Yesterday, AEI scholars Dan Blumenthal and Michael Mazza authored an interesting op-ed in the Wall Street Journal with a perplexing title: “Asia Needs a Larger U.S. Defense Budget.” There are a couple of more sensible arguments you could make: For instance, that Asian countries need larger defense budgets, or that U.S. interests in Asia require larger military expenditures that Asian countries can’t or won’t make themselves . Blumenthal and Mazza gesture at both of those arguments but don’t really make either one. As such, the piece is an emblem of what’s wrong with the Asia policy discussion–to the extent it exists–in Washington today.
In the opening paragraph, the authors state that “it is…difficult to assess how much cuts [to military spending] will cost tomorrow,” but in the next sentence defy that claim by promising that “in Asia, the price will be unacceptably high.” Either it is difficult to assess how much cuts will cost tomorrow, or we know that the price of cuts in Asia will be unacceptably high, but not both. The authors also are apparently unaware of the facts when they argue that U.S. military spending has been “slashed.” It hasn’t even been cut. (For its part, the Asia studies department at AEI was last seen disseminating wildly inflated estimates of Chinese military spending and then refusing to answer queries about how they came up with the figures.)
Blumenthal and Mazza then swerve widely to avoid explaining China’s military buildup, writing that
The international trade that has fueled the region’s economic boom is dependent upon the immeasurable strategic tasks undertaken by the U.S. military–from keeping safe maritime shipping to reassuring friends and allies while deterring China and North Korea.
The reason that China is building up its military forces and narrowly targeting them at securing their sea lines of communication (and perhaps a bit further out) is that they quite rationally do not want to rely on the eternal beneficence of the United States to do it for them, particularly when prominent Asia scholars mention in the same breath deterring and containing China as a primary goal of the U.S. in Asia.
There are other contradictions. For instance, Blumenthal and Mazza assert flatly that
If America skimps on its military, China will become the regional hegemon.
That’s one possibility, but aren’t there others? One paragraph later, the authors allow that sure there are: the alternative is that
Asian countries might find ways to resist Chinese pressure themselves.
So then maybe it’s not foreordained that China will run amok in East Asia absent Washington as its balancer-of-first-resort. But that brings us back around to the weirdness of the title of the piece: saying that Asia needs a larger U.S. defense budget is like saying that Greece needs more German stabilization money. (While we’re here, AEI calling for more military spending is like rock legend Bruce Dickinson calling for more cowbell.)
These kinds of arguments ought to at least try to show why the best way to achieve German (or American) interests is to dole out more largesse to third parties. That may or may not be true, but it would be good to at least see an argument to that effect, rather than all the hand waving and then backing down from the strongest claims in the article.