Biden’s government has found a sympathetic ear in Asian capitals to move on China’s territorial expansion. The buy-in for the four-way security dialogue from Japan and from long-term partners India and Australia, who recently started the military exercises again after a long break, is increasing. And the new team is trying to advance with Japan and South Korea by burying the hatchet over negotiating the cost of bringing in US troops.
But in those rare moments when Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin were not inundated with meetings, calls, and press conferences on their first overseas visit last week, U.S. officials grappled with a wider question: how should the American alliance structure come up look like a continent home to nearly two-thirds of the world’s population and America’s greatest strategic rival?
The Biden administration, like the Trump administration previously, has identified China as its main geopolitical rival. But unlike their direct predecessors, President Joe Biden and his team want to contain all threats from China with the help of allies and partners and not unilaterally. In the early days of the Cold War, Washington helped a group of like-minded European countries counter the Soviet threat. When confronted with China, the United States does not have the same options. The question is essentially how China can be contained with a very different mix of partners.
What is safe to assume, US officials said, is that the United States will not assemble a NATO-like group to counter China. After World War II, however, Washington built a constellation of treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand that became more than half the much-touted hub-and-spoke model for US security in Asia for a century. Today, the Biden government hopes to turn to smaller groupings – bilateral, trilateral, or even multilateral clusters of countries that can do something similar.
“Look, for a variety of reasons – history, geography, politics – Asia doesn’t have the kind of structured alliance we have in the transatlantic alliance,” said a senior defense official on condition of anonymity. “We are consciously trying to move from this hub-and-spoke model to a series of overlapping relationships,” the official said.
That boils down to small alliance pairings that can help build connective tissue between militaries and prop up contested territory in the Asia-Pacific region with more joint military exercises, but without an Asian NATO with a full equivalent to the article in the Transatlantic Pact 5, according to which the Signatories must come to the defense of the attacked allies.
Currently, the Biden government, the senior defense official, is hoping to strengthen existing groups such as the Ten Nations Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the quadrangular security dialogue known as “Quad”. The problem is that ASEAN is mostly focused on the economy and eschewing security issues, especially when it comes to the South China Sea, one of the biggest friction points between Washington and Beijing. While the quad is being revived with a video call among the heads of state and from Australia, which is again participating in the Malabar exercise with India and Japan after a long hiatus, it is fully focused on security issues in the Indo-Pacific region.
But unlike Japan, which affirmed during the trip that it would cooperate Working closely with the United States, most of the nations in the region will focus on protecting their own borders in the event of a Chinese clash with Taiwan, and that is by design, former US officials said.
“In principle, every state should concentrate on its own defense. We already have big problems with a central front like the first chain of islands “from Japan across the South China Sea,” said Elbridge Colby, director of the marathon initiative and former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration. “From a military point of view, I don’t think we are heading towards an Asian NATO.”
Another difference is the exchange of information. The United States, NATO allies and key partners known collectively as the “Five Eyes” routinely exchange information. There is nothing like the network across Asia (although Australia is part of Five Eyes). However, officials stressed that Five Eyes is a mature relationship among English-speaking countries with longstanding relationships. The Coalition’s information exchange in Asia in a bloc like Quad requires the consent of each member state, which can encourage fundamental exchanges. “As soon as you’re out [Five Eyes] it’s getting exponentially more difficult, ”said a second senior defense official.
What the United States is looking for in the long run is a communications system that will enable it to share classified and confidential information with all American allies and partners in the region as of last budget submission. Right now Washington needs to talk about different systems for nations like South Korea, the Philippines and India.
“Imagine you’re working on Microsoft versus Apple here in the US. It’s annoying enough, but imagine everything is different,” said a third senior defense official. “It’s the biggest hole in our swing right now.”
The multitude of differences in US relations in the region, however, is more visceral in tone and body language. It has been visible among even the closest US allies in the region in the past few weeks. In Tokyo, Blinken was greeted warmly by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in a scene that resembled a meeting of long-lost friends. At a high-level press conference in Seoul, the South Korean Defense Minister appeared to be questioning the leading US diplomat’s call for “denuclearization of North Korea”. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea’s longstanding historical animus has limited ties beyond an information exchange pact from 2019.
The Biden government must also comply with different human rights standards in the region, an issue that the new White House has promised to emphasize in national security policy.
Austin raised concerns about the treatment of India’s Muslim population with top officials. Thailand and the Philippines, which have repeatedly clashed with China in territorial disputes over the South China Sea, both face domestic human rights challenges and were not part of the first overseas junket of senior government officials from Biden.
Although officials have warned that US multinational partnerships are likely to advance in small increments after the trip, the Biden administration could also take advantage of the lack of its own NATO in Asia. While successive governments have relied on NATO countries to spend more on defense, Asia’s less formal alliance structure could allow U.S. allies to collaborate on information-sharing and military exercises in an exchange that is not necessarily Washington-led.
“That doesn’t even mean the United States has to be involved,” said the first senior defense official. “If we can help partners to be better prepared to defend their own interests and to be more secure in their own sovereignty, then that is for the good of all.”