The Evolving US-Asia Alliance Network

America’s presence in the Asia-Pacific is evolving beyond its traditional alliance network into a web of alliances, new partnerships and creative linkages.  How it continues to transform will depend on the outcome of the US presidential election and how the new president moves forward after a bruising and domestically introspective campaign.

The US Asian alliance network emerged out of America’s post-World War II imperative to secure a strategic order through a forward presence. The Korean War underscored that this needed to include Asia. Whereas NATO was a collective defence apparatus, America’s Asian alliances were primarily bilateral (though they included the trilateral ANZUS, with the US-New Zealand security relationship suspended in 1986). Largely bilateral alliances satisfied US strategic objectives in Asia: containing Soviet power and the regional spread of communism; preventing the US being dragged into a war; reassuring Australia and New Zealand that Japan was reigned in; and meeting US basing requirements in Asia’s maritime theatre.

This San Francisco system of alliances became a stabilising feature of the Asian strategic order, enabling a regional focus on prosperity. It was purposefully hub and spokes, not spoke to spoke, as US policymakers sought to constrain allied adventurism and maximise US leverage.

Today, the US regional presence is evolving beyond this traditional alliance network into a web of alliances, new partnerships and creative linkages. This transformation is a concerted US strategy, driven by China’s rise and assertive regional behaviour, and the increased demand for US regional engagement from Asian states seeking to balance China. Ongoing US defence budget constraints have also contributed to America’s focus on allied burden sharing and resource pooling.

This shift has five noteworthy features. First, America’s alliances with Australia, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines have been updated according to each ally’s strategic circumstances (although the US-Philippine relationship is now fraying under Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, and US-Thai relations remain problematic after the 2014 Thai coup). The US is building allied defence capability and increasing interoperability, but also expecting allies to contribute more—through defence spending and complementary capability sets—to their own and regional security.

Second, Washington is actively promoting Asian spoke-to-spoke linkages. Japan is providing maritime security assistance to the Philippines, for instance, and the Australia-Japan strategic partnership includes expanded defence technology, maritime security, and logistics cooperation. Washington is encouraging high-capability allies Australia, Japan and South Korea to pool capability and increase interoperability.

Third, the US is deepening ties with Southeast and South Asian partners. This expansion beyond America’s traditional Northeast Asian focus involves strengthened US security partnerships with states such as Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and India, and includes the US$425 million (A$558 million) maritime security initiative to the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.

Fourth, the US is encouraging linkages between its allies and partners, including trilateral linkages with and without the US. Trilateral arrangements include the US-Japan-Australia trilateral strategic dialogue, the US-Japan-South Korea information sharing and crisis management arrangement, and an India-Japan-Australia strategic dialogue.

And fifth, the US is actively supporting regional institutions such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its institutions, particularly the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+).  After decades of scepticism, US policymakers have concluded that Asian multilateral institutions can complement US alliances, facilitate resource pooling, and provide a useful certainty to US regional commitments.

Taken together, these features indicate that US alliance policy is adapting to suit a region in strategic transition. US Defence Secretary Ash Carter has characterised the result as an “Asia-Pacific security network”: a web of bilateral, trilateral and multilateral connections in which US alliances are purposefully enmeshed.

China is watching this process closely, but has also participated in some of the region’s increasing linkages, such as the US-hosted RIMPAC naval exercise. The evolving network can help reinforce regional stability by providing a deterrent function, reassuring allies, and offering a framework for addressing common challenges.  But this transformation must be managed carefully so it does not exacerbate US-China tensions. There is awareness in Washington of this need: Defence Secretary Carter has stressed that the Asia-Pacific security network is inclusive, with room for China to rise.

US Asian alliance policy and the presidential election

The US presidential election could have dramatic implications for America’s alliance policy and regional—and global—role.  There would likely be significant alliance policy continuity under a President Clinton, with sustained—and even increased – support for allies. A Clinton presidency would probably retain President Obama’s allied burden-sharing focus, mindful of defence budget constraints, growing technology costs, and the popular strain, reflected in both Trump’s and Sanders’ candidacies, questioning US global engagement (and America’s trade policy seems to have become a casualty of this Trump-Sanders pincer movement). After a bruising campaign and period of domestic political introspection, a Clinton administration would have to reassure Canberra and other allied and partner capitals that Washington is looking outward again and is committed to the region.

A Trump presidency, while now less and less likely, could overturn decades of US alliance policy, with the real risk of US retrenchment from Asia. Donald Trump’s deep-seated alliance scepticism would at a minimum amplify the trend toward allied burden sharing. It could also add the unprecedented dimension of US alliance obligations being negotiable. This would be deeply destabilising as it would undermine alliance credibility and lead many regional states to reassess their security postures, and could embolden potential aggressors.

Implications for Australia

In the event of an increasingly probable Clinton victory and likely alliance policy continuity, Australia would have a role to play in helping the Asia-Pacific security network be a stabilising regional force—including helping Washington find pathways for China into the regional order.

For Australia, ANZUS’ benefits have become even more pronounced in this era of regional military modernisation, as Australia has become increasingly reliant on US defence capability, defence costs climb, and developing US technology is set to transform the capability landscape. ANZUS has faultlines, not least the growing tension between Australia’s trade/economic relationship with China and its security relationship with the US, as more issues have both economic and strategic dimensions in a contested Asia. But without ANZUS, or if it were significantly diluted as a result of US retrenchment or other policy discontinuity, Australia would have to pay significantly more to protect Australia and its interests.

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Oct 26, 2016
Elsina Wainwright
East Asia, United States