The US-East Asia Security Alliance and the Challenges for Biden Administration
The East Asian region has been economically and politically secured by the United States in the post-Cold War period. The hub-and-spoke alliance model characterizes the security alliance of countries with the United States as the hub, and Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand as the spokes. These bilateral arrangements have allowed the United States to have unimpeded leverage over the partnership to exercise power and avoid rogue allied action against its neighbors. It has been an instrumental key security player in preserving peace and stability and economic prosperity in the region.
The US dominated the region for several decades, but recent economic developments and security concerns have remained constant, shaping the strategic climate of East Asia. These include ongoing concerns about North Korea's nuclear development, territorial conflicts, and the effects of China's rise in economic and security spheres. Moreover, the question of whether China is a revisionist or a status quo power continues to create uncertainty for East Asian states. While the allies share US concerns about China's rise, their geographical proximity to China and the attractiveness of its economic opportunities give rise to some measure of cooperation. This leads the countries to hedge – while maintaining the security alliance with the US, they engage with China bilaterally and multilaterally.
The United States' strategy to deal with the growing influence of a rising China is to "maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.” However, the US must be consistent to make its allies feel more secure, and this applies to both economic and security matters. The State of Southeast Asia: 2020 Survey Report by the ISEAS-Yusok Ishak Institute found that the majority of those polled had little to no confidence in the US as a credible strategic partner. In comparison to the Obama administration, 77% of respondents believe that the US's relationship with Southeast Asia has deteriorated under Trump. Regardless, 60.3 percent of respondents thought that a shift in American leadership would increase US reliability. Former US President Donald Trump's China strategy has hardened the US stance toward China, but unilateral and rash foreign policy decisions have also hampered any multilateral action by US allies. Meanwhile, China was able to take advantage of the United States’ disagreements with its Asian allies.
Japan heavily relied on the US-Japan alliance for a long time. But as a maritime nation with few natural resources and lacking offensive military capabilities, it is now seeking a multilateral approach in contrast to the United States bilateral policy. This divergence became more pronounced following the US’ sudden withdrawal of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and demands for a bilateral free trade agreement. These disagreements over policy alignment in addition to the military burden sharing issues generally take the form of economic friction in the U.S.–Japan relationship, which China currently seeks to exploit. China steps in as it takes the form of both bilateral cooperation in the form of the 52 memoranda for economic cooperation in 2018, as well as the most recent multilateral cooperation in the form of RCEP, to tap into Japan’s preference for multilateral engagement.
As for the Korean peninsula, the United States sees North Korea's denuclearization as the most important priority. While South Korea, at least under the new administration of Moon, considers stability and prosperity on the peninsula as its most important objective. Furthermore, the resolution and extension of the Special Measures Agreement, the US-ROK burden-sharing agreement at the expense of US forces in the Korean peninsula caused tension in the alliance. Although both trade and investment ties are of mutual interest, South Korea's emergence as a major industrial economy has led to increased competition with the U.S. domestic market, triggering protectionist responses in the United States. Meanwhile, China has already surpassed the United States as South Korea's top trading partner and inked more bilateral and multilateral trade cooperation.
On the other hand, the relationship between the United States and the Philippines, which was founded on deep historical and cultural ties as well as a mutual commitment to human rights and democracy, has grown turbulent. The human rights principles of the Philippines are at issue in the given context of President Duterte's war on drugs, which includes the extrajudicial execution of persons involved in the use and distribution of drugs. As a result, the United States has proposed a bill to withdraw substantial amounts of international military funding from the Philippines. President Duterte also threatened to withdraw from the US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The cancelation period has been suspended for six months since November 2020 in the hope of reaching an agreement on mutually acceptable terms, especially with the new Biden administration. On the economic side, in 2019, the Philippines remains as the US’ 31st largest trading partner, having a trade deficit estimated at $2.3 billion. As of 2020, the US is the largest export trading partner and ranks seventh as an import partner. Trade deficits with other countries are frequently blamed as one of the reasons why US businesses and employees are hurting and losing ground to other countries. This is the same source of economic friction between the United States and China, Japan, and South Korea. China, on the other hand, is less concerned with human rights, going so far as to providing rifles, ammunition, and sniper cones to assist in the security operations of the Philippines. China’s ire unexpectedly ease upon the election of President Duterte in 2016. It tries to isolate the security dispute and allow the economic relationship to flourish. Over the first three quarters of 2020, China remained to be the Philippines' largest trading partner – the second-largest export market and the largest source of imports.
Thailand, another military ally of the United States, has seen its dependence on Beijing increasing. This is because of the the junta administration’s alleged human rights abuses. It has moved quickly to upgrade its strategic relationship with China, including the proposed procurement of three Chinese submarines to patrol the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, and ten Chinese tanks, and a joint military manufacturing facility to produce and repair weapons parts in Thailand. It has been noted that it works closely with the US and China in its trade and geopolitical relations. As of 2018, China was its largest trading partner, followed by the United States.
The Biden administration is currently confronted with both high expectations and skepticism about its ability to reshape international and regional partnerships. The hub-spokes system may not be sustainable in the current scenario where the economics and security spheres are intertwined with multiple players in the region. While the United States tried to preserve the current structure, the downside was it did not attempt either to develop US-led security institutions in East Asia or to improve security relations with allies, except for non-traditional security issues (such as disaster management). It appeared that the US undermined support in the region, which benefits China as it filled the void of its impact. Undeniably, the countries of East Asia cannot choose between an alliance with the US or a bandwagon with China. They needed to establish relationships with both countries, thus making it imperative to diversify cooperation.
President Joe Biden has begun to work with and meet with Asian allies. Kurt Campbell, the United States National Security Council's coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, recognizes that the United States will need to dispel fears of American decline in Asia and give a “positive economic vision” for the region. He also emphasized the importance of working with allies, partners, and friends to rebalance the US strategic focus, economic interests, and military power to the Indo-Pacific region. In this instance, the US allies may have to walk a tightrope while still playing their cards well amid the US-China tussle. As President Biden declares its rivalry with China, the United States needs to sustain its involvement in the region and make effort to boost regional institutions by actively supporting and participating in them.
Ivy Ganadillo is a member of the Board of Directors of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies. She was a lecturer at the Chinese Studies Program at the Ateneo De Manila University and the International Studies Department of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines-Manila. She has a Master of Arts degree in Asian Studies (China Studies) from the University of the Philippines-Diliman and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in International Studies at the Ewha Womans University in Seoul, South Korea.