Alliances adrift: Is this the end of America’s Asian alliances?

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In the face of structural change towards a more multipolar Asian security order, America’s network of Asian alliances are arguably looking increasingly brittle.

America’s network of Asian alliances (often also referred to as the ‘San Francisco System’) has defied most theoretical expectations by surviving in the absence of a common external threat long after the end of the Cold War. But in the face of a shift towards a more multipolar Asian security order, coupled with unprecedented uncertainties regarding US credibility and resolve in the region, the outlook of many US alliances is looking increasingly bleak.

Leading experts from Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand contributed their views on the nature and trajectory of alliances at a one-day workshop “Alliances Adrift: Is this the end of America’s Asian alliances?”

Held on 23 April 2019, the workshop in Singapore was organised by the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, in collaboration with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) of the Nanyang Technological University, the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and sponsored by The Korea Foundation. It built on past work undertaken by ANU and collaborative institutions in the region on alliance politics, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation and the Australia-Korea Foundation. This workshop covered the historical and theoretical foundations of the San Francisco System, the challenges that the hub-and-spokes model faces in East and Southeast Asia, and its relative viability as the Indo-Pacific undergoes historical structural change.

The event brought together a variety of regional and international experts. ANU participants included Professor Brendan TaylorEmeritus Professor William Tow and Dr Lauren Richardson. They offered analysis on those key historical and contemporary strategic determinants now shaping the San Francisco System’s continued viability or growing vulnerability.

Professor Aileen Baviera and colleagues from the University of Philippines Diliman shared their thoughts on issues surrounding the US-Philippine alliance. Professor Baviera is also a founder of the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress project.

Professor Ralf Emmers and his colleagues from the RSIS addressed evolving US strategic partnerships in a minilateral and multilateral context as possible supplements to or replacements for the postwar hub and spokes alliance arrangements.

Dr Park Jae Jeok – an ANU alumnus – and his Hankuk University colleagues focused on the dynamic changes now under way on the Korean peninsula and their effects on US-South Korean security relations.

Representatives of the Australian, Korean and Philippines Embassies also attended the workshop. Discussion conducted under Chatham House rules encouraged frank and robust exchanges of views by all participants.

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Taylor and Tow subsequently visited Manila on 26 April to attend a roundtable discussion on the “Dilemmas of the Indo-Pacific”. They interacted with Philippines officials and scholars at the Asia-Pacific Pathways-sponsored event where they examined the United States’ Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. Three speakers provided American, Australian and Filipino perspectives on the FOIP.

Professor Tow provided a synoptic review of the Trump administration’s policy in the Indo-Pacific and highlighted key developments in international trade, good governance, and geopolitical order-building, which underpin the Indo-Pacific concept. He also tackled catalysts for the FOIP, such as the possibility of an emerging China-containment doctrine by the United States, domestic pressures on the Trump administration to have a different foreign policy from Obama, and the complementarity of ideology and geography to operationalise the “America First” rhetoric.

Professor Brendan Taylor discussed Australia’s stakes in the Indo-Pacific, including its fears of exclusion from the region and economic decline, its need to secure a place in the regional order, and the possibility of a favourable (re)balance of power in the region. Professor Taylor also explored the conceptual ambiguity and the divergent interests within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (between Japan, the United States, Australia, and India) that may derail future development.

Finally, Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong, Vice Commander of the Philippine Navy, discussed the naval diplomacy efforts of the Philippines that build good relations with foreign partners, improve local capacity by learning best-practices, and support Philippine foreign policy posture. He likewise presented maritime security efforts of the Philippine Navy.

During the open discussion, participants raised issues such as the feasibility and appropriateness of having a China-containment goal for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Japan, the US, Australia, and India, the different usages and understanding of the Indo-Pacific concept that may result in policy incongruence, and the prospects of building on minilateral arrangements to advance Philippine foreign policy.

Discussions and papers from the April workshop in Singapore were featured in a special issue on 'Postwar Bilateralism Under Challenge: The San Francisco System and the Future of Indo-Pacific Security' 12, No. (January 2020). Tow served as special editor for this issue. The overall project has established a strong foundation for the further study and deeper understanding of Indo-Pacific alliance politics.