Passing the buck in the Asia Pacific

by Moneeb Mir

Recently, Japan and the US announced ‘stepped-up’ security cooperation. The security cooperation that is solely aimed at China is premised on “a vision of a modernised alliance postured to prevail in a new era of strategic competition”, as per the joint statement of defence and foreign ministers of both countries. The US, as a part of its ‘buck-passing’ strategy, appears to be grooming Japan to contend with its global rival China, just as it made Ukraine to pit against its regional rival Russia. Such a development has ensued tensions in a relatively peaceful region which may have global consequences.

John Mearsheimer, an American political scientist, in his book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, gives the concept of buck-passing and buck-catcher. This revolves around the idea that an established hegemon may choose not to directly confront a rising hegemon, it rather ‘buck-passes’ (prepares) some other state to take on the latter; thus the ‘prepared’ state becomes the ‘buck-catcher’.

Even in the presence of deep security and geopolitical fissures, the Asia Pacific has not witnessed an open conflict since the Korean armistice in 1953. However, the long haul of peace appears to be dwindling in rather a fashionable manner. As earlier, in December, Japan, once known to be a pacifist since World War 2, had exhibited a change of mind by announcing a staggering $320 billion plan to enhance its military capacity and to buy missiles capable of striking China. The following measures have been complemented by a recent defence pact between a key US ally Britain and Japan, which allows both countries to deploy their forces on each other’s territories.

By welcoming such steps, in a meeting last week with the Japanese Prime Minister, US president Biden remarked that the US is “building on Japan’s historic increase in defence spending and new national security strategy”, indicating a conspicuous inclination of the US to ‘buck-pass’ Japan.

For the past several decades, Japan’s foreign policy swayed between the notions of entrapment and abandonment. Where the Japanese feared entrapment in some US conflicts as its ally while remaining on their toes fearing abandonment by ‘the superpower’ US, in case of not meeting its expectations. Despite cautiously walking on such a thin rope for a long time, in 2023, Japan seemed to be ‘entrapped’ in the US geopolitical game.

Just as it was witnessed in Eastern Europe, the perpetual provocations of NATO to rouse Russia were coupled with a continuous ‘buck-passing’ strategy to make Ukraine withhold Russian pressure, which eventually turned into a full-fledged war.

The notion of Thucydides Trap that was once hailed to be irrelevant when it came to Chinese rise is seeming to be true, however, in a little dissimilar manner. The idea connotes that when one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always likely between them. It was thought since there isn’t a genuine geographical contiguity between the US and China, there exists a complex interdependence between the US—its allies and China—and that both countries are nuclearised. This way, the ascendance of China at the world stage as a hegemon was thought to be without a conflict. However, contrary to such anticipations, the US does not seem to be willing to let go of its global hegemony without a confrontation.

Similarly, a long US ally in the region, South Korea, which seems to be emboldened by the enhanced military cooperation between the US and Japan, has announced nuclear weapons as an option for the first time since the Cold War. This sets off alarms and omens about the era of the previously dampened nuclear debate, not only in the Asia Pacific but around the globe. Industrially advanced nations like South Korea and Japan are never far off from making nuclear weapons if they intend to do so. Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute suggested in one of his articles that the US might allow South Korea to build nuclear weapons. And it cannot be ignored that once the US allows South Korea, it may eventually have to allow Japan to build nuclear weapons, too.

The long-solidified status quo in the Asia Pacific might shake by paving the way for a strategic competition of an unprecedented nature. Tectonic shifts in the distribution of international power have laid bare cracks that once seemed to be plugged in. This has ushered in an era of uncertainty that might drag on another Cold War but of an intense nature.

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