Asia Essentials: the US chameleon must adapt again
12 Sep 2013|


The security system the US has evolved in Asia has dealt with upsets, defeats, setbacks and even the dangers of victory. The US suffered a bitter draw in Korea that’s had a half-life equal to the San Francisco treaty system, and has experienced defeat in Vietnam, the loss of the Clark Field and Subic Bay in the Philippines and the loss of the Soviet Union as the obvious enemy—a cruel thing to have happen to an alliance system. Through it all, the US system endures. The creation of the new superbase on Guam is a major statement of 21st century intent. The pivot that turned into a rebalance notches up the volume of the statement.

Compared to the multilateral depth and unified command of NATO, the US alliances in Asia can change shape, form and colour from country to country. The previous column saw these alliances in three layers: formal treaty alliances on top, de facto or virtual alliances in the middle and the bottom layer consisting of quasi or partial alliances that could more politely be called relationships or partnerships. The various Asian customers have a choice of size, function, tempo and commitment in what they ask of the US military chameleon.

At the high tempo end—in South Korea and Japan—the US makes huge investments of people, hardware and coordination of command. At the low tempo end, the commitments can be looser, even in treaty alliances such as with the Philippines and Thailand. As the Philippines starts asking for more, the tempo and investment have risen.

The same effect can be seen in the lowest layer in the quasi or partial alliances such as the long-established version with Malaysia and the new relationship being created with Vietnam. The partial alliances (read: partnerships) offer little permanent structure or joint military planning, and certainly no integrated command. It’s at this low end—with a country like Malaysia, for instance—that the US military chameleon has been quietly creative, learning to live with silences and implicit deals. It was the secret military pact Malaysia signed with the US in 1984—three years after Mahathir Mohamad came to power—that eventually give birth to the US doctrine in Asia of ‘places not bases’.

The adaptable quality of the US alliance system is an important attribute which informs the construction of a new multilateral system for Asia. If even the existing alliance system is fuzzy in its operation, expect the creation and operation of a new concert to be even more fluid.

The US alliance system lives because everyone in Asia, except China, wants to see the US military’s guarantee to the region continue. Not so long ago, even China could see the sense in the US continuing to keep Japan in its box. Unfortunately, that bargain between Mao and Nixon has expired.

The restraint and judgement required of the US chameleon was well expressed in a 2012 piece by Henry Kissinger on the future of US–China relations:

Even those Asian states that are not members of alliances with the United States seek the reassurance of an American political presence in the region and of American forces in nearby seas as the guarantor of the world to which they have become accustomed. Their approach was expressed by a senior Indonesian official to an American counterpart: ‘Don’t leave us, but don’t make us choose’.

A US smart enough not to push the choice too hard can build up its quasi-alliance partnerships and add to the strength of its de facto alliances. That involves an acceptance that the game has changed and the roles of other players are growing.

By signing up to join the East Asia Summit, the US has accepted Asia’s nascent efforts towards a concert system. The American acknowledgement is basic because the concert is based on the past stability delivered by the US’s military primacy in Asia. The new system will implicitly draw strength from both the US military guarantee and the set of formal and informal alliances.

Asia will use new multilateral approaches and mechanisms to engage China, while relying on US military strength to balance against it. Thus, the US military structure is evolving to encompass formal allies, virtual allies, quasi allies and new friends.

The US military guarantee is of such importance that any future peacetime threat to the formal and informal alliance system will most likely come from the US itself. Short of war, only major new US demands—or US failures to deliver—could imperil the value of the multi-tiered alliance system in Asia. A superpower always has the potential to underdeliver or over-demand. The US will underdeliver if it doesn’t have the means to fulfil its security guarantees to its Asian allies of various stripes. Such underperformance will show first in US political will or regional commitment rather than in the sinews of US military power. The other end of the same equation is a US that demands too much from its allies. The potential break point is if the US forgets the chameleon rule for the operation of its multi-coloured alliances.

We already have one example of the US as a significant threat to its own alliance structure: the ejection of New Zealand from ANZUS. In this case, it was a shift by New Zealand that opened the rift. New Zealand decided it would no longer comply with the US nuclear force posture. The American demand that New Zealand should do its alliance duty turned the difference into a breach. The future pressure on the various alliances could come from Kiwi-style backsliding, but will more likely flow from US demands or actions.

Such questions will become ever more complex as Asia seeks ownership of a new, homegrown security system. The emerging system will ask questions of American imagination as well as might. An Asian concert less dominated by the US will follow the pattern of Asia’s economic experience: shifting towards an Asia designed for and by Asians.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Carlos Fonseca.