its goal, according to the Times, is to become a "full military partner" with the United States.

There are two obvious, lessons to be drawn from this example. The first is that the United States can take advantage of the tendency of great powers to balance to reduce some of its own defense burdens, confident that wealthy allies like Japan can take up some of the slack. By playing "hard to get," in other words, we can "pass the buck" to our allies to a greater extent than we have in recent decades. The United States can do this in part because it has the luxury of being safe and secure in the Western hemisphere while our allies lie closer to potential sources of danger, and smart strategists should take advantage of this favorable situation. If the United States insists on doing it all, of course, we can confidently expect other states to keep free-riding on our efforts.

The second lesson, however, is that there’s a limit to how far one can pass the buck to others.  If the United States were to withdraw entirely from Asia, or to reduce its military capabilities too much, then some other states might eventually decide to make other strategic arrangements. But given that the U.S. is spending nearly 5 percent of GDP on national security these days, while Japan spends less than 1 percent, I’d say we’ve have a long way to go before our allies think seriously about realigning.  

Remember: The main reason for a state to have allies is so that they can help make it more secure. If having a large array of allies just means the United States has more areas it is obligated to defend, then maybe we need to rethink how many of those commitments actually enhance our security, and how many of them just add burdens without compensating benefits.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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