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

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SEOUL — The U.S. and its allies in the long shadow of rising China 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 featuring Japan’s U.S.-made F15s and India’s Russian-built SU30s. In another first, Australian and British paratroopers this month jumped alongside American and Japanese counterparts in the first exercise to unite airborne troops of all four nations in the skies above Japan.

On Jan. 11, Tokyo and London signed a “reciprocal access agreement” enabling an exchange of forces and equipment. It was based on an agreement that Australia and Japan signed a year ago.

The new partnerships paper over a yawning gap. Since the post-Vietnam War collapse of the anti-communist Southeast Asia Treaty Organization 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 under various treaties to separately defend allies such as Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. For historical and military reasons, the commitment to Taiwan is fuzzier, though President Biden has repeatedly insisted that the U.S. military will react if China takes action against Taipei.

Now, after a long vacuum, more multilateral groupings are emerging. Analysts say the endpoint is hard to ascertain.

Democracies that make up the “Quad” – Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. – are increasingly drilling together, and South Korea and Japan are showing signs of an easing of tensions that have long bedeviled U.S. strategic planning in the region. In 2021, the AUKUS partnership of Canberra, London and Washington, designed to offer Australia nuclear submarines, added another security framework to the region.

Internal changes

Some of the major players in the patchwork of new connections are finding internal changes as well.

Nominally and constitutionally pacifist Japan is spreading its military wings wider than at any other time since 1945. In the past two years, Japanese troops have drilled with partner nations in the Philippines, the Bay of Bengal and the South Pacific. The government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has committed Japan to beefing up its offensive assets: marine landing forces, light carriers and cruise missiles that can strike an adversary from a 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 invasion of Ukraine and wary of China, is looking east.

Japan and South Korea were invited to the NATO summit in Madrid last year, 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 U.S. and Dutch assets, on a 28-week maiden voyage to the Indo-Pacific. France, which maintains territories in the South Pacific, has sent its Charles de Gaulle carrier strike group on regional tours and is currently drilling in the Indian Ocean. French Rafale jets from the vessel landed in Singapore on Tuesday.

Tricky dynamics

It is all a response to two dynamics: a U.S. government demanding more from its allies and a 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 Javad Heydarian, an international relations professor at the University of the Philippines. “And that went hand in hand with the rise of China.”

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

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

The U.S. has welcomed cooperative initiatives by like-minded partners for regional flashpoints.

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

Weak punch, minimal commitment

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

A retired Indian admiral said the Quad is a “talking shop” lacking mutual defense commitments. He noted that the alliance has no headquarters building or assigned units and no secretary-general to lead members through crises. 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.

Some of the changes will be a long time coming, though a threat from China or North Korea could materialize sooner.

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

In addition, 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” that defended South Korea in the 1950-1953 Korean War. At a Seoul forum last year, U.S. Forces Korea and Gen. Paul LaCamera, UNC commander, acknowledged that 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 if war flares up again.

British Ambassador to South Korea Colin Crooks made that clear at a press conference last week. Though British troops conducted winter drills with South Korean troops in November, Mr. Crooks declined to comment on whether British forces would defend South Korea.

Despite London’s deep commercial and diplomatic links in the region, the military component of its “Tilt to Indo-Pacific” is feeble compared with the U.S. pivot.

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 U.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. 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. The big players on China’s western and eastern flanks are recognizing that and are drilling their jet fighters.

Japan is pledging to double its defense spend to the NATO standard of 2% of gross domestic product by 2028. Although India’s 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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