A smarter move by Washington would be to tighten individual ties with nations facing China’s hegemony.
The question that may decide the future of the Indo-Pacific region, and of the U.S.-China rivalry, is this: Will Beijing succeed in picking apart the loose coalition of countries opposing its hegemonic aspirations, or will Washington succeed in knitting that coalition more tightly together?
Recent talk of forming an “Asian NATO” indicates that the matter may still be resolved in America’s favor. To be clear, a full-fledged, multilateral military alliance in Asia isn’t needed and won’t materialize anytime soon. But the countries seeking to counter Beijing’s rise may see an opportunity to weave a denser web of multilateral cooperation, a web in which an aggressive China will find itself increasingly ensnared.
At a meeting of the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum in late August, Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun argued that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad — a relatively informal association of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. — should be formalized and expanded to include other countries.
Although Biegun left the desired endpoint ambiguous, his comments fit with recurring proposals to move from America’s existing, hub-and-spokes model of bilateral alliances in Asia toward a more multilateral, institutionalized network of the sort that exists in Europe. The former model was a response to two particular challenges the U.S. faced in building the security architecture of Asia after World War II.
The first was that the U.S. didn’t initially trust most of its Cold War partners in the region. After the Korean War ended in 1953, American officials worried that Syngman Rhee, the dictator of South Korea, might restart that conflict by marching his forces northward in hopes of reunifying the peninsula. Likewise, they feared that Chiang Kai-Shek, the authoritarian ruler of Taiwan, might invade the mainland and drag the U.S. into this quixotic undertaking. Japan was only a few years removed from its bloody rampage across mainland Asia and the Pacific.
As Victor Cha, former director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council, has written, the U.S. executed a “power-play.” It created bilateral alliances that protected the countries in question from communist aggression, while also allowing Washington to negotiate special terms — such as American operational control of South Korean forces — allowing it to restrain its own allies.
The second reason for America’s patchwork of alliances was that the geography of Asia undercut the multilateral solidarity that the geography of Europe encouraged. The relatively compact size of Western Europe meant that U.S. allies were all in the same boat: A Soviet attack on West Germany would pose an existential threat to France and the U.K. as well.
In Asia, U.S. allies were separated by thousands of miles of ocean in some cases, and were most worried by a variety of different enemies. In Europe, then, former foes such as France and Germany had no choice but to get over the past. In Asia, historical antagonisms festered and in a few instances — significantly, the fraught Japan-South Korea relationship — linger today.
The conditions that gave birth to the hub-and-spokes model have changed quite a bit over time. Although concerns about “chain-ganging” — when an aggressive country pulls a reluctant ally into conflict — are inherent to alliance politics, America’s closest allies in the region are now stable democracies rather than unpredictable autocracies. China’s increasingly truculent behavior has created a growing view that the countries of the region face the proverbial choice of hanging together or hanging separately.
Beijing has been its own worst enemy in this regard. Its harassment of Taiwan, destruction of the one-country, two-systems model in Hong Kong, pressure on its neighbors in the South China Sea, and border clashes with India in the last few months have made fear of Chinese dominance more concrete to countries across the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
For years, Washington has sought stronger ties between its various allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. During the Barack Obama administration, the Pentagon pursued “networked security.” The major accomplishment of the Trump administration has been reviving the Quad, a group that first emerged in the early 2000s but then lapsed for a decade. “The stars are aligning for a harder line on China,” writes Derek Grossman of the RAND Corporation, as the members of the Quad realize how intertwined their geopolitical fates have become.
This won’t, however, lead to anything quite like an Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Neither the rise of China nor the threat from North Korea has induced Seoul and Tokyo to come together, and that tenuous relationship nearly ruptured last year amid territorial and economic disputes. The differences between the U.S. alliance with Australia, a liberal democracy that has fought in every major American war of the 20th century, and the U.S. partnership with India, a worryingly illiberal democracy that has a long tradition of non-alignment, remain profound.
Additionally, the creation of a multilateral alliance — unless it was explicitly and solely directed against Beijing — would potentially implicate all of its members in all of their allies’ disputes. Assuming India could be induced to join such an organization, for example, it might be tempted to use it for leverage against Pakistan as well as China.
More plausible would be something between a multilateral alliance and America’s existing set of relationships. As Grossman notes, serious staff talks about how the Quad could help India in a land war with China, or Japan in a naval and air clash in the East China Sea, would force Beijing to reckon with the possibility that even limited aggression would turn into a far larger crisis; additional combined training and exercises would foster the military interoperability that makes collective action credible.
Similarly, as several analysts have argued, greater multilateral coordination on combating Chinese political warfare — the use of dirty money, information operations, and other tools to spread rot within rivals’ political systems — could help the Pacific democracies mount a more effective response.
Stronger collective efforts to limit dependencies on Chinese money and markets, and to direct foreign investment to friendly countries instead, might pay significant strategic returns. There is a strong argument that expanding the Quad, whether formally or implicitly, to include countries such as Vietnam would confront Beijing with a countervailing coalition that grows stronger as Chinese belligerence mounts.
China’s drive for dominance in its region, and its efforts to amass power globally, are most likely to succeed if Beijing can pick off the countries that oppose it one by one. Yet even as the past few years have been a time of trouble within many American alliances, Beijing’s overreach is having the effect of bringing its rivals closer together. It wouldn’t take an Asian NATO for the U.S. and its friends in the Indo-Pacific to make China pay for that mistake.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.