Can America make closer alliances work in Asia?
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The Biden administration, Congress, and Americans as a whole, have really fallen in love with our Asian alliances again. It was not always so. A decade ago, Americans were not necessarily opposed to alliances, but they did not usually think of them as the future centerpiece of American strategy in the region. When the Chicago Council on Global Affairs asked Americans in 2012 whether the United States should emphasize China or traditional allies, those who chose China had grown by twenty points — approaching the number who chose allies. The next year the Obama administration ignored concerns from Japan and others and National Security Advisor Susan Rice said that the administration wanted to “operationalize” Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s call for a ”New Model of Great Power Relations” in which Washington and Beijing would settled the large strategic issues in Asia (without reference to the concerns of U.S. allies according to China’s formulation of the proposed new bilateral condominium). President Donald Trump campaigned against alliances and shocked his own staff by declaring he wanted to pull troops off the Korean peninsula, though his senior officials successfully talked him out of it.
But today alliances are back. The Indo Pacific Strategy put out by the Biden White House in February mentions alliances almost three dozen times in 18 pages. The Chicago Council polling now finds that more than 2/3 of Americans favor prioritizing cooperation with allies rather than China. In polling of Americans by the U.S. Study Centre in Sydney there has been a huge leap in the number of Americans who say that alliances in Asia make the United States more secure, with 2/3 of Americans now confident alliances are helpful to America and not just America helping other countries. Senior officials in the Biden administration are now championing the U.S.-Japan-Australia-India Quad even though many of them dismissed the idea when they were in the Obama administration. The longer-term prospects for alliances are really good too, since the younger respondents are to polls are, the more pro-alliance their views are. In Asia, the feeling is reciprocated, with close to or over 90% of Koreans, Japanese and Australians supportive of their alliances with the United States.
In his writings on the Peloponnesian Wars, the Greek warrior-scholar Thucydides noted a dilemma for the smaller states embroiled in the conflict. On the one hand, if they became too close to the larger city states of Athens or Sparta, they risked becoming entrapped in their great power conflict. On the other hand, if they maintained too much distance, they risked being abandoned by their powerful ally. The more dangerous the security environment, the more dangerous this dilemma became. With China’s growing hegemonic ambitions and coercive behavior and North Korea’s continuing nuclear and missile development, the security environment in Asia is clearly becoming more acute and the dilemma for smaller allies more challenging. And yet U.S. allies are now more willing to accept the risks of entrapment. Japan has revised the official interpretation of the Constitution to allow collective defense with the United States for the first time. Australia has signed on to AUKUS to build nuclear power submarines with the United States and UK and is engaged in force posture initiatives that will allow the U.S. military greater access to Australia. Korea has a well-established command and control relationship with the United States but now contemplates an alliance that might have a more explicit role in providing security and stability in the broader region. Meanwhile, there is a strong consensus in the United States that we now depend more on allies than ever — in a sense reflecting a greater American willingness to risk being entrapped in allies’ conflicts.
This trend of tighter alliance relations underpins stability in the region — but it will also require the United States to listen to allies more carefully and to update the mechanics of all our alliances.
One area where the United States needs to listen more carefully is how our allies approach China. Negative views of China in Korea, Japan and Australia are as high as they are in the United States. However, the Biden administration’s strategy of strategic competition with China leaves unanswered the question of what longer-term relations with Beijing should look like. U.S. allies in contrast are articulating tougher stances towards China but premised on more productive relations with China over time.
The second area Washington will have to listen to allies is on trade policy. The U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership created a huge vacuum in regional economic leadership that China has declared an intention to fill. The new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) only partial fills that vacuum but lacks the rule-making power of binding trade agreements that include market access and liberalization to cement economic ties.
Third, Washington will have to modernize its command-and-control relationships. The U.S.-ROK alliance is perhaps best positioned of all with the Combined Forces Command and UN Command. The Anzus treaty with Australia was never intended as a warfighting alliance comparable to NATO or U.S.-Korea and it is not entirely clear who commands in the event of a regional contingency. Japan is moving closer to Korea’s precedent of more integrated command relationships with the United States, but the U.S. has no command to work jointly with Japan comparable to USFK.
Finally, Washington will have to make it easier to transfer technology with trusted allies. The current system for foreign military sales (FMS) and technology export controls is rooted in Cold War thinking and was developed at a time when U.S. allies were not capable of jointly developing advanced systems. But as Aukus with Australia demonstrates — or the F-35 advanced fighter — the U.S. defense industry is going to have to be more smoothly integrated with close allies like NATO, Korea, Japan, and Australia.
Senior officials in Washington and members of Congress know this, but rewiring alliances to make them more equal is not easy. What will ultimately push Washington to do so is the urgency of the challenge from China and the American peoples’ strong support for our close allies in Asia.
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