After a long and arduous fight Chuck Hagel has finally been confirmed as the Secretary of Defense. While much of the battle has been over Chuck Hagel's views toward Israel, and controversial remarks about Jews, ultimately his decisions regarding security in Asia may turn out to be far more important. With Chinese power rising, and North Korea growing more belligerent, Chuck Hagel will have his work cut out for him in the world's most populated region.
So far little is known about Chuck Hagel's views on Asia. His 2008 book “America: Our Next Chapter” only one chapter is dedicated to Asia, and in particular China. Most of his analysis in turn focused on economic relations with the burgeoning Asian nation, rather than the security issues he will face as Secretary of Defense. Most of Hagel's security work instead focused on the Middle East but as relations continue to grow more complicated in Asia the US is preparing for an “Asian Pivot” that will focus U.S. Military efforts towards the region.
The rise of China represents the most important single security development in Asia over the last decade and much of Hagel's work will be figuring out how to curb Chinese power and reassure U.S. Allies at a time of budget cuts and declining prosperity at home. At the very least Chuck Hagel understands that relations with China will center around both traditional security issues, such as a nuclear armed North Korea, and economic issues, including ownership of islands in the South China Sea.
Historically, China has considered itself as holding a sort of privileged position in Asia and for thousands of years the nation was the region's superpower. As a result of this history China claims numerous other territories, including Taiwan, the Senkaku Island which are currently held by Japan, and the hotly disputed islands of the South China Sea.
Traditionally, Taiwan has been the largest area of contention for the American government. Before relations between the US and China began to warm up during the Richard Nixon administration Taiwan's government actually held China's seat on the UN Council and was recognized by the US and many of its allies as the official government of China.
Since the end of World War II the American government has provided over 25 billion dollars in military aid to Taiwan. The United States is an important supplier of weapons and technical know-how for the Taiwanese military and has also shielded the island with its carrier groups and navy. As China grows more assertive and looks to challenge US power in Asia, Taiwan could be pushed into the spot light.
Chuck Hagel, on the other hand, has already been rumored to have pushed for the axing of US military sales of F-16 fighters to Taiwan. Hagel has also urged caution among US policy makers when discussing China and its relations with Taiwan. Far from being a war hawk, most people view Chuck Hagel as cautious and willing to commit to battle only if necessary. Hagel's views seem to reflect recently confirmed Secretary of State John Kerry who said that while the United States may come to Taiwan's aid in the case of an attack, such a decision should not be made before the situation arises.
While the United States may not be fully committed to Taiwan the same doesn't appear to be true of Japan, a close ally of the United States and the country perhaps most likely to challenge China head on the region. In recent years the US has asked Japan to begin bolstering its forces, in part to buffer against the Chinese and also the need to slowly reduce the scale of American presence in the region without reducing effectiveness.
Sino-Japanese relations have been strained for hundreds of years and there is still a lot of anger among the Chinese over World War II and the failure of the Japanese to fully apologize for atrocities committed during the war. The Japanese and Chinese governments have been involved in numerous arguments through the media in recent years, occasionally breaking out in protesting and rioting among domestic populations.
The tensions now center around the Senkaku Islands located roughly between Japan and Taiwan. Historically, the islands were a part of China which claims to have discovered them in the 14th century. Japan annexed the islands in 1895 and at the time the Chinese were far too weak and suffering from too many problems on the mainland to contest the annexation. The United States gained control of the islands after World War II but returned control to the Japanese in 1972. The islands are uninhabited but are strategically located in the South China seas. Further, there may be oil reserves in the nearby oceans.
So far the United States has largely been mute on the Senkaku issue, instead leaving it to the Chinese and Japanese to hash it out. Unfortunately, both sides have merely continued to antagonize each other over the issue and it remains unclear what actions, if any, the United States will take should a skirmish or conflict between the two nations erupt.
The Senkaku islands are not the only islands China has found itself in disputes over. The South China Sea and the 250 or so islands spread throughout it have become a major point of contention between China and numerous other countries, including the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. At the heart of the tensions are various historical and modern claims being made by numerous countries and potential access to potential oil and natural gas reserves, fishing waters, and other potentially valuable resources.
So far the United States has remained largely neutral in the South China Seas dispute while urging caution and dialogue for all parties involved. Under Chuck Hagel this is likely course of action is likely to continue. Chuck Hagel's views on the South China Seas remain unknown, however the new Secretary of Defense has emphasized cooperation with China in general.
Clearly, Chuck Hagel will face numerous challenges over the course of the next four years. With the wars in Afghanistan and Middle East winding down, the need to make the “Asia Pivot” and to gradually buffer China's rising power will take center stage. So far Chuck Hagel has proven to be cautious and emphasizing dialogue over confrontation. Most likely the United States and China will increase their cooperation under Chuck Hagel's leadership but he may prove to be overly cautious in curbing China's power and dominance of the region. What effects this could have on the United States and Asia's future remain unknown for now but the coming years should be interesting, if nothing else.