F-22 as a totem for China hawks

The F-22 issue continues to smolder, it seems, as Japan eyes the next-generation stealth fighter hungrily.

The US Congress, however, has just passed the 2008 defense budget, which retains the Obey Amendment’s prohibition on the export of the F-22.

Will this be the end of Tokyo’s lobbying to get the prohibition lifted in time for Japan to name the F-22 as Japan’s next air superiority fighter by the budget request scheduled for the summer of 2008?

I would be surprised if the Japanese government used this occasion to start shopping around for an alternative. The problem is not just Japan’s apparent obsession with having the very best fighter in the world, but a kind of unthinking attitude among American supporters of the US-Japan alliance, who see the alliance as explicitly designed to contain China to the exclusion of all other roles and bilateral issues. Anything that improves the alliance’s ability to resist China is unquestionably good, and should be done.

One example of this view can be found at Commentary‘s Contentions blog, where Gordon Chang, author of The Coming Collapse of China, writes, “Not only do the Japanese need to buy them, we have a compelling need to sell them.” For Chang, it’s really that simple. There’s no mention of Japan’s questionable ability to defend military secrets, no mention of the thorny issues that have long dogged US-Japan cooperation on the development and procurement of arms, no mention of doubts about whether Japan can afford the F-22, and no mention of whether the delicate, high-tech F-22 is actually the best choice for Japan’s needs. The F-22, Chang informs us, was designed “to penetrate the Soviet Union and face its fleet of Su-27 fighters.” Guess who has Su-27s? Ergo, Japan should have the plane designed to combat them. To Chang, it really is that simple.

I’m not saying that there aren’t any good arguments for selling Japan F-22s — the Congressional Research Service report mentioned in this post outlines the pros and cons of Japan’s acquiring the F-22 — but the matter must be considered soundly, with careful consideration of whether Japan might not be better off buying more of a different, less expensive fighter that will be more durable. And we should be questioning hyperbolic claims like Chang’s that “We should arm allies that will fight on our side in the event of a large-scale conflict in Asia, which is increasingly likely.”

Increasingly likely? Really? I look at Asia and I see the diminishing potential for conflict (discussed here), in spite of the ongoing arms buildup across the region. The potential obviously hasn’t vanished entirely, but there is a certain appreciation across the region — not least among US military authorities at Pacific Command in Hawaii — that the security environment requires calm, steady management by the region’s great powers with concurrent measures for political and economic cooperation.

Accordingly, the US decision on the F-22 should be made in light of these conditions, not based on some apocalyptic fantasy of a “large-scale conflict” to come.

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