YL Blog #28: Alliance Thinking About Deterrence in the Pacific Islands Region



When discussions regarding strategic competition between the United States and China invariably turn to potential sites or circumstances for military confrontation — if not deterring conflict in the first instance — few analysts or policymakers would nominate the Pacific Islands region (PIR) as a priority theatre. Yet it is fast becoming “a strategic frontline in a multi-nation contest for power and influence” in the Indo-Pacific, not least in the scheme of Great Power competition. Substantial analytical and journalistic reporting in recent years has been devoted to examining Chinese and US competition for regional political and economic influence. Questions over security and deterrence, however, have so far largely escaped closer analysis, even though there are significant mid-term “military and geopolitical advantages” at stake.

For the US, there is a growing need to consider these matters with greater urgency, not least considering that one of its closest treaty allies—Australia—is a resident power in the PIR. On the one hand, Australia is both advantageously and perilously located on the frontline of a relatively new theatre of strategic competition. On the other hand, the US-Australia Alliance has not been required to grapple with questions of deterrence and defense against powerful adversaries in the PIR for many years. Notwithstanding a long history of military cooperation, the PIR’s unique geography, complex geopolitical character and growing Chinese presence collectively present a new challenge for the US-Australia Alliance, and the serious chance that China could become a resident military power in the PIR should prompt a serious rethink of what collective regional deterrence should looks like in a new geostrategic context.

The Mismatch Between Interests and Resourcing

Historically, US regional interests have been most acute where Washington possesses sovereign territories or enjoys access, primarily across the northern arc of the PIR. Since the 19th century, locations across the PIR’s north—Hawaii, Guam, the Compact of Free Association States, and others—have helped sustain American commercial and political interests in Asia, while since the end of World War II, a robust regional military presence has allowed the US to maintain a favorable regional balance of power, protecting the freedom of movement of goods, ideas, and—should needs arise—American and/or allied forces to regional flash-points. Possession of or access to Pacific territories has also allowed America to deny these areas to potentially hostile powers who might seek to threaten the US homeland. Such concerns have largely lain dormant since Imperial Japan’s defeat in September 1945, but have risen again in the wake of China’s rise.

In fact, many argue that a growth in China’s influence in the PIR has occurred while Washington has been asleep at the wheel. For the purposes of this paper, America’s failure to adequately invest in regional security initiatives and local US force posture are of primary concern. The Obama Administration’s ‘Rebalance to Asia’ did include some Pacific-relevant initiatives such as increasing aid, trade and investment links with the region, alongside the stated goal of shifting the bulk of US forces (including 60% of naval forces) into the Asia-Pacific by 2020. However, efforts to recalibrate regional force posture occurred in parallel with a general reduction in global force posture, meaning that US Pacific forces have essentially “remained static” since the Rebalance was announced. It is also unclear whether the administration of President Donald Trump regards the region as strategically important. Notwithstanding the adoption of the Indo-Pacific Strategy to address China’s regional designs, there is little in the way of official documentation that clarifies Washington’s core security interests in the PIR, or that sets forth a convincing strategy for addressing the challenges posed by China there. The PIR did not rate a single mention in the administration’s National Defense Strategy, while subsequent Department of Defense and Department of State documents outlining the Indo-Pacific Strategy read largely as lists of minor achievements and initiatives rather than long-term diplomatic or military blueprints for addressing pressing strategic challenges.

Symptomatic of America’s broader Indo-Pacific budgetary shortfall, US military assistance to the PIR has been negligible compared with investments made elsewhere, namely in the Middle East. In 2018, for example, the entire PIR received a quarter (approx. $1 million) of the International Military Education and Training funding extended to Jordan alone (approx. $4 million). Nor have Pacific Island states typically received much in the way of targeted Foreign Military Financing, funding which has typically fallen under an ill-defined ‘regional’ category. Notwithstanding some encouraging signs in the FY20 National Defense Authorization Act—including expansion of the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative to include the PIR, $1.5 billion for Indo-Pacific security initiatives under ARIA, and a directive for US Defense and Intelligence authorities to compile a report on “foreign military activities in Pacific Island countries”—there remains much for the US to do to step-up its security footprint in the PIR consistent with its identification of the Indo-Pacific as its priority theatre.

Australia has also historically recognized the strategic significance of the PIR, but has not consistently invested the material and political resources to support that perception. To varying degrees of urgency, successive Defence White Papers have repeatedly articulated the imperative of a secure and stable PIR for Australian security. Realistically, however, since WWII Canberra has become accustomed to dealing with non-traditional security challenges such as failed states and natural disasters rather than state-based military threats or encroaching outside powers. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Australia’s policy posture towards the PIR over the years has oscillated between “crisis-driven interest” and neglect depending on the top security priorities of the day, which for the last two decades have primarily resided in the Middle East—nearly 73% (US $9 billion) of total operational spending since FY00/01 has gone towards distant Middle East campaigns.

In recent years, however, China’s growing power and influence have refocused Australian policymakers’ attention back on the Indo-Pacific, particularly in the PIR. Though the ‘Pacific Step-Up’ policy may not be exclusively about addressing growing Chinese influence, that the policy has come largely in the wake of a growing Chinese profile in the region indicates that it is at least amongst its core drivers. Aside from expanding its diplomatic presence in the region, 35% of Australia’s (shrinking) aid budget now goes to the PIR (a number which could increase further), while Canberra could announce a range of new Pacific projects through the US $1.26 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility later this year. In the security space, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has also stepped up its engagements with the region, conducting the annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise in the Pacific in 2018, sponsoring a program to deliver 19 maritime patrol vessels to 12 Pacific states, and standing up a Pacific Support Force to lead regional military training, among other initiatives.

China’s Growing Pacific Profile: Probing for Strategic Access?

Recent Australian and American initiatives in the PIR have undoubtedly been motivated by an uptick in Chinese activity and influence. In short, Beijing’s efforts to cultivate influence across the PIR could have serious strategic implications for both Australia and the United States—namely, should Chinese funding of critical infrastructure projects in the PIR ultimately pave the way for a regular People’s Liberation Army (PLA) presence there. China has been criticized for using economic coercion and so-called ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ to secure strategically important facilities across the Indo-Pacific, most infamously in the case of Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. Many feared that the PIR would face a similar predicament (though recent research dispels these concerns), though its circumstances are somewhat different given the particular economic, political and security weaknesses afflicting many PIR states, and the region’s unique geography. In fact, the relatively small scale of the infrastructure required for small Pacific populations creates a favorable cost-benefit dynamic for China should it seek to generate strategic advantages over Australia and the US by cultivating strategic access in Pacific states.

China’s diplomatic battle with Taiwan has historically driven its interest in the region, but analysts worry that additional strategic considerations could also be entering China’s calculus. Some argue that recent diplomatic switches by Kiribati and the Solomon Islands from Taiwan to the People’s Republic could spark a chain of events resulting in “a crescent of Pacific island nations heavily influenced by China,” potentially allowing it to constrain US and Australian freedom of movement across the region. Others claim that military expansionism is in fact Beijing’s long-term goal, with low-return economic projects merely part of “a pre-conflict type of shadow game” of strategic positioning with the US. A regular military presence in the PIR could enhance the PLA’s regional logistics and communications networks, and allow it to surveil Australian and US military activities in peacetime, or even strike preemptively in the event of conflict in the South China Sea or East Asia.

Recent evidence adds weight to these concerns. Initial alarm was raised by an April 2018 story alleging that China and Vanuatu had held preliminary discussions regarding the establishment of a permanent PLA naval presence on the island nation, either in the form an initial access agreement permitting PLA vessels to refuel and resupply in Vanuatu, or even a purpose-built facility further down the track. Many pointed to the fact that Beijing had already provided development assistance for a new wharf on the northern island of Espiritu Santo, located close to a major international airport which China had also pledged to develop. The Australian government was quick to protest, and authorities in China and Vanuatu were just as quick to deny the reports, but the story nevertheless sparked significant anxiety within Alliance policy circles. Rory Medcalf distilled the Alliance’s core anxieties when he stated that such a base would “give China a foothold for operations to coerce Australia, outflank the US… and collect intelligence in a regional security crisis.”

Vanuatu, however, was not a one-off. Additional reports indicated that China could be in line to co-develop four major port facilities in Papua New Guinea (PNG), including at the site of Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island. These anxieties likely informed the Alliance’s decision, announced by US Vice President Mike Pence at the APEC 2018 Summit in Port Moresby, to partner with PNG in the redevelopment of Lombrum as a dedicated naval facility. In that same month, further reports spotlighted Chinese interest in assisting Samoa in developing a new port facility at Savai’i and, it later emerged, a second port site on Upolu¾both locations are adjacent to potential major airstrips. More recently, in October 2019 provincial authorities on Tulagi in the Solomon Islands signed an agreement to lease the entire island to Chinese state-owned company SAM Group, before the Solomons’ central government deemed the deal unlawful. Given the island’s historical significance as a Japanese deep-water naval base during World War II, Australian and US officialswere concerned that commercial facilities on the island could be converted to reprise such a role for Chinese forces. Before news of the deal’s cancellation had broken, some Australian analysts had speculated that a planned construction airfield there could eventually be outfitted to support Chinese J-10 fighter aircraft.

Thinking Through Options for Deterrence in the PIR

Though China has yet to secure strategic access in the PIR, its efforts still leave much for the Alliance to consider. The Allies’ responses thus far suggest that they are willing to expand their own regional strategic footprint in response, albeit in a rather reactive manner. Before launching into a larger coordinated response, however, policymakers in Canberra and Washington will need to develop a common understanding of the exact threat that a Chinese military presence would pose, whether or not these designs can be deterred in the first place, or if not, how best to deter, mitigate or eliminate the security challenges that a local PLA base could pose.

As a first step, the Allies should consider the range of Chinese actions that they seek to deter. Both partners obviously share an interest in preventing China from securing strategic access in the PIR. What is unclear, however, is whether that means a) the establishment of these facilities, and whether they are dedicated or dual-use facilities; b) the further development of existing commercial infrastructure to accommodate military assets; or c) the PLA’s actual use of these facilities in ways that undermine Alliance security interests, that would constitute the crossing of a ‘red line’ for the Allies. Despite a few close calls, none of these circumstances have yet materialized, but policymakers cannot wait until after the fact to reach a consensus on where Alliance red lines lie in the Pacific. In other words, the Alliance needs to establish a shared threshold for regional deterrence, beyond which Chinese activities would provoke a collective response.

One possibility is that the Alliance could seek to ‘beat Beijing to the punch’ by securing access to strategic real estate ahead of Chinese companies. In doing so the Alliance would be attempting to deter by denial, signaling a preparedness to outspend and out-politic China in the Pacific. Elements of such an approach are already apparent, for example, the Allies moved quickly to preempt Chinese interest in Lombrum Naval Base, the first stage of which was officially opened in August last year. Most recently, reports suggested that the Allies will seek to establish a deep-water port of their own in the Solomon Islands on the island of Malaita, only weeks after the China-Tulagi agreement was voided. Local authorities there, allegedly unhappy with the central government’s decision to abandon Taiwan, have also invited Australian and US forces to patrol the area. It is unclear whether this latter proposal will proceed given that Honiara has already overruled another recent agreement between local authorities and foreign powers. Regardless, the Allies will not always be as fortunate as they were with the 11th hour cancellation of the Tulagi agreement—the sheer scale of regional demand for infrastructure and the difficulty of competing with China’s largesse means that the risks of similar agreements being reached in the future cannot be ruled out. In the long-term, Australia and America—even in partnership with likeminded states—will struggle to sustain the financial and even political capital to preempt suspected Chinese strategic designs at every turn. Competing with Beijing on the basis of dollar figures alone does not advantage either Canberra or Washington going forward, meaning that one could effectively presume that China could not be deterred from seeking strategic access in the PIR in this manner.

A second option could be to confront or even punish China for establishing or even attempting establish an operating location, an idea which was the subject of some limited discussion at the second Australia-US Deterrence Dialogue. Following this concept, the Allies could consider blockading or sabotaging Chinese dual-use or dedicated military facilities in the PIR, whether in their completed forms or in their construction phase. China’s creation of ‘facts on the ground’ in the South China Sea (SCS) has already demonstrated the perils of allowing such projects to go ahead—in fact, some US voices have claimed that China is in fact applying the Go-like tactics mastered in the SCS to the PIR. As such, analysis suggesting that the conventional wisdom regarding China’s SCS bases—that they could be easily and efficiently neutralized in the event of conflict—is dangerously wrong could carry lessons for the Alliance in the PIR. China’s SCS facilities would in fact be “prohibitively costly” for the US and/or its Allies to neutralize in the early stages of a conflict, given that it is nearly impossible to “imagine a scenario in which the United States would be seriously considering kinetic strikes on Chinese bases in the South China Sea that would not also involve fighting in Northeast Asia.” In other words, a second-order consideration could attract outsized investments of military resources at the most pressing of moments, a situation which could be equally possible in the PIR. By providing control over strategically important waterways between Australian and US Pacific forces, Chinese Pacific bases could create additional headaches for the Alliance in wartime planning and practice, drawing resources away from more decisive theatres in north Asia.

Compared with the SCS, China’s deterrence calculations would be considerably different in the PIR. Its core interests reside squarely in and around the Chinese mainland, and would not necessarily be engaged by a distant conflict in the South Pacific should it remain locally confined. Sheer distance would also deny the PLA the same logistical advantages that it enjoys in the SCS, potentially reducing the mid-term efficacy of forces stationed there in a conflict. These factors suggest that the Alliance could minimize the risk of Chinese retaliation or escalation if it took only limited action against putative PLA facilities in the Pacific. Even so, it is questionable whether Australia or the US would be so overtly confrontational as to blockade or strike Chinese facilities in the Pacific. Blockading or striking military facilities built upon artificial islets is one thing. Doing the same to potentially commercial targets located within a third party’s sovereign territory is another matter entirely. In fact, were Beijing invited to establish a military presence by a Pacific nation’s central government, the long-term political costs of these sorts of action could be unpalatable.

Alternatively, rather than trying to deny China a permanent military presence in the PIR at great political and economic expense, it could “prove cheaper to build military capabilities that… could neutralize Chinese bases” through denial operations or, if necessary, kinetic strikes—classic deterrence by denial. Pursuing such a denial strategy would not necessarily preclude Chinese military outposts in the PIR, but would nevertheless allow both Alliance partners to preserve economic and political capital, avoid near-term actions that could see Pacific nations become collateral damage, and address wider-ranging strategic needs. For example, though much recent discussion regarding the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty has dealt with the utility of these capabilities in Asia, they would provide equal leverage over hypothetical Chinese facilities in the Pacific Islands. In fact, for Australia these capabilities make more sense in a Pacific context given the substantial distance between potential basing locations in the Northern Territory and likely targets in the South China Sea and beyond.

The US has already begun developing and testing new ground-based INF-range cruise and ballistic missiles for future deployments in Asia, but these plans are complicated by the limited number and great distance of US territories from likely targets, and the reluctance of regional partners (bar perhaps Japan) to host these capabilities at the risk of China’s wrath. Instead, Australia could be given the lead in developing a domestic land-based strike capability with practical technical support from the US. Such an initiative would be a positive step towards more equitable burden-sharing arrangements, and assist Washington’s efforts to address the significant fiscal, maintenance and political challenges associated with resourcing the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Long-range strike would also address operational requirements in other parts of Australia’s near-abroad, while jointly developing an operational doctrine for their deployment and use would also contribute to a tightening of Alliance strategic planning in the PIR. Relatedly, the PIR should more prominently feature in Alliance consultations over the division of labor in a range of possible contingencies across the Indo-Pacific. Even with these capabilities, Australia could not, beyond unreasonable doubt, deter or defeat Chinese aggression alone, and would still depend on US military support in the majority of imaginable scenarios where China is the chief adversary. Nevertheless, Washington will continue to expect Canberra to play a leading role in local joint operations, particularly if the Allies agree that the majority of possible contingencies in the PIR would be peripheral to more resource-demanding conflicts elsewhere. As such, developing a clearer sense of each partner’s expectations of the other in any given PIR contingency, and planning operational responses accordingly, should be a top priority.


In closing, this analysis barely addressed the agency of Pacific Island nations themselves, though not for lack of interest or importance. Rather, Australia and the US would be well-advised to approach the strategic challenge in the PIR by building trust rather than leaving these nations out of strategic planning altogether. After all, PIR states do not necessarily share the Alliance’s perceptions of China, and there is little evidence that Australia or the US are taking the region’s own security priority—climate change—seriously enough to foster the deep strategic partnerships required to build a regional order favorable to their interests. Nor is this analysis to suggest that military investments alone can solve the strategic challenges at hand, only that these considerations have remained largely peripheral until recently. Finally, this paper is far from exhaustive, and many of the ideas presented here are admittedly incomplete and worthy of further exploration. Hopefully, future US-Australia Deterrence Dialogues can unpack the complexities of strategic competition in the PIR in much more detail.

Tom Corben is a resident Vasey fellow at Pacific Forum.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

Issues & Insights Vol. 20, WP 1 – Maritime Issues in the Indo-Pacific: Building a Shared Vision of “Free and Open”



Pacific Forum, the Yokosuka Council on Asia Pacific Studies (YCAPS), and Tama University’s Center for Rule-making Strategies, with support from the US Embassy in Japan, organized a conference discussing maritime issues in the Indo-Pacific as they relate to the “Free and Open” concept. The event was hosted by the Center for Rule-making Strategies in Tokyo November 21-22, 2019. Approximately 35 senior officials, scholars, scientists, and security specialists attended in their personal capacity for an off-the-record discussion. The closed-door conference covered an array of maritime challenges including territorial conflicts, erosion of the rule of law, piracy and other criminal activities, unsustainable fishing practices, and environmental destruction. Synchronizing the efforts of uniquely qualified experts, this conference and its initiatives developed important messages for regional and global thinkers.

The conference provided a platform for professionals to address a multitude of growing concerns while creating an environment encouraging creative problem framing and problem solving. Following the conference, the experts in attendance were invited to submit short analytical commentaries for compilation into this volume. Key themes from this conference are outlined below.

There is an increasing pressure on the traditional US-led security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. This pressure stems from many factors, including evolving economic dynamics and maritime security challenges. Middle powers such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia will have an increasing level of responsibility in shaping the Indo-Pacific region by aligning in these two areas. Japan’s pragmatic approach focuses on strengthening the law enforcement capacities of other regional partners while relying on Official Development Assistance (ODA) to serve as an important foreign policy tool. On this theme, Dr. Stephen Nagy’s piece explores opportunities for maritime cooperation among middle powers in the Indo-Pacific. Dr. Raymond Yamamoto uses the changes in the distribution of Japan’s ODA to demonstrate the Abe administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision is not merely an update to previous ideas such as the Arch of Freedom Prosperity but a unique doctrine tailored to Japan’s current strategic needs. Dr. SATO Yoichiro explores Japan’s FOIP as a strategic approach employed by Japan’s leadership to advance its goals in a region under realignment in response to the People’s Republic of China’s growing economic heft and more threatening posture.

Much of the conversation focused on China maritime activities, which were generally seen as detrimental to a FOIP. In particular, the South China Sea came up as a “flashpoint” or tension front. Dr. OTA Fumio (VADM JMSDF ret.) contrasts Japan’s FOIP concept with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), arguing that—unlike FOIP—BRI is military-oriented, lacks rules, erodes the sovereignty of participants, imposes unsustainable financial burdens, and lacks transparency. Dr. ITO Go’s contribution focuses on Chinese activities in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as exemplifying that nation’s disruptive behavior.

Other discussions focused on the actions that states might take to address the range of regional maritime challenges. After examining China activities in the South China Sea through the lens of Chinese historical analogy, Vivian Ng argues that the US needs to take bold and unanticipated actions if it wants to disrupt current trajectories and seize the initiative. Dr. Asyurah Salleh points out that national competition exacerbates transnational maritime challenges such as environmental destruction. She unpacks the threats associated with fisheries mismanagement, arguing for a regional fishery management organization and other strategic actions while acknowledging international competition in the South China Sea restricts the range of options available. Finally, Margaret Jackson examines energy considerations for the US-Japan alliance in light of challenges to the flow of resources by sea and suggests the need for improved coordination in infrastructure investment and regional cooperation building.

The current approaches to the myriad of maritime concerns in the Indo-Pacific have been insufficient in securing a future in which the gathered experts are confident that a free and open system will be able to sustain regional peace and stability. Security, economics, environmental practices, and governance are fundamental considerations policymakers and the public must consider when developing a responsible maritime strategy. Reflecting the thoughtful discussion at the conference, the articles that follow provide an enlightened and expert perspective on the variety of themes addressed above. We hope our readers will consider new perspectives, revise their own perceptions appropriately, and engage in respectful and meaningful dialogue with other interested individuals.

YL Blog #24: Regions and Its Contestations


The first plenary session of the Asia-Pacific roundtable, titled Asia Pacific vs. Indo Pacific: rationale, contestation and implications brought into light two fundamental questions of what a region is and why we are experiencing a shift in the terms.

To begin, are regions value-free or value-laden? Dr. Raja Mohan makes the argument that regions are continuously undergoing construction and deconstruction, reflecting changes in circumstance. He further argues that, resistance to the term ‘Indo Pacific’ is odd, as the term does not inherently oppose any other regional construct. Rather, the term ‘Indo Pacific’ describes the growing integration of a specific boundary of states. In fact, what is described as the Indo Pacific is not even a new concept. Dr. Mohan refers to this as the “restoration of old geographic descriptions, not a reinvention of new geography.” This point is made with reference to the fact that aspirations to connect the Pacific and Indian Oceans have long existed. Even China today aspires to achieve to connect the two Oceans through its Belt and Road Initiative.

The idea that regions are social constructs is agreeable, but it is arguable whether they are merely categorizations that are devoid of value judgement. For example, the phrase ‘Free and open Indo Pacific’ suggests that the Indo Pacific espouses certain values vis-à-vis other regional constructs which espouse contrary, or at least, conflicting ideals. Also, the hyphenated phrase Indo-Pacific, compared to the non-hyphenated Indo Pacific or slashed Indo/Pacific, hints at the conjoining of two strategically distinct regions, as well as a maritime-focused outlook. In this line of thought, that China resists the idea of an Indo Pacific construct is not odd at all. On the contrary, it is a natural reaction to a phrase that carries value-laden connotations.

Related to the above point, if regions are indeed social constructions, who is doing the constructing?  Early mention of the Indo Pacific construct can be found in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s speech to the Indian Parliament in 2007. The speech, titled, Confluence of the Two Seas, highlighted Japan’s aspirations to promote an open and transparent Indo-Pacific zone. In Abe’s second inauguration, the Indo Pacific concept emerged in the Security Diamond strategy. However, more recently, the Indo Pacific construct has come to represent Japan’s regional vision, and not regional strategy. While a vision is an aspirational guide to help accomplish a long-term plan, a strategy denotes intent to employ political, economic, and military resources to achieve a specific end goal, with a clear success or failure outcome. The shift from strategy to vision is noteworthy, reflecting Japan’s sensitive position between China and the United States. Dr. Takahara’s presentation about how China’s BRI and Japan’s FOIP can complement each other is an optimistic outlook, but Japan will need to balance this with sensitivity towards its alliance with the US. For example, Japan will need to be vocal when China’s BRI and Japan’s FOIP face a fundamental clash over values (free trade, accountability, transparency, etc.).

For the United States, the Indo Pacific concept reflects a clear United States strategy towards the region. Mr. Elbridge Colby emphasized that while the US is not trying to seek dominance in the region or coerce regime change in China, it seeks to create positions of strength as to diminish China’s ability to coerce the region’s states. The message was clear: The United States is not asking countries, for example, in Southeast Asia to choose between China and the United States. However, it does want to make the region more resilient against China’s regional hegemonic goals. While US activities in the region, such as aiding infrastructure building in Southeast Asia, and carrying out freedom of navigation operations, are not targeted at China per se, it is understandable why China may think it is. This gap in perception calls for greater communication between the two states, focusing on areas of convergence, rather than divergence. Furthermore, as two architects of the Indo Pacific construct, the United States and Japan need to cooperate closely, with the support of other countries such as South Korea and ASEAN member states, on how to make it a durable construct. For example, what happens when Japan’s vision clashes with United States strategy?

To conclude, the plenary session highlighted the gap in view held by the United States, China, and to a lesser extent, Japan, regarding the ‘Indo Pacific.’ One could even make the observation that this message set the tone of the entire Asia Pacific Roundtable conference. Specifically, rather than seeking ways to bridge the gap, discussions throughout the entire conference focused on areas of contestation between the United States and China in the region. As the world enters a more multipolar order, the importance of regions will naturally increase. Thus, at least in the foreseeable future, regions and its contestations will become a recurring concern for scholars and practitioners of international relations.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

YL Blog #23 – Pragmatism Versus Principles: How Regional Actors Are Navigating the China-U.S. Standoff in the Indo-Pacific


The 33rd Asian Pacific Roundtable, held 24 to 26 June 2019, was enveloped by two major developments in the region: the start of the U.S.-China trade dispute and the publication of the United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy, which commits to “sustain American influence in the region to ensure favorable balances of power and safeguard the free and open international order.” With the background of the major power standoff, it was clear that Southeast Asian nations were questioning how to navigate what was often characterized as a binary security choice: side with China or the United States.  However, in reality, the various roundtable discussions at the APR, revealed that few ASEAN countries felt compelled to choose between the U.S. and China. Rather, the question they seemed to be grappling with was how to best utilize the current focus on their region to support their national interests and how to continue engaging with China without being negatively affected.

This was perhaps best exemplified in the selection and placement of the second plenary session on Asia-Europe partnership in which they explored how the EU can get more involved in the security arena in Southeast Asia. Speakers emphasized how the EU’s involvement would help balance the global power structure and act as a pacifying force between China and the U.S. The session came off as a weak plea for someone else to get involved in the region and provide more security resources (I read, “money”) and asked for a strong commitment from the EU to stay involved. Is this a desire to side with the U.S. vision for the region but maintain a face of not openly siding with the U.S.? Probably not. The EU has many shared interests with the U.S. For example, France updated its Indo-Pacific Strategy in May 2019 and highlighted the nuclear threat of North Korea, the militarization of contested islands in the South China Sea, terrorism, and the dangers of climate change.  However, the plenary speakers, rather than call for a free and open Indo-Pacific, kept emphasizing that China’s rise would not be stopped and that the region has to engage with China, and one speaker positively noted the common stereotype that Europe is soft on China. Southeast Asia is looking for partners that will work with China. 

Are we all in a Catch-22 scenario? One of the Japanese speakers astutely asked, is there a free and open Indo-Pacific that includes China? That would be ideal, but the threat the region and international order face is one in which a rising power is trying to gain enough influence to re-write an economic system in its favor at the expense of weaker states. In the first plenary session, Colby Eldridge from the Center for New American Security, broad-stroke described the U.S. intents in the region as one of checking the rising strength and assertiveness of China in the region to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. In his recent opinion piece, he says, “The interests of the US are in preserving and protecting the sovereign freedom of nation states, so that we can trade and interact with them without undue encumbrance.” He goes on to address Southeast Asia saying, “You may not be interested in strategic reality, to paraphrase Russian intellectual Leon Trotsky, but it is interested in you. That choice is not between total affiliation with the United States or with China. But it is a choice as to whether you will preserve your sovereignty and national freedom.” A fellow Young Leader brought to my attention a recent incident in the Philippines in which President Duterte absolved China of any militant when a Chinese ship did a hit-and-run of Philippine fisherman in Philippine waters. Wanting to pursue a positive relationship with China meant not asserting the state’s maritime sovereignty. Where will this lead in the long run?

The U.S.-China standoff overshadowed a conference that is supposed to focus on ASEAN. No one in the region wants to pick a side on that. Does the US want people to pick a side? Yes, but not a pro-US side, rather a pro-Free and open Indo-Pacific vision for the region, which would require states to stand up to Chinese abuse of national sovereignty and predatory lending. Unfortunately, the phrase “free and open Indo-Pacific” seems to be synonymous to a message of “U.S., yes; China, no.” Southeast Asian states are being pragmatic, but what will be the cost on them and the international order in the long term? It is regrettable to mention than in the face of a bilateral security choice, multilateral efforts such as the Trans Pacific Partnership may have been the better strategic choice for a region that doesn’t want to choose only between the U.S. and China.  

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

YL Blog #18: The Realignment of Strategic Priorities for Combined Regional Deterrence


The US-ROK-Japan strategic partnership sends an important message across the globe as the bastion of the liberal democracy in the Northeast Asia. The strategic triangle shares moments of historical discordances and harmony in the past. The recent anxiety over the difference of national priorities centering the North Korean security dilemma and economic trade between the Republic of Korea and Japan exactly exemplifies a discordant instance. With the Republic of Korea as a mediator, the denuclearization negotiations between the United States and North Korea remain an entanglement that provides both the opportunity and adversity for the region. In response to this frequently changing regional security environment, the partners use various political and economic assets to maintain the regional balance of power and project their capabilities in hopes of demonstrating the resolve and engaging others to open up for negotiations.

Recent international and domestic political developments in each state influenced the strategic decoupling of the triangle. A rupture within the triangle emerged when the national priorities clashed and could no longer stay aligned. The strategic decoupling also resulted in the misperceptions of others’ strategic developments regarding military reform and advancements. While the concept of deterrence is openly discussed and commonly accepted, the implementation of deterrence strategy can be perceived differently among the three states.

ROK’s Defense Reform 2.0 and Self-Reliant Strategy

The Ministry of National Defense’s 2018 Defense White Paper defined the ROK’s national security goal as “a peaceful and prosperous Korean Peninsula” and outlined its national defense objectives as “protecting the nation from external military threats and attack”, “supporting a peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula”, and “contributing to regional stability and world peace”.

In achieving the national defense objectives, a self-reliant national defense was emphasized and led to an extensive military reform. The Defense Reform 2.0 aims to “build an innovative, creative, ‘elite and advanced strong force’ by transforming the command structure that is “capable of executing integrated, offensive operations in an informatized, high-tech network-focused environment suitable for future warfare.” This pertains to resizing and equipping the military with the strategic, operational and tactical assets including mechanized equipment, multiple rocket launcher systems and enhanced C4ISR (Command, Control, Communication, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) equipment.

The Republic of Korea’s 4D (Detection, Disruption, Destruction and Defense) Operational Concept, a concept for comprehensive counter-missile operations, is an expansion of previously conceptualized Korea Air and Missile Defense, a multi-layered defense system for missile interception. As there is only a single battery of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense deployed in Seongju, Korea, ROK Air Force strives to develop the KAMD system for deployment as soon as possible. Through force development including command restructuring and technological advancements, the Ministry of National Defense prepares for the wartime operational control transition in order to have a self-reliant defense against omnidirectional security threats, including the North Korean nuclear threat.

United States Indo-Pacific Strategy

The Defense Department’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report centers on a vision for preserving “a free and open Indo-Pacific”. The report describes the People’s Republic of China as a revisionist power due to its military modernization and coercive actions through “political warfare, disinformation, A2/AD networks, subversion and economic leverage,” while it continues to label the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a rogue state. The revisionist actions of China inherently clash in interest with the “adherence to international rules and norms, including those of freedom of navigation and overflight” and “peace through strength by rebuilding the military”.

In enhancing the balances of power and advancing the international order, the defense strategy emphasizes a process of preparing, partnering and promoting a networked region. Besides advancing the defense capacity and capability in the region, the strategy calls for increased ISR capabilities and multi-domain operations. It also intends for the security partners “to shoulder a fair share of the burden of responsibility to protect against common threats.” The foreign military sales as the first instrument of resort in effort to maintain alliances have been effective in providing remedy for the allies in exchange for increased shared of burden. Taking an advantage of this, the Republic of Korea will continue to purchase additional F-35 variants to replace its outdated F-16s.

A shared security in the Indo-Pacific through the promotion of a networked region remains a challenge with different national priorities and uneasy interoperability and coordination among the regional allies. The expansion of the hub-and-spokes approach to a regional network of alliances through bilateral and multilateral arrangements has been fruitful. Still, the divergence of the national priorities, political agenda of each leadership and public opinion dimmed a shadow on the bilateral relations when alliance management matters. The quasi-alliance between the ROK and Japan requires an unwavering commitment from the United States.

Strategic Realignment

ROK’s recent inaction to renew the General Sharing of Military Information in response to Japan’s export control added onto the strategic uncertainties that already exist. In spite of Seoul’s debate on GSOMIA as a non-necessity, the ROK’s Ministry of National Defense recently required further intelligence on recent North Korea’s missile test. The political and economic tensions between the ROK and Japan may contribute to a number of uncertainties, but the strategic triangle is nevertheless necessary and remains a strong force of deterrence in the region. The strategic priorities of partners may be realigned for increased partnership and coordination among the security partners.

The strategic triangle concerns over North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests against the United Nations sanctions. It also has a growing concern for the impact of new technologies in the security environment in the region. The difference in perceptions of the strategic environment, however, had born strategic decoupling. Seoul troubles over détente and self-reliant policies. Tokyo focuses on the protection of its citizens from the North Korea’s security threats including North Korea’s abductions of its citizens. Washington commits to maintaining the rule-based international order and preserving networked region to have an effective deterrence against any threat to the international order.

A dilemma on the combined deterrence due to strategic decoupling can be addressed without having to realign the national priorities and with the realignment of economic policies and political assurances. Though East Asian partners have become more export-driven economies and have successfully grown their economies in the past decades, the recent economic growths of ROK and Japan show the least promise with 2.7% and 0.8%, respectively, in 2018 due to the global recession. Likewise, the “America First” policy of the United States has yet to show its impact on its economy. The reluctance to promote regional trade and network the region with economic ties left the countries to seek economic growth through other means. This has also led to the ROK-Japan economic tension and its spillover to the ROK’s inaction on GSOMIA.

The challenge lies in enclosing the economic gap among the triangle in a strategic environment where the US-China strategic competition has the greatest impact on the region. “China’s growing global economic influence” has considerable implications on the United States and its partners. The incomplete transformation into a free-market driven economy and lack of regulations bare challenges, such as the theft of high-valued intellectual properties, to the economic interests of the triangle. The externalities, such as trade restrictions and export control, in the trade can also be considered as an obstacle and move onto a freer trade among the partners. The use of economic instrument for the realignment of regional strategies can be useful in addressing current strategic decoupling.


Securing the economic ties can ensure the partners to put their national sentiments and historical learning behind and prioritize their national strategies centered on network-based economic growth and, eventually, regional security. In a network-based region, enhanced alliance coordination can be an opportunity for stronger economic and security ties. In such strategic environment, the partners can engage in trilateral exchanges to discuss the deterrence at the policy level and nurture a common understanding on deterrence to eventually develop a combined regional deterrence. In this regard, the partners’ common assumption on the feasibility of “NATO-like” deterrence in the Northeast Asia can be explored. After all, NATO’s deterrence mechanism entails the forward deployment of missile defense systems and partners’ burden sharing.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

PacNet #4 – Despite Stumbles, US Engagement with ASEAN Runs Deep

Pacnet image.jpg

This article originally appeared in Global Asia and is republished with permission

The regrettably low-level US representation at the annual summits convened in November in Bangkok by the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) were met by intricate displays of ASEAN’s displeasure. Neither, fortunately, reflect the structural strengths and scope of US-Southeast Asia relations that stem from the alignment between the core aspects of US engagement and the core aspirations of Southeast Asia.

The interrelated aspirations of countries in ASEAN are nation and state building, ensuring strategic autonomy or agency, and asserting centrality in convening and thereby partially shaping extra-regional interactions. The US—through the core aspects of its diplomacy, commerce, security, and civil society cooperation with Southeast Asia—supports, imperfectly, these ambitions. The region’s high-demand signal for the US as the partner of choice and Southeast Asia’s serious, though mostly privately expressed, anxiety about Chinese assertiveness is evident in the headline-grabbing notice and care it gives to US attendance at regional gatherings, and more consequentially, in the off-front-page mutual efforts to build and sustain bilateral relations.

A first aspect is that the US approach toward rules, norms, and values espoused in the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) represents more continuity than departure from past policies. Southeast Asia has responded with its “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific” (AOIP). The convergences between FOIP and AOIP outweigh the differences. Meanwhile, China’s proposed conceptions of regional order (for example, the New Security Concept, and the nine-dash line in the South China Sea) have not even spawned responsive versions, much less synergy, from Southeast Asia. Indeed, the China-ASEAN Code of Conduct for the South China Sea is viewed with suspicion among some in Southeast Asia for calling for exclusive sharing of fisheries and energy resources only among regional states and China, and restricting the ability of regional states to conduct security relations with the US and its regional allies.

The expectation that China’s economic gravity will inexorably “pull” Southeast Asia toward a common destiny with Beijing confuses laws of nature with unpredictable socio-economic and political trajectories. It was once thought that Japan would economically lead a skein of geese in Southeast Asia. Such expectations also underweight the many ways in which Southeast Asia interacts with the US economically beyond trade (e.g., remittances, capital markets, government securities, and the use of the dollar, to name a few). If, as Southeast Asians appear to fear, a common destiny with China means contending with a Beijing-led hierarchical order, there is little appetite for it in an increasingly integrated region informed by modern nationalism.

A second aspect of the US approach is that it has allies and friends (Japan, South Korea, Australia, UK, France, and India, among others) working cooperatively and proactively with it in Southeast Asia. American allies and partners working together in Southeast Asia multiply US power and engagement in ways that meet Southeast Asian aspirations on issues ranging from Mekong region development to human and drug trafficking to capacity-building in maritime domain awareness. An example is the November 2019 US-ROK Joint Fact Sheet on their regional cooperation efforts.

A third element of the US approach is that it is not an irredentist state in Southeast Asia. It does not articulate flimsy historical claims in the South China Sea in contravention of international tribunal rulings. Put simply, the US does not covet the territory of Southeast Asian countries. Nor is the US a “grudge nurturer” harboring hangovers from history as rapprochements with the UK, Japan, Germany, and Vietnam—and even China—demonstrate.

Finally, the US supports ASEAN, a key vehicle of Southeast Asian aspirations to consolidate their countries, prevent intrusions on their sovereignty, and maintain strategic agency. At times, it seems that the US is more supportive of ASEAN than even some within the association.

Such core aspects of the US approach to Southeast Asia are reflected in specific relationships. In this 187th year of bilateral relations, the US and Thailand may not be at “peak alliance” due to the fortunate absence of a regional war to prosecute, and Bangkok’s own political and foreign policy drift over four decades, but the relationship is enduring and adapting. The 2017 Washington-Bangkok normalization following Thailand’s 2014 coup has paved the way for renewed defense cooperation culminating in the newly announced US-Thailand Joint Vision 2020. On the economic front, Thailand remains a growing investment destination for US companies, and trade squabbles over the generalized system of preferences (GSP) involve only a fraction of total two-way trade. Meanwhile, the 121-year-old US-Philippine relationship, which has seen its own share of ups and downs, remains more robust in reality than rhetoric and general reporting would suggest. US-Philippine cooperation during the siege of Marawi, maritime patrols in the Sulu Sea, ongoing efforts to fully implement the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), and most importantly US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s reassurances on the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), provide ballast despite some political turbulence in relations.

Washington remains a significant trade, investment, remittance, and employment partner for Manila. The vital US-Singapore strategic relationship, though not an alliance, has been enhanced twice in five years. A key provision permitting US forces access to Singapore’s military facilities for transit and logistics support was extended in September 2019 for 15 years. And in December the countries announced establishment of a Singapore Air Force permanent fighter training detachment on Guam. Singapore also remains a massive trade, investment, and corporate headquarters partner for the US.

America’s other Southeast Asian partnerships continue to develop. The US-Vietnam relationship is witnessing steady improvements on both the commercial and defense sides of the ledger. Of course, there are constraints and disagreements, but Hanoi’s receptivity to mutual high-level visits and public displays of defense cooperation are examples of its interest in improving ties with Washington in its ASEAN chairmanship year. New partnerships with Malaysia and Indonesia continue to develop across the spectrum of cooperation, and renewed full diplomatic re-engagement with Myanmar has not been derailed despite the human rights atrocities there.

Current US-Southeast Asia relations are wider and deeper on both sides than in the past two generations. Beyond official and traditional commercial and security ties, the engagements between US and Southeast Asian civil societies are less well known. There are over 90 sister relationships between the US and Southeast Asian countries that help to build local people-to-people connections as well as educational, familial, and business relations. Some 7.4 million Americans trace their ethnic origins to Southeast Asia. Remittances from the US to the region range from 56% of the total for Vietnam to 19% for Laos. Myriad educational exchanges and scholarships ranging from the Fulbright Program to the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) bring tens of thousands of Southeast Asians to the US—but alas, not enough Americans to Southeast Asia.

Tourism between the US and Southeast Asia is robust, with some 5 million people exchanging visits. It is no wonder that among major regional countries, the US is viewed by publics as their key ally or partner—even as the same publics, including in the US, view China’s economic development as welcome. These “everyday” but generally “out of sight” US-Southeast Asia interactions undergird the official alignment between the core aspects of US engagement and Southeast Asia’s core aspirations, despite public relations stumbles such as the level of US representation at Southeast Asia summits in Bangkok in November. There is no room for complacency and lots of hard work lies ahead, but there is no need to panic about U.S.-Southeast Asia relations.

Dr. Satu Limaye (LimayeS@EastWestCenter.org) is Vice President of the East West Center and Director, East West Center in Washington and Senior Advisor, Center for Naval Analyses (CNA). He is the creator of the Asia Matters for America Initiative, founding editor of the Asia-Pacific Bulletin, and an editor of Global Asia.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.