Asia Essentials: the US military chameleon
9 Sep 2013|

chameleonThe Asia security system is to be constructed atop the foundations of the US hub-and-spokes of alliances in Asia—the San Francisco system, which is enjoying a burst of health and regional affection in its seventh decade.

The longevity of the US alliance system is a tribute to its ability to change colour and form according to the needs of the Asian ally. Similarly, the US military guarantee to Asia has vitality and endurance because it has a chameleon capacity—adjusting colour, weight and contours to suit different Asian partners.

Envisage the US alliance system as three layers. The top layer holds the formal alliances expressed by treaty. Below the formal layer sits the de facto or virtual alliances. And in the lowest layer sit the partial or quasi-military relationships. In this lowest level are the partnerships or relationships, but it’s no stretch to call them quasi alliances. This is the beauty of the US military chameleon, adapting as it shifts through the different layers and colours. If the champion chameleon is one that can merge while walking across a kilt, then the US military can just about do tartan.

Along with its formal treaties, the US has slowly developed informal alliances to add in these other layers. Singapore is an obvious example of a de facto ally—so true blue it’s edging towards the top layer. The one-way US pledge to Taiwan, enshrined in US law, means it reaches beyond the virtual category towards formal status—but for obvious reasons it has to stay in the de facto category. New Zealand has shifted between all three categories, but it’s now back to near the top of the de facto class.

The lowest layer of the system – and in many ways the most fascinating—is where the quasi allies dwell, based on the half or partial nature of the relationship and the fluctuating level of commitment. Malaysia has sat there for decades, but is being joined by others now more willing to accept the US embrace, such as Vietnam and Indonesia. India has emerged quickly as one of the most important quasi allies. The speed with which India moves towards de facto status will tell much about Asia’s strategic temperature.

The chameleon nature of all this is expressed by how US military approaches have evolved since the act of creation in San Francisco. In 1951, the San Francisco system was both the formal resolution of WW2 in Asia, but also a reflection of what had happened in the six years since the end of the war: the division of Europe, the Cold War, the communist victory in China and, crucially, the Korean War.

The US needed Japan as an ally and—at that point the one developed economy in Asia—to start firing on all cylinders. To get Japan as an ally, Washington had to reassure the rest of non-communist Asia: thus the chain of treaties that stretches from Hokkaido to Hobart.

The treaty system offered a dual promise—everybody would be protected from communism as much as they’d continue to be safe from Japan. The adaptability and vitality of the security guarantee is such that it has endured long past the life span of the dual promise that brought it to life.

While saluting the foundational effect of the US treaty system, its vital role in guaranteeing the stability of Asia, and its adaptability, keep in sight the holes woven into the fabric of the treaty system (the large gaps between some of the spokes).

As one example, note that despite the central US role in protecting South Korea and rebuilding Japan, Washington has never been able to unite the two alliances—to banish the history between Seoul and Tokyo. One factoid on this: South Korea and Japan didn’t even establish diplomatic relations until 1965. So Japan plays the role of Britain, the indispensable island ally nestled up against the continent and, in that analogy, South Korea becomes France—the ally you have that sometimes doesn’t want to act like an ally. At least Britain and France have some commitment and capability to function as allies—not much sign of that between South Korea and Japan.

Given such gaps and the scramble with which it was knocked together in the midst of the Korean conflict, the San Francisco system has been extraordinarily resilient. Almost all the bilateral alliances have stood unchanged as formal statements, shifting little from their original legal expression. Some alliances have been static or even shrunk for long periods (Thailand, the Philippines) while others have been dynamic in function and form (Japan and South Korea).

Over the seven decades, only one spoke has dropped off—and that was the least important bit for the US (with apologies to our valued Kiwi readers). If it wasn’t for the 1985–86 breach with New Zealand over nuclear weapons, this would still be the treaty chain that stretches from Washington to Wellington. And outside the formal treaty structure, of course, it still does.

New Zealand continues to shelter beneath the America guarantee, which is both implicit and systemic. Thus, the Kiwis draw the same benefits as other Asian states which don’t have formal treaties with the US. The US system delivers even for those who aren’t declared allies. And under the Obama administration, New Zealand has been able to lift its status from quasi ally to de facto ally alongside Singapore. The virtual alliance with Singapore is based on US ship visits, while the virtual alliance with New Zealand rests on the avoidance of ship visits. Chameleon, indeed.

The adaptability of the US military guarantee makes it easier for the concert to rise on Asia’s existing foundations and not attempt the far more difficult task of displacing or replacing the US system.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user just.Luc