The US’ network of alliances is critical to maintaining its role as the Asia-Pacific’s indispensable, predominant power. Seemingly, all sides of the debate over the US’ Asia policy converge on this key point, and, to its credit, the administration has logged its fair share of frequent flyer miles and speech text underscoring it. But what is the network’s purpose?
Standing vigil with the South Koreans on the demilitarized zone requires a military commitment both on the Korean Peninsula and in Japan. The US military flies through Utapao Air Base, Thailand, on its way to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Australians are among its most highly regarded partners on the ground in Afghanistan. They are helping their Filipino allies put down a dangerous insurgency in their south.
The network of US alliances in East Asia is delivering, but these missions are transitory. US President Barack Obama is clearly intent on ending the US military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Filipinos will one day achieve peace in Mindanao, or at least isolate the violence to the point where the US presence becomes unnecessary. One day, even the conflict on the Korean Peninsula will be settled. Besides, some of the most effective cooperation with any of these countries — on humanitarian relief for instance — does not necessarily require a military alliance.
Fortunately, US alliances in Asia do have a real geostrategic objective — managing the rise of China. All of the other things they do with their allies, while important in their own right, are ultimately secondary.
THE CHINA CHALLENGE
The policy crowd in Washington has largely coalesced around some version of a China-hedging strategy — trying to bring China into the existing international order as a “responsible stakeholder” while preparing for an alternative, more adversarial outcome.
In government circles, however, this clarity is obscured by the real-life complexities of the US-China relationship: economic dialogue and diplomacy around hot-button political/security issues like the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.
The Obama administration, like the administration of former US president George W. Bush, has reconciled these complexities through indirection. The North Korean threat is a problem on its own, but it also stands in for the China threat. Administrations talk about the security of sea lanes, but the real problem is not pirates in the Straits of Malacca, but Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. Weapons sales to Taiwan are about an imbalance in arms strongly in favor of China. The trilateral dialogue between the US, Japan and Australia was about China. The US-India relationship is in large part about China. Engagement with ASEAN is about China.
By denying the hedges, the US keeps open the full range of options in working with the Chinese. Regrettably, this also obscure, the real rationale for the US’ alliance network and creates uncertainty over its long-term staying power.
NEW POWER PERCEPTIONS
The US’ allies are patient with indirection. Indeed, they are accomplices in the charade, but their comfort level depends on their faith in the underlying realities, and the past 18 months have shaken that faith. They need reassurance about the fundamentals of US strength and leadership in Asia.