Derek Grossman is a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation, a non-profit, nonpartisan. He previously served as an intelligence adviser at the Pentagon.
A popular rejection from the incoming Biden administration is that US alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific have atrophied under the past four years of mismanagement of the Trump administration.
Antony Blinken, who was nominated to be Foreign Minister, said last July, “We need to gather our allies and partners instead of alienating them” to deal with China. President-elect Joe Biden regretted that President Donald Trump had “belittled, belittled, and in some cases abandoned US allies and partners.”
To be sure, Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his threat of a trade war has done little to help Washington in the region. The question of whether Japan and South Korea are paying enough to make a fruitful alliance is worrying. Of course there are other examples that can be raised.
But overall, the Biden administration may be surprised to find that the US alliance and partnership is in good shape – the result of a growing Indo-Pacific consensus on the existential economic and security threats that China poses. This regional uneasiness often favors Washington, and in many cases, it becomes a partner of choice, suggesting that the Biden administration does not need to work too hard to improve US alliances and partnerships.
Of the five official US allies – Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand – four should be considered relatively healthy and supported by the Chinese threat. Australia’s relationship with China took a nosedive after Canberra’s support for Hong Kong, brazen Chinese influence operations in Australia, trade friction and Beijing’s liberation over the false image of an Australian soldier threatening to kill babies in Afghanistan. In July, Australia’s defense ministry released a strategic defense update and force structure plan aimed at countering China.
The US-Japan alliance is arguably the strongest in history. Tokyo regularly supports US goals to keep the Indo-Pacific free and open and participates in joint exercises in disputed waters. Japan has been eyeing China in the Senkaku Islands, administered by Japan but claimed by China as Diaoyu, in the East China Sea for years. And Japan’s new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, plans to continue to prioritize and improve the alliance. He plans to visit Washington to meet with Biden this February.
Despite anti-American and pro-China President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has recently shown its intention to stick with Washington. In November, Duterte allowed US troops to continue to freely enter and move across the country, contrary to previous moves to end the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement. In announcing the decision, Philippine Foreign Minister Teddy Locsin expressed “clarity and strength” in dealing with China’s destabilizing actions in the South China Sea. Even Duterte, in a speech at the United Nations last September, rejected China’s attempts to undermine a 2016 decision to enforce the Manila area in the South China Sea.
South Korea under President Moon Jae-in has been an enthusiastic supporter of Trump’s summit diplomacy with North Korea, and in so doing has ignored tensions in the alliance related to burden sharing. Moon may want to include China in this engagement, but he may remain wary of Beijing’s intentions in the wake of economic retaliation for Seoul’s deployment of the anti-dissile THAAD system.
Thailand is the only US ally to have slipped into China’s orbit, largely because of a lack of common goals or major disputes with China.
Apart from the US alliance, there have also been successes among partners. In particular, the US and India initiated a two-plus-two ministerial dialogue that resulted in numerous security agreements. Taiwan is another bright spot after several pro-Taiwan bills passed by Congress, visits by top US officials, and the routineization of a strong arms sales package. The US has also done very well with Vietnam. Trump traveled to Vietnam twice – once for the second North Korean summit – and Hanoi is pleased that the US is pushing back on China’s maritime aggression and its dam projects along the upper reaches of the Mekong River.
The US is also diplomatically competitive elsewhere. For example, Indonesia participates in China’s Belt and Road Initiative project, but is concerned about Chinese designs in the Natuna Sea. The Maldives recently welcomed the opening of a US embassy, and when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Sri Lanka, Colombo stressed the importance of “safeguarding freedom of navigation in our seas and airspace” – a direct nod to US Indo-Pacific strategy. Other important partners, such as Singapore and Malaysia, are friendly with the US even though they maintain deep ties with China.
Finally, in Oceania, the US sustains relations in particular with the Free Association States – the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau – which provide the US military with exclusive access essential to enabling the military to conduct future operations against China. In his first history, Trump invited the three FAS leaders to the White House, and the Secretary of State and Defense visited Micronesia and Palau for the first time, respectively. In September, Palau offered to host the US air force, while New Zealand also grew increasingly concerned about China’s behavior, both in Australia and in the Pacific islands.
Multilaterally, the US has struggled at times. The Trump administration does not send sufficiently senior representatives to important events such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit – a decision that has angered Southeast Asian leaders. However, Washington can also claim some success. Significantly, in October, Quad attendees – Australia, Japan, India and the US – met for the first stand-alone ministerial meeting in Tokyo to underline their collective determination to tackle the Indo-Pacific challenge together.
There is definitely a lot of work ahead as the US starts its next round of competition against China across the Indo-Pacific. But the good news is that the new Biden administration is likely to inherit far better alliances and partnerships than conventional wisdom suggests.