By James Shinn

China and its allies will be the agents of their own containment, driving their neighbors into the arms of an enhanced U.S. alliance system with each major expansion of military capability and each threat to use military force. Chinese expansion in both the East and South China Seas, Beijing’s border disputes with India, combined with North Korean belligerence and Pakistani duplicity, are the strongest long-term motivators for the rebuilding of the American Asian alliance network—if we and our Asian allies have the will, the means, and the patience to do so.

China and its Asian allies pose a major threat across the entire constellation of conventional, nuclear, cyber, and asymmetric warfare, as catalogued in chapters 5.2, 5.3, and elsewhere in this volume. The conventional military thrust of the Peoples Liberation Army’s is steady and transparent: a shift from “near seas defense” to a blue-water navy and power projection across China’s sea lines of communication, particularly to the Persian Gulf. Chinese military growth has expressed itself in the move from exercises in the Pacific of single ships and planes to multi-fleet, coordinated, unscripted training exercises involving multiple surface ships, submarines, fixed-wing aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). China continues to expand its nuclear and missile forces in size and perhaps, in use doctrine as well, while dramatically increasing the skill and sophistication of its cyber warfare capabilities.

Both Pakistan and North Korea continue to expand the size of their nuclear arsenals and associated missile delivery systems. (The North Korean threat is described in chapter 4.5). Pakistan continues to support terrorism as a tool of statecraft in both India and Afghanistan. This is the combination of threats posed by China and ist allies for which the American alliance in Asia must be rebuilt in order to deter and counter.

Before turning to some key guidelines for rebuilding that alliance, tattered as it is by the Obama Administration’s disastrous handling of Iraq and Afghanistan, its appeasement of Iran, and the loss of U.S. credibility in the Middle East, three geopolitical factors unique to Asia need airing. One of these is positive for the U.S. Asian alliance system, one is negative, and one could go either way in the future.

The favorable factor resides in the fact that the U.S. alliance system in Asia is designed to contain a single large and rising continental power, the Peoples Republic of China, and its two relatively weak but still troublesome adjacent allies, North Korea and Pakistan. In contrast, America's allies are more numerous and span a long, discontinuous arc from Northeast Asia, Japan, and South Korea, moving through several ASEAN states and thence westward to India and south to Australia; all but Afghanistan have maritime access.

The flip side of this arc is the tyranny of geography—the very long lines of communication and supply between the United States and its Asian allies, in contrast to the interior lines of communications and supply in maritime and continental areas in close proximity to the PRC itself. This favorable geographical position (for China) has enabled the PLA's development of doctrines such as Anti-Access/Area Denial, intended to keep the United States and its allies from sending naval forces into China’s near seas, including those around Taiwan, thereby raising the stakes of doing so. The closer operations are to the Chinese littoral, the more dangerous and expensive Chinese efforts are trying to make them.  

China and its allies will be the agents of their own containment, driving their neighbors into the arms of an enhanced U.S. alliance system with each major expansion of military capability and each threat to use military force.

The third, more ambivalent factor is that the United States and its alliance partners are essentially seeking to maintain the regional status quo. But Chinese military expansion into the "second island chain" of the eastern Pacific and the South China Sea, and along the Himalayan border, threatens that regional status quo.

Asia’s economic integration, combined with the sheer size of China's economy, means that every member of the U.S. alliance system in Asia must make its security choices under the shadow of Chinese trade and financial and cultural influence, as described in chapter 7.3. For the United States and even more so for its Asian neighbors, the security threat from China is intertwined with the economic benefits of trading and investing with China. This complicates alliance-building and alliance-management processes in subtle ways.

But interdependency cuts both ways. The legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) monopoly on political power rests on nationalism and, even more so, prosperity, yet this very prosperity has been achieved and is maintained through China’s integration in the global economy. (This is less of a factor for Pakistan and virtually not a factor at all for North Korea, the self-isolated “hermit kingdom.”) The destructive consequences to China’s economy, and thus to the power base of the CCP, of major violence in Asia may be as great a deterrent to Chinese foreign policy adventurism as the U.S. Asian alliance system. On the other hand, Beijing has revealed its skill at using trade and financial leverage to pursue foreign policy goals in Asia.

The first guideline for rebuilding the U.S. Asian alliance system is a “whole of government” approach: the United States and its allies can exploit the power of compatible political, diplomatic, and military structures. This approach is being implemented most deeply with Japan and Australia, and to a lesser degree with the Republic of Korea, but can serve as a template for other potential Asian allies such as the ASEAN states and India.

In contrast, China, North Korea, and Pakistan are arm’s-length allies, cooperating out of perceived self-interest, not shared values. The relationship between the PRC patron and its two “failed state” clients is unbalanced, with very limited integration on the military and intelligence side and virtually none on the political side.

The U.S.-Japan relationship is explicitly a whole-of-government alliance that includes increased coordination in intelligence, early warning, and operational decision-making, as well as with largely compatible weapons systems. As such it is a model for the rest of the U.S. alliance system in Asia. Since it was sealed in 1952, the U.S.-Japan security treaty has lasted longer than any other alliance between two great powers since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia

For example, there is much to be gained in terms of intelligence collection and analysis with allies throughout the region, including satellites, UAVs (such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk), RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft, and submarine signals intelligence. Integrated early warning systems can be extended, including X-band radars and other anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems. There is much to be gained, too, from closer operational decision-making—albeit paced by the political appetite for closer relations and by legal constraints such as Article 9 of Japan’s constitution. Another step forward to whole-of-government integration, and one to be emulated elsewhere with allies in the region, is the U.S.-Japan Alliance Coordination Mechanism, a shared set of procedures that enhance coordination between the U.S. military and the Japanese Self Defense Forces.

The second guideline for rebuilding the U.S. Asian alliance system is systematically strengthening interoperability of weapons, training, and war-fighting doctrine across all four of the threats posed by the PRC and its allies, including conventional warfare, nuclear, cyber, and small-unit asymmetric warfare. The degree of military interoperability across these four threat modes varies widely. It is most advanced with Japan, Australia, and Korea, far less so with ASEAN (other than Singapore) and with India. Major weapons platforms are long-lived investments; training and doctrine integration take even longer to achieve. Investments in human capital of the Asian alliance take time to forge but have very high returns over time—an important element of whole-of-government alliances.

Rebuilding the alliance system in Asia will require patience and consistency of strategy over time, not qualities that come naturally to liberal democracies.

The rollout of a set of whole-of-government alliances in Asia requires a deliberate transition from the hub-and-spoke structure that has long characterized these relationships to enhanced integration among the allies themselves. This type of integration can be achieved fairly smoothly between, for example, Japan and Australia. It is more troublesome when applied to Japan and South Korea, whose nagging “problems of history” periodically erupt. But even these problems are not insurmountable, with careful and patient U.S. assistance in resolving them.

Viewed from the Pentagon, the roadmap of this full-spectrum military integration should drive the forward deployment of U.S. military forces in the Pacific and shape their force structure, base locations, and rotation schedule. The Obama Administration’s notion of a “pivot” was basically sound, but the actual force-structure changes in the Pacific were relatively modest, revealing the policy to be more rhetoric than strategy.

The long-term needs and capabilities of America’s Asian allies must figure prominently in the design and procurement of major weapons platforms. The U.S. defense industry is a major asset in this rebuilding: distributed production, compatible maintenance procedures, and technology transfer as part of exchanges between U.S. defense giants and Asian counterparties, particularly in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and India, should be encouraged. For example, the cumbersome, time-consuming, and bureaucratic U.S. approval system for sales to Asian allies should be dramatically simplified and explicitly harnessed to the greater purpose of rebuilding the Asian alliance, through the mechanism of a single, streamlined licensing agency that is explicitly linked to our regional strategy.

The credibility of the U.S. nuclear deterrent remains an important element of the alliance.  India has its own nuclear deterrent, but the rest of the American allies are threatened not just by the growing nuclear arsenal of the PLA but also by those of China’s two allies, North Korea and Pakistan, which both have a track record of weapons of mass destruction proliferation. The steady advances in fissile material stockpiles, weaponization, and missile delivery systems by both North Korea and Pakistan make the U.S. homeland increasingly vulnerable to threats by Pyongyang, raising questions about the credibility of extended deterrence, as explained in chapter X and elsewhere in this volume.

The third guideline for rebuilding the alliance is tactical pragmatism. Military-to-military engagements that increase the transparency of the PLA and CCP leaders with regard to both capability and intent benefit the U.S. Asian alliance system more than the Chinese alliance system. As the PLA probes outward and the United States and its allies resist, there will inevitably be EP-3 type accidents and collisions that involve loss of life and pose a risk of sudden escalation. The risks of accidental collisions in cyber space are even higher, given the scale and skill of Chinese cyber aggression and the large-scale damages that cyber warfare can now inflict on an adversary’s infrastructure, military and civilian alike. It is prudent to prepare for such accidents in advance, in terms of response planning among the United States and its Asian allies, a clear strategy for retaliation when appropriate, and crisis-management procedures with the PLA and its political masters in Beijing.

By the same token, U.S. policy should be pragmatic about compromises in our values while engaging with Party autocrats in Vietnam and the junta in Myanmar.  These are both distasteful regimes, but their shared fear of Chinese hegemony can drive them, too, into the arms of the U.S.-led alliance system, not as whole-of- government partners but in other functional areas of resistance to the PRC. There are several opportunities to employ shrewd diplomacy to mitigate the threats posed by China. Pakistan and Indian confidence building can weaken Pakistan’s ties to the PRC. Regime change or regime collapse in North Korea could peel away yet another Chinese ally. 

The fourth and final guideline is patience. Rebuilding the alliance system in Asia will require patience and consistency of strategy over time, neither of which qualities that come naturally to liberal democracies.

The Chinese will attempt to maintain their alliance system and perhaps add a member or two, while neutralizing potential U.S. allies (Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam) and driving a wedge between other U.S. allies, especially Korea and Japan. China and its allies are a mixed bag of soft and hard authoritarians, absorbed by elite in-fighting and periodic spasmodic transitions of power. Their leaders are essentially illegitimate with their own citizens, reliant on massive internal security forces to suppress dissent, and they deliberately foster xenophobic nationalism to deflect domestic unrest.

In contrast, the U.S. alliance system in Asia is reinforced by shared democratic values. Liberal democracies alternate ruling parties, which inevitably entails shifts in defense priorities. This means that elected governments amongst our Asian alliance partners will periodically backtrack on commitments or budget choices made in pursuit of a tighter alliance with the United States, and otherwise periodically exhibit free-riding or ungrateful tendencies.

Examples of left-leaning shifts include many criticisms of the U.S. alliance by South Korea’s Roh Moo-hyun and his Uri Party during his five-year term of office beginning 2003, the naïve attempt at “triangulating” with China by Japan’s Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in 2009, and reflexive anti-American policy steps and persistent “non-aligned movement” promotions by India’s Congress Party. A contrasting example is the contests between the KMT and the DPP in Taiwan, where the nominally “conservative” KMT is relatively more accommodating to the PRC and the nominally “left” DPP is more hostile to Beijing. These retrograde moments must be patiently anticipated and factored into the long-term ebb and flow of alliance politics.

Liberal democracies will tack left and right, but it is this very alternation of power that buttresses their legitimacy, strengthens the long-term credibility of commitment that characterizes alliances among democracies, and lends them resiliency in the face of the threat posed by China and its allies in Asia. As George Kennan wrote in the concluding line of his 1946 Long Telegram, “we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society.”

When it comes to alliance management with democratic allies, in particular, we know the practical meaning of Kennan’s observation: It’s hard work. The next President and key cabinet officials will therefore need to allocate more of the scarce travel time to tending and mending alliance fences in East and South Asia than recent Administrations have done. Top leadership politics in Asia can be surprisingly personal, but can pay big dividends in the long run. The first order of business in the shorter run, however, is to show up.