When President Obama met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in California last week, it is doubtful that either leader focused on the growing ties among countries like Singapore, India, South Korea and Vietnam. Perhaps they should have. Burgeoning security cooperation among such nations represents the untold story of a region on the move.
Asia has undergone decades of economic deepening, complemented by years of diplomatic integration. Now, countries across the region are building on this foundation and engaging in unprecedented forms of military cooperation. In many cases these deepening ties include neither the United States nor China, and they are supplementing the traditional U.S.-led “hub and spoke” system of alliances that has marked regional security for decades.
This emerging power web will have deep implications across the Indo-Pacific region. It should also affect American strategy – because, played correctly, the United States is poised to be a leading beneficiary of the growing network of relationships.
The network is marked by a proliferation of government-to-government security agreements, including recent pacts inked between Singapore and Vietnam, Japan and Australia, and India and South Korea. Variable in scope, these accords promote the ability of Asian nations to train and operate together, conduct joint research and development, and service each other’s ships and aircraft. To be sure, these are not mutual defense treaties, but they point to ever-closer military cooperation among key countries in the region.
Similarly, there is an upsurge in joint military training. Japan and India conducted their first bilateral maritime exercise in 2012, the same year that saw joint field exercises between India and Singapore, Australia and South Korea, and Japan and Singapore. The intra-Asian arms trade is also heating up like never before, and even a country like Japan, which has long placed stringent restrictions on the export of weapons, is taking steps toward supplying Asian nations.
While many of these relationships are developing outside the ambit of China or the United States, the Washington-Beijing dynamic remains a primary driver of them. Asian countries are diversifying their security ties in order to hedge against the possibility that China’s rise will turn threatening and the American presence in the region will decline.
What all this means for regional stability remains undetermined. Increasing interconnectivity in Asia could act as a restraint, making countries more reluctant to engage in provocations as they calculate the costs to their flourishing ties. But a more militarized region could also devolve into rival blocs characterized by arms races and heightened insecurity. Stronger security relationships in Asia could heighten regional competition, particularly if they are divisive and perceived as aimed at China, which is predisposed to see regional security enhancements as containment.
American policy should be aimed at providing a foundation for Asian countries to deepen security ties with one another in ways that contribute to U.S. national security, which in turn is linked to a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Washington can do this by promoting greater interoperability between militaries, which can broaden the pool of potential partners for the United States. As U.S. defense budgets decline, Washington should work more closely with highly capable allies and established partners – including Australia, Japan and Singapore – to build capacity in emerging powers and third-party countries.
U.S. policymakers will also have to remain vigilant against threats of entrapment from adventurous allies and partners. Alliance management will be particularly important in countries where the United States is seeking to expand its military access and presence. U.S. policymakers should be clear in private with allies and partners about U.S. commitments and expectations in the region and should press all sides to avoid unilateral actions that threaten regional stability.
These challenges point to the need for sustained American engagement in Asia. Allies and partners in the region remain concerned that U.S. commitments will be undercut at some point in the future, either by a combination of insufficient resources and political will or by a decision in Washington that America’s interests are better served by a more accommodating policy toward China. Erratic U.S. engagement could accelerate security policies that hedge against U.S. decline and result in security arrangements in Asia that exclude the United States.
That result – a network of power relations inimical to American interests – is entirely avoidable. To capitalize on the twin desires of Asian countries for closer ties with each other and for greater American presence, the United States must double down on its commitment to rebalance attention and resources to Asia.
Patrick M. Cronin is a Senior Advisor and the Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS); Richard Fontaine is the President at CNAS; Ely Ratner is a Fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. They are the authors of The Emerging Asia Power Web: The Rise of Bilateral Intra-Asian Security Ties.