Assuaging U.S. Allies in Asia

*This post is final in a series exploring what America’s allies in Asia can expect from the Biden administration and the regional concern about China’s recent assertive behavior.*

U.S. Alliances in Asia

At the end of World War II, the United States established a system of bilateral, treaty-based alliances[1] in the Asia-Pacific region designed to “contain communism in the region.” These alliances involve a “shared commitment to respond collectively to armed attacks.” In short, these allies are ones that the United States is willing (and obligated by the treaty) to defend if that ally is attacked.

Beyond those formal defense alliances, the United States also formed and maintained close and strategic partnerships with several other countries in Asia, most importantly, India. Through the Cold War and into the post-Cold War world, the United States has maintained these strategic alliances and partnerships to ensure stability in the Asia-Pacific region and to meet regional and global challenges head on. 

Credit: #PACOM
Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussing Japanese and South Korean partnerships.

The Trump Years

U.S. relations with its key partners were largely bumpy during the Trump administration. Former President Trump castigated Japan and South Korea, demanding that the two allies pay more because the United States posts U.S. troops in those countries as part of the security alliances. This, in turn, caused these key allies to worry that  whether America’s commitment to them is conditional. Conversely, some in Asia appreciated Trump’s tougher stance on China and the fact that he tried to engage with Kim Jong Un on North Korea’s nuclear program, with little to no results.

Trump further damaged U.S. ties to the region by removing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal and further scorning the “open, multilateral trading regimes that have buoyed Asia’s economic success.” As the Economist observes, “Never has America’s ability to underpin Asia’s stability and prosperity been so doubted by the region’s leadership and policymakers as over the past four years.”

The Biden Administration

President Joe Biden began his new administration by contacting the leaders of the United States’ key allies and partners in Asia, specifically Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India. He reiterated his commitment to the bilateral relationships. Consequently, these countries have all signaled eagerness to work with the Biden administration and want to work with the United States to counter what they view as the most pressing issues in their region: the rise of China and its increasingly assertive behavior throughout the region. 

China’s Aggressive Behavior in the Asia-Pacific Region

China’s political, economic, and military assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region has increased in recent years. From sending ships to put pressure around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea to its crackdown in Hong Kong or its territorial disputes in the South China Sea to its recent incursion of war planes over Taiwan to its genocidal repression of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang province, China’s behavior is, one could argue, aggressive.

Most of the United States’ allies and partners have expressed concern over this growing assertiveness. As a result, the Biden administration has “stressed the importance of allies in responding to the strategic competition posed by Beijing.” Scott Campbell, a member of the Center of Strategic Studies aptly described Biden’s approach: “China policy in 2021 I think is actually going to be about ally policy.” This is evidenced by the commitments and reassurances that Biden made when reaching out to its key allies and partners in Asia.

Japan

Japan views China as a threat to its security. In fact, Japan is “actively promoting military and economic partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region to counter China’s rise.” During his conversation with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Biden confirmed his commitment to “provide extended deterrence to Japan,” including affirming that the U.S.-Japan security treaty includes the Senkaku Islands, which both Japan and China claim.  

South Korea

South Korea’s relationship with China has been largely civil and even prosperous. What concerns South Korea is China’s continued relations with North Korea. China is essentially North Korea’s lifeline in a world where it has been very isolated, serving as North Korea’s most important trading and diplomatic partner. This causes grave concern to South Korea due to the North’s unchecked nuclear program and a desire to reunite the Korean peninsula. Recognizing this vulnerability, Biden spoke of bolstering the U.S.-South Korea alliance, which is “the linchpin for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.” 

Australia

Australia has also voiced concerns about China’s regional behavior and has participated in a few diplomatic spats with Beijing. In his recent phone call with the Australian prime minister, Biden, much like with South Korea and Japan, reiterated the importance of the alliance and discussed how the two allies can tackle the global challenges that face them, including the rise of China. After speaking with Biden, Morrison tweeted, “There are no greater friends and no greater allies than Australia and the U.S.

India

India is also enthusiastic and hopeful about the prospect of U.S.-Indian relations during the Biden administration, particularly in the face of China’s recent aggression. “China is the big elephant in the room,” noted an Indian writer and analyst. Long-existing tensions between India and China came to a head last summer when the armies from each side lined up along the disputed border in the Himalaya Mountains. Biden spoke with his Indian counterpart, promising to build upon the relationship and collaborate on global challenges.

The “Quad”

One multilateral forum with which the United States and its allies has countered a rising China is through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the Quad, comprised of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India. Originally formed in 2004 to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief after a tsunami devastated countries in the Indian Ocean, Australia pulled out in 2007. The Quad was rehabilitated in 2017, expanding into military and economic areas as a result of the rise of China. The Biden administration has signaled to its allies will not be soft on China and will likely continue to use the Quad as a means of countering China in the Asia-Pacific region.

Conclusion

China’s rising assertiveness in Asia is a recognized challenge by the United States and its allies and partners in the region. Countering China’s assertiveness remain be at the center of the Biden administration’s approach and includes reassuring U.S. allies and partners that the United States will cooperate and consult with them on what has been mutually agreed upon as the most pressing issue in the region: China’s increasingly assertive behavior.


[1] In the aftermath of World War II, the United States signed defense treaties with the following countries: The Treaty of Peace with Japan was signed on September 8, 1951; Security Treaty Between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States (ANZUS) on September 1, 1951; Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Philippines on August 30, 2951; Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Korea on October 1, 1953; and the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty (Thailand) on September 8, 1954. Currently, the United States has five treaty alliances with countries in the Asia-Pacific: Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. The New Zealand leg of the ANZUS alliance was suspended in the mid-1989s as a result of New Zealand’s nuclear policies. Today, the United States and New Zealand remain close friends but no longer formal allies. The United States and Taiwan were once allied under the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States of America and the Republic of China, signed December 2, 1954. That treaty was terminated by the United States in1979 as a result of the U.S. decision to switch official recognition of the People’s Republic of China. The Taiwan Relations Act now guides U.S, -Taiwan relations and was enacted on April 10, 1979 to ensure that the United States would continue to help Taiwan defend itself against an attack by the People’s Republic of China.

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