When it comes to security in the Indo-Pacific region, the US has a preference for a bilateral framework.
Victor Cha (車維德) writes in his 2016 book, Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia, that bilateralism emerged as the dominant approach toward risk management during the Cold War.
Washington favored bilateral treaties with Pacific allies over a multilateral, NATO-like alliance to contain the Soviet threat. The main reason had to do with the recklessness of anti-communist rulers such as Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and former South Korean president Syngman Rhee, who might start wars for personal ambitions and internal legitimacy to mire the US in endless conflicts.
For decades, this realist thinking had presented an entrapment fear to US policymakers, making them equivocate on the nature of the defense commitment toward Taiwan.
Since the Cold War ended in Europe by the end of the 1980s, several US administrations have employed multiple diplomatic mechanisms to deter China from using military force to change what Beijing perceives as an unfair and unfavorable system of global governance.
When this strategy proved to be ineffective, Washington realized that the existing alliance system in Asia had to be supplemented by a security network of bilateral relationships.
Responding to new challenges from China and North Korea, Taiwan and neighboring countries are forging closer ties with the US and among themselves. This rationale prompts Washington to prioritize bilateral defense for peacekeeping.
In January, the US and Japan agreed to strengthen mutual defense cooperation to counterweight China’s growing influence.
Last month, US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol reaffirmed their commitment to deepening bilateral defense to confront nuclear threats posed by North Korea.
This month, Biden and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr announced plans to change the bilateral military partnership into “a comprehensive strategic defense alliance,” guaranteeing that any armed attack in the Pacific Ocean or the South China Sea on Philippine or US armed forces would “invoke mutual defense commitments.”
These diplomatic gestures are of immense significance. While recognizing the limits of old security treaties signed after World War II, these Asian leaders are hesitant to let go of previous arrangements in light of China’s military advances. They see an advantage in joining an evolving Indo-Pacific alliance that supports joint efforts to strengthen Taiwan’s defense capabilities.
By calling on the US to intervene in and resolve conflicts, these allies acknowledge the Taiwan security issue as a matter of global concern.
There is therefore policing of the Taiwan Strait, East China Sea and South China Sea, and the Philippines has taken on a US flavor, partly because of the dominance of US international institutions and partly because of Washington’s ability to deploy and station troops anywhere.
Against this backdrop, the US is expanding an array of bilateral treaties into new strategic alliances.
These comprehensive agreements — whether governing the Sea of Japan, the Korean Peninsula, the Philippine Sea or Taiwan — serve to legitimize the US intervention into Asian maritime sovereignty disputes.
This vision of shared defense is derived from the principle that regional allies could help deter China’s strikes against Taiwan. It recognizes the urgency of protecting allies’ autonomy under US-initiated political and military configurations.
The Biden administration not only upholds a pluralistic governance of the western Pacific Ocean, but it also empowers allies to maintain stability and order across borders.
Regional leaders, as much as US policymakers, are determined to activate a system of defense partnerships. Overtures to Washington to be a protector — by Taipei bolstering its defense capabilities, Tokyo fending off Pyongyang and Beijing, Seoul pursuing nuclear armament, and Manila guarding its islands and waters — express a desire to defend national sovereignty and interests.
The development has drawn European and Australasian countries to partner with Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines as a collective defense body, even in the absence of a formal alliance.
Such an ad hoc security arrangement could stop war and make peace, and lays the foundation of an informal Indo-Pacific coalition.
Regional leaders are publicly seeking US security guarantees to balance China’s unilateral actions. Their demands and initiatives could flow from domestic political interests as well as from widespread fear of the spillover effects of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
By taking Taiwan’s security seriously, these nations look to engage with an assertive neighbor and reorder a volatile Indo-Pacific region.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York.
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