As the Taliban seek to consolidate their power, what does this say about the U.S. security commitments to Japan, Taiwan and South Korea?
Chinese analysts and government mouthpieces like the Global Times are selling the narrative that the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban is evidence of America’s decline.
Many argue that the United States’ inability to “defeat” the Taliban despite overwhelming military superiority demonstrates that the U.S. is a zhilaohu (a paper tiger), a euphemism used by communist leaders of the past to describe a foe that appears threatening but is actually ineffectual and unable to withstand a challenge.
Others have made the link between the withdrawal from Afghanistan to U.S. security commitments toward Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
But the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan should not be construed with American commitments to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan was pressed upon it with Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida brethren directing attacks against the American homeland on 9/11 from within its borders and supporting a global jihad against the West.
Its primary task was to obliterate al-Qaida and the capability of associated terrorist groups from exporting terrorism abroad. Building a stable and sustainable government came hand-in-hand with that objective. It required credible and committed partners. The rapid dissolution of the U.S. trained Afghan security forces and the quick escape of Ashraf Ghani, the country’s president, in the wake of the Taliban offensive demonstrated the U.S. had neither.
The cruel reality is that interests trump values when it comes to foreign policy, and that Afghanistan on 9/11 or today does not have a central role in U.S. foreign policy. That’s even more true as Washington steps up its efforts to effectively compete and constrain China’s rise through its Indo-Pacific strategy.
This contrasts starkly with the decadeslong alliances with Japan and South Korea and the security relationship with Taipei as embodied in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).
These partnerships go far beyond a U.S. commitment to defend partners. They are comprehensive partnerships in which their alliance or partnership includes economic, educational, scientific, technological and a host of other forms of cooperation.
These collaborations glue the U.S. into the Indo-Pacific region and Japan, South Korea and Taiwan into the U.S. national interests.
Cooperation deepens and broadens bilateral relations at the political, business, diplomatic and citizen level making their relationship multidimensional and importantly much more enduring than that of Afghanistan.
We saw the strength of these comprehensive ties on display during the mercurial Trump administration. Flocks of politicians, defense officials, business leaders and supporters of Japan-U.S. relations enhanced their dialogue with counterparts at all levels to deepen bilateral relations as they were being tested by chaos in the White House.
We have also seen Japan and South Korea strengthen their ties with the U.S. through trade agreements such as the minitrade deal between Tokyo and Washington and the KORUS agreement between Seoul and Washington. Both quickly pushed to finalize cost-sharing agreements for hosting U.S. troops with the Biden administration as well.
The recent efforts to collectively diversify supply chains, relocate some sensitive semiconductor production and to enhance security and other cooperation speaks to deepening not weakening U.S. ties to critical partners contradicting American declinists.
Taiwan has not been passive in its relations with the U.S. either. It continues to buy arms to defend itself from the mainland and has made efforts to strengthen ties with Washington and other partners using creative diplomacy.
The U.S. has a deep-seated interest in strengthening these relations as well. Trilateral security cooperation between Tokyo, Seoul and Washington is critical to managing Pyongyang’s brinkmanship and WMD proliferation. Without robust trilateral and bilateral ties with both Tokyo and Seoul, Pyongyang’s ICBM capabilities would be more developed and more dangerous for the U.S. and its most critical partner in the region, Japan.
The bilateral relationship with Tokyo is critical to regional diplomatic engagement and helping securing sea lines of communication (SLOC) in the East China Sea (ESC), South China Sea (SCS) and areas around Taiwan. The partnership also plays a central role in buttressing a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region through bilateral cooperation and developing institutions such as the Quadrilateral security Dialogue, or “Quad.”
Critically, Japan’s proximity to China and its nuanced experience in dealing with China and India makes Tokyo the most consequential of allies in the region, and a partnership that must be invested on both sides.
Taiwan’s geographic location connecting critical SLOCs in the ECS and SCS and its position in the technology supply chain that provides critical semiconductors that are found in everything from jet fighters to iPhones means that Taiwan is of material importance to the U.S. and its allies as well.
To maintain a free and open rules-based Indo-Pacific region that has and will continue to benefit the U.S. and its allies, the U.S. has an enduring and vested interest in maintaining and strengthening its security partnerships with Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei. Abandoning any of these critical partners to an assertive China would make the U.S. less secure and less prosperous.
Afghanistan had none of these strengths, drawing parallels to U.S. security commitments to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan not born out of facts.
Notwithstanding, allies of the U.S. need to be clear that the China challenge is systemic. China is determined to shape an ideological environment conducive to its rise and counter Western values.
To ensure that doesn’t happen at their expense, all U.S. allies and partners will need to do more and share more of the burden buttressing the regional security architecture. It will also include inclusive developmental assistance, infrastructure and connectivity aid, the promotion of good governance and investing in health infrastructure, education and rule-of-law in both the maritime and continental domains.
Dr. Stephen Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.
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