One of the insidious dangers to a major power, even a superpower such as the United States, is the possibility that a security client could entangle its patron in an unwanted, unnecessary conflict. That is what happened in 1914 when Serbia’s zealous pursuit of a parochial nationalist agenda eventually sparked a disastrous war that consumed its protector, Czarist Russia, as well as other traditional European powers. A prudent great power must always be wary of such potential “loose-cannon” allies.
As I describe in an article over at the National Interest Online, the United States currently needs to worry about two such security clients in East Asia: Taiwan and the Philippines. The recent conduct of both countries should raise serious questions about the wisdom of maintaining the U.S. security commitment to their defense.
Taipei has taken a number of actions that further complicate the already delicate situation in the South China Sea. Even as Washington has repeatedly admonished Beijing not to enhance the islands and reefs that it occupies in that body of water, media reports indicate that Taiwan is pursuing an ambitious agenda of its own. According to United Press International, relying on reports in China Times and other Taiwanese sources, Taiwan is now building anti-aircraft defenses on Taiping (also known as Itu Aba) Island, the largest island in the disputed Spratly chain claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. That follows on the heels of the building of an upgraded military airstrip. To make matters even more ominous, the Taiwanese government apparently asked Google to blur out images of the site to conceal the military construction. At a minimum, Taipei’s conduct will make Washington’s next lecture to Beijing on maintaining the status quo in the South China Sea considerably more awkward. At worst, the move substantially increases military tensions in the region and U.S. exposure to those tensions.
But the Taiwanese government looks like the model of diplomatic caution and decorum compared to the Philippines under the rule of President Rodrigo Duterte. Among the lowlights of his presidency thus far was his labeling of President Obama a “son of a bitch,” which cost him a summit meeting with the leader of his country’s patron and protector. People in the United States tended to focus on the crudity of the comment rather than the context, but the context was important. Duterte was emphasizing that he was answerable only to the Philippine people and that Manila’s foreign policy would not necessarily follow Washington’s wishes. Duterte has since expanded on that theme, asserting that he wishes to forge alliances with both Russia and China.
At the same time, though, he expects the United States to fully honor its commitment in the bilateral defense treaty and to back Manila’s foreign policy position on contentious issues. One really must ask what America gains by incurring the risks necessary to defend such a self-serving, duplicitous “ally.”
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