What happened in Europe is now happening in Asia. Countries in the region have expressed considerable anxiety about China's growing power -- and have stirred diplomatic waters in response. In September, in the wake of Chinese provocations in the South China Sea, the leaders of the Philippines and Japan issued a joint statement marking a new "Strategic Partnership" and expressing "common strategic interests" such as "ensuring the safety of sea lines of communication." More recently, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda declared that Japan's security environment had grown "increasingly murky due to China's stepped-up activities in local waters and its rapid military expansion."
These diplomatic developments are welcome, but the problem is that the most critical U.S. allies in the region are not paying their share of the bill. Japan spends a paltry 1 percent of its GDP on defense, and South Korea spends less than 3 percent, despite its much closer proximity to both China and North Korea. Taiwan, which faces one of the worst threat environments on Earth, also spends less than 3 percent of its GDP on defense. Absent the assumption of U.S. protection, these countries would be doing much more for themselves.
Instead, the United States, with the benefit of geographic isolation and a massive nuclear arsenal, spends nearly 5 percent of its national income on its military. Unless one believes that robust economic growth, sizable cuts in Medicare and Social Security, or large tax increases are right around the corner, the country's fiscal dilemma -- and with it, pressure to cut military spending -- will only continue to grow.
Washington policymakers in both parties seem to think that reassuring America's Asian allies is the best way to defend U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific. But instead of seeking to assuage their partners' anxiety, America ought to sow doubt about its commitment to their security. Only then will they be forced to take up their share of the burden of hedging against Chinese expansionism. Otherwise, U.S. defense secretaries may soon be complaining that their Asian partners, like the Europeans before them, won't get off the dole.