July 16, 2017 11:44 am JST
Comment

US-Europe rift highlights Asia's security concerns

Worries about America's reliability prompting rethink of defense measures

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei commentator

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, center, talks with U.S. President Donald Trump, right, and French President Emmanuel Macron in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7 © Reuters

TOKYO -- It will soon be half a year since the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, who as a candidate repeatedly made light of his country's alliances with other nations, spreading anxiety around the world.

With the acceleration of North Korea's nuclear and missile development, Trump has switched to a policy of emphasizing the U.S.-South Korea alliance and has refrained from criticizing the alliance. However, how long will that stance continue?

In relation to this question, a notable change is now taking place in Europe. With the growing concern that they could not protect their peace simply by relying on the U.S., European nations have found it necessary to seek security on their own. This move is not unrelated to Asia, but rather it should be taken as a "leading indicator" for Asia.

While visiting Europe last month, I keenly felt a tense atmosphere resulting from concerns about the uncertain security prospects in the region. Sweden, which faces the Baltic Sea and is exposed to Russia's military provocation, was particularly impressive.

Sweden has decided to restore conscription next January. The country maintained a conscription system for more than 100 years, starting in 1901, to help maintain its neutrality, but abolished it in 2010.

A European diplomat explained the reason for Sweden's move: If the country should be invaded by Russia, it is not certain how much they can count on U.S. military involvement.

Sweden's sense of crisis is particularly strong because it is not a member of NATO, a U.S.-Europe military alliance. However, European member countries of NATO, which are protected under the American "security umbrella," have also increased their anxiety and are seriously discussing security measures to maintain stability in Europe.

In Germany, for example, arguments for owning nuclear deterrent capability, regarded as taboo since the end of World War II, have been put forward in Berlin, arousing criticism.

An editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a German newspaper, recently wrote a column in favor of possessing nuclear deterrent capability, and a security expert also published a similar opinion. While only a few people support such opinions, in the recent past it would have been unthinkable for possessing nuclear deterrent capability to be openly discussed, a German government adviser noted.

The direct cause of the rift between the U.S. and Europe is, of course, the comments and behavior of President Trump, who makes light of the alliance.

What epitomized this was seen on May 25, at the first NATO summit in which Trump was present. The European side limited the time for each participant's speech to several minutes so that he might not be displeased, in an effort to maintain solidarity between the U.S. and Europe.

However, Trump did not commit himself in his speech to fulfilling his country's obligation to defend Europe. According to a European diplomatic source with inside knowledge of the summit, Trump behaved even more rudely at a dinner party, giving the impression that the U.S. was unreliable.

Early last month, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, said at a conference that "the protection of Europe can no longer be outsourced." A European Union official said the EU would deepen security cooperation among its members in the future to become less dependent on the U.S. for its defense.

Implications for Asia 

What should Asia see in the weakening of the U.S.-Europe alliance? There are two opposing views to consider.

One is that similar problems would not occur in the U.S.-Japan and the U.S.-South Korea alliances because Europe and Asia are in very different geo-strategic situations. Speaking with Japanese politicians and bureaucrats, I felt they were more inclined to hold this optimistic view.

In fact, Trump has stopped his criticism of the alliances with Japan and South Korea. In Asia, North Korea is running wild and China is expanding its influence. He has to be considerate of the Asian allies to deal advantageously with China, whose gross domestic product is more than five times that of Russia.

However, we can consider a very different view. This holds that the phenomenon in the U.S.-Europe alliance is a "leading indicator" for Asia and will spread to the U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea in varying degrees.

I think this view is more reasonable. Discord between the U.S. and Europe is nothing new but arose in earnest when the George W. Bush administration started the Iraq War in 2003.

It was the subsequent Barack Obama administration that complained that Europe was enjoying free defense by the U.S. and urged Europe to bear its share of the burden. Obama got all NATO members to promise to raise defense spending to 2% of GDP by 2024.

A former senior European government official who was long engaged in diplomacy noted that the discord with the U.S. began in the Bush era, but Bush and Obama could at least be trusted. The question about Trump is his reliability.

That is, Trump did not cause the rift between the U.S. and Europe but he has exacerbated it. The principal cause is that the U.S. is tired of playing the role of policeman for the world, partly as a result of more than 10 years of war in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

If so, the problem also applies to Asia. Though Trump is restraining himself at present, he may direct his free-defense criticism to Japan and South Korea sooner or later.

Actually, Trump is believed to have quietly urged South Korea to bear more of the stationing costs of the U.S. forces in that country at a bilateral summit on June 30.

However, South Korea's defense spending amounts to 2.6% of GDP, the highest among major U.S. allies. Japan's percentage stands lowest, at 0.9%.

The South China Sea issue? Japan will do something about it, Trump was reportedly saying to people around him before taking office. There is no assurance that he has changed this view.

Germany and France have friendly nations around them and they can help one another even if a hollow grows in their alliance with the U.S.

There are few such options for Japan, which lives in a dangerous neighborhood including North Korea, China and Russia, countries with nuclear weapons, and remains on bad terms with South Korea. The distress for Europe is thus seen as more serious for Japan.

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