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Modernizing U.S. Alliances for Maritime Security in the Indo-Pacific

Issues & Insights Vol. 21, SR 2, pp. 34-37

Volume Overview

“Modernizing U.S. Alliances for Maritime Security in the Indo-Pacific” is the sixth chapter of Issues & Insights Vol. 21, SR 2 — Advancing a Rules-Based Maritime Order in the Indo-Pacific. Authors of this volume participated in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Expert Working Group’s 2021 workshop that took place, virtually on March 23-24, 2021. The working group, composed of esteemed international security scholars and maritime experts from Japan, the United States, and other Indo-Pacific states, was formed to promote effective U.S.-Japan cooperation on maritime security issues in the region through rigorous research on various legal interpretations, national policies, and cooperative frameworks to understand what is driving regional maritime tensions and what can be done to reduce those tensions. The workshop’s goal is to help generate sound, pragmatic and actionable policy solutions for the United States, Japan, and the wider region, and to ensure that the rule of law and the spirit of cooperation prevail in maritime Indo- Pacific.

Chapter Excerpt

The U.S. alliance system was a post-World War II ‘strategic innovation’ credited with successfully protecting U.S. global and national interests for over seven decades. Today, however, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the hub-and-spokes system in Asia have lost their edge and are struggling to adapt to a security environment featuring three new strategic conditions.  First,  regional skepticism regarding the United States’ level of commitment to maintain the stability of ‘frontier’ regions and alliances is exacerbated by the notion of American decline from a position of global pre-eminence. Second, China is intensifying global efforts to hardwire geopolitical and security conditions to its economic influence. Third, regional security institutions are increasingly strained to maintain unity among their members amidst contentious strategic issues and, in the face of the emergence of alternative regional security arrangements that potentially threaten the centrality of those already existing.

These conditions have driven some U.S. policymakers to re-think the alliance system and ascertain whether it can still serve as the vital node for defense and deterrence in a dramatically transforming global security landscape. NATO says it can. Its Secretary General, Jen Stoltenberg, contends that “NATO is the strongest, most successful alliance in history because we have been able to change.”  In June 2021, U.S. and Allied leaders met in Brussels armed with the NATO 2030 initiative, a final report of an independent group commissioned by Secretary General Stoltenberg to examine the challenges confronting NATO. The report contains all-important recommendations to refresh and strengthen the Atlantic alliance moving forward.

In the Indo-Pacific, the strategic vision of the United States and its Asian partners and allies have not coalesced around the longstanding hub-and-spokes alliance system but under the normative rubric of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP), a construct of Japanese origin that was embraced by the United States in 2017. FOIP not only provides the strategic underpinning for U.S. formulation of its emerging competition with China, but it has also lent institutional shape to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad, an informal security mechanism of four Indo-Pacific democracies–Australia, India, Japan, and the United States–sharing security and economic interests and concerns. Although still in its nascent phase, the Quad is gaining momentum towards becoming a major centerpiece of U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific.

Nevertheless, the hub-and-spokes system remains a key feature of the regional security architecture. U.S. ties with two spokes, in particular Japan and Australia, continue to evolve and mature, with the Quad being the most recent manifestation of the rising regional strategic clout of the two middle powers. In the maritime domain, Japan and Australia have steadily increased their commitments to Southeast Asia, part of efforts to broaden their defense and development presence in the sub-region in response to China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea (SCS).

But China’s increasingly covert and extensive use of gray zone tactics in the SCS and the East China Sea (ECS) undermining the maritime rules-based order is posing a serious challenge to the hub-and-spokes system’s ability to deter and defend. The system is grappling with a new strategic reality that tests the utility of existing mutual defense treaties as a basis for allied responses to China’s assertive maritime actions and claims. This is especially true for two allies involved in the maritime disputes, the Philippines in the SCS and Japan in the ECS, both located in the geostrategically pivotal first island chain. The Philippines in particular appears extremely vulnerable to Chinese soft and hard pressure given its geographical proximity to China, a China-friendly president, challenged institutions of governance, and still weak maritime capabilities. The question then is, can the hub-and-spokes system in its current state be able to deter and defend U.S. national interests?  And if not, how can it be reformed to uphold the maritime rules-based order?

This paper contends that, like NATO, the hub-and-spokes alliance system can be repurposed and maintained as a centerpiece of U.S. strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Currents in the region’s maritime domain provide context that argue for the necessity of retooled alliances. Under the rubric of the emerging U.S.-China great power competition, interventions in the maritime space—by way of structural-institutional reforms—offer alliance upgrade opportunities. These interventions hold the promise of transformation and disruption, change dynamics that are greatly needed by the alliance system. The paper examines how they can animate revisions and transform an alliance into a modernized version of itself.

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Virginia Bacay Watson is professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii. She teaches and publishes on topics including emerging technologies and geopolitics, Southeast Asia, and Indo-Pacific security.


The Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Expert Working Group’s 2021 workshop and this volume were funded by a grant from the U.S. Embassy Tokyo, and implemented in collaboration with the Yokosuka Council on Asia Pacific Studies (YCAPS).

The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organizations and affiliations. For questions, please email [email protected].


Photo: American and Filipino troops pose after completing a combined arms live-fire exercise during Balikatan 2019 at Colonel Ernesto Ravina Air Base in Luzon, April 10, 2019. Balikatan is an annual joint military exercise between treaty-allies, the Philippines and the United States. Source: U.S. Army Photo by Sgt. 1st Class John Etheridge/Public domain.