China threat sparks a web of new relationships for U.S. military in region

SEOUL — In the long shadow of rising China, the U.S. and its region-spanning group of allies are forging a complex web of defense relationships, bilateral and multilateral, linking democracies across the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

This week, Indian and Japanese warplanes kicked off 11 days of joint drills over Japan, in an exercise featuring Japan’s U.S.-made F15s and India’s Russian-built SU30s. In another first, Australian and British paratroopers earlier this month jumped alongside American and Japanese counterparts in the first exercise to unite airborne troops of all four nations together in the skies above Japan. 

And on Jan. 11, a “reciprocal access agreement” was signed between Tokyo and London enabling exchange of forces and equipment. The RAA was based on one signed a year ago between Australia and Japan.

The new partnerships paper over a yawning gap: Since the post-Vietnam War collapse of the anti-communist Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1977, no “Asian NATO” has risen to share regional defense burdens or coordinate policy toward the threats posed by a rising China or a hostile North Korea.

“For the U.S., it was easier to create unity of vision on the European continent after World War II and during the Cold War,” said Alex Neill, a Singapore-based security consultant. “There was no Marshall Plan for recovery in the Indo-Pacific, so there was an ad hoc bilateral approach.”

The U.S. is committed, by various treaties, to separately defend allies such as Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. For historic and military reasons, the commitment to Taiwan is fuzzier, though President Biden has repeatedly insisted the U.S. military would react if China took action against Taipei,

Now, after a long vacuum, new multilateral groupings are emerging, though analysts say the endpoint is still hard to ascertain.

Not only are democracies that make up the “Quad”  – Australia, India, Japan, US – increasingly drilling together, there are early signs of a thaw in the historically testy relations between South Korea and Japan, tensions that have long bedeviled U.S. strategic planning in the region. In 2021, the “AUKUS” partnership between Canberra, London and Washington, designed to offer Australia nuclear submarines, added another security framework to the region. 

Internal changes

The patchwork of new connections comes as some of the major players are seeing internal changes as well.

Nominally (and constitutionally) pacifist Japan is spreading its military wings wider than at any time since 1945. In the last two years, Japanese troops have drilled with partner nations in the Philippines, the Bay of Bengal and the South Pacific, and he government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has committed to a beefing-up of offensive assets — marine landing forces, light carriers and cruise missiles that can strike an adversary from long-range.

“Japan is playing catch up,” said Lance Gatling, a former operational planning officer with the U.S. military command in Japan. “It is chasing countries it wants to have bilateral relations with.”

Even Atlanticist Europe, shaken by Russia’s Ukraine invasion and wary of China, is looking east.

In 2022, Japan and South Korea were invited to the NATO Summit in Madrid, and German air assets — led by the commander of the German air force himself — conducted drills in Australia and Japan. 

In 2021 the United Kingdom deployed its new F-35 aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, beefed up with US and Dutch assets, on a 28-week maiden voyage to the Indo-Pacific. France, which maintains territories in the South Pacific, has previously sent its Charles de Gaulle carrier strike group on regional tours and it is currently drilling in the Indian Ocean. French Rafale jets from the vessel landed in Singapore Tuesday.

Tricky dynamics

It is all a response to two dynamics: A U.S. government demanding more from its allies, and reaction to what many in the region see as Beijing’s heavy-handedness as its economic and military prowess expand.

“The major trigger was the Trump presidency, which was a huge shock to the whole network of ‘hub and spoke’ alliances,” said Richard Heydarian, an international relations professor at the University of the Philippines. “And that went hand in hand with the rise of China.”

But the shifting, tricky dynamics have raised troubling questions for regional defense chiefs.

“Will the U.S. be here forever?” wondered Mr. Gatling. “I think so, but it’s a legitimate question.”

The U.S. so far has welcomed cooperative initiatives by like-minded partners, for the regional flashpoints that could ignite are multiple. 

They include: a Chinese invasion or blockade of Taiwan; a North Korean strike against South Korea, with the threat the fight could go nuclear; a clash around China’s expanding network of maritime bases in the South China Sea; an escalation of China-Japan territorial tensions in the East China Sea; and a fresh outbreak of military clashes on the unsettled China-India border in the high Himalayas.

Weak punch, minimal commitment

And while the risks are real and in many cases growing more acute, many say the current regional alignments lack backbone and staying power. 

A retired Indian admiral notes that for the moment, the Quad is a “talking shop” lacking mutual defense commitments: There is no headquarters building or assigned units as is the case with NATO, and no secretary-general members can turn to in a crisis. Multiple Southeast Asian militaries — including those of Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines — are far more focused on domestic security threats than the strategic architecture of the region.

And some of the changes will be a long time coming, even as the potential threat from China or North Korea could materialize much faster.

AUKUS is unlikely to deliver nuclear submarines to Australia before 2036 at the earliest. Japan’s role in a potential U.S.-China clash over Taiwan remains hazy, and South Korean officials hesitate to even discuss the possibility of a crisis in public.

And the biggest multinational grouping in the region lacks operational flexibility. 

Based in South Korea, the U.S-led United Nations Command (UNC) comprises 16 “sending states” which defended South Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War. At a Seoul forum last year, US Forces Korea and UNC Commander General Paul LeCamera admitted the powerful force has no defined mandate for a role in a conflict beyond the divided peninsula. 

Except for the U.S., which has a bilateral treaty with Seoul, UNC member states are not even obligated to defend South Korea should war flare up again.

That was made clear by British Ambassador to South Korea Colin Crooks at a press conference last week. Though British troops conducted winter drills with South Korean troops last November, Amb. Crooks declined to comment on whether the U.K. would defend South Korea.

And while states such as Britain have deep commercial and diplomatic links in the region, the military component of London’s “Tilt to Indo-Pacific” is feeble compared to that of the U.S.

Take naval forces. Washington maintains a carrier strike group, amphibious assault ships, nuclear submarines, a Marine division and special forces units in the region. London’s regional naval assets consist of two offshore patrol vessels.

Force multipliers

So what do Washington’s allies bring to the Indo-Pacific table?

“Smaller powers cannot guarantee deterrence, but can help as force multipliers — they can offer geography or niche capabilities,” said Mr. Neill, the Singapore security consultant. For example, he said, British or Japanese F-35Bs can operate on U.S. carriers, and American fighter jets can use allied carriers.

“The U.S. Navy has enough challenges maintaining its current presence,” Mr. Neill said and “rotational capabilities from other fleets” can fill gaps.

With the U.S. military facing security challenges on a global playing field while Beijing concentrates its forces as an Asian power, regional democracies will have to raise their game. This is being recognized by the big players on China’s western and eastern flanks, which are currently drilling their jet fighters.

Japan is pledging to double its defense spend to the NATO standard of 2% of GDP by 2028. And though India’s continuing closeness to Russia disappoints many, the world’s biggest democracy is strongly postured against China. 

All this means more — and deeper — alliances are needed.

“A snapshot quantitative look misses the point,” said Mr. Heydarian. “What we have to look at is the trend-line — and look at China.”

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