Written by Abraham M. Denmark.

As the United States continues to rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific, alliances and partnerships will take on a greater significance in this strategy. Whereas Washington was initially focused on enhancing American power in the Asia-Pacific, its strategy is rapidly evolving to one focused on upgrading its alliance and partner relationships in the region, nurturing intra-regional engagement and cooperation among its allies and partners, and building the capabilities of its friends in the region so they can contribute more to an increasingly broad set of mutual interests.

While much ink has been spilled on the specific dynamics, challenges, and opportunities of these individual relationships, the broader implications of this new approach has not been as thoroughly analyzed. While a more in-depth study of the subject is warranted, four major implications about U.S. alliances and partnerships are readily apparent.

1) Alliances and Partnerships are absolutely central to U.S. power, presence, and influence in the Asia-Pacific and around the world.

The United States is lucky to have such a broad, diverse, and robust network of alliance and partner relationship. No other country enjoys anything even remotely comparable with this system, and they both support and represent America’s unique role as the “indispensible nation.”

Most obviously, U.S. allies host to tens of thousands of American military personnel. This presence enables the United States to truly act as a global superpower that keeps the peace while also enabling Washington to focus on more immediate crises. Indeed, while some scholars and officials lament that a seemingly unending series of crises will somehow undermine U.S. intentions to rebalance, the reality is that alliances have a profoundly additive quality to American power. Not only do they enable America’s global presence; they also free Washington to focus on and address immediate crises (while often contributing to these efforts as well) and additionally offering a sufficient guarantee to help preserve stability in the meantime. This is why the United States was able to focus on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without needing to be overly concerned about China or Russia attempting to exploit a distracted America. U.S. allies and partners, and the American forces they host, represent the key infrastructure maintaining today’s international order.

2) Alliance relationships in the 21st Century Asia-Pacific will be of a fundamentally different character than European alliances in the 20th century.

Initially conceived as military relationships required by the geopolitical realities of WWI, WWII, and the Cold War, alliances for much of the 20th century were relatively straightforward arrangements. Uniform mechanisms for alliance management, such as NATO, were put in place to enable robust military coordination and cooperation against a shared existential foe. Economic relations naturally flowed from these relationships, as trade between the belligerent sides during the World Wars and Cold War was virtually nonexistent. Political coordination was certainly more complicated, but flowed from this shared sense of multinational purpose and the “long twilight struggle” against a shared arch nemesis.

Asia in the 21st century looks nothing like Europe in the 20th. While the United States enjoys strong alliance relationships across the region, there is nothing like a unified NATO-like mechanism to bring them together. Moreover, the economies of America’s allies are tightly integrated with China – a dynamic that raises complicated strategic calculations for allies whose economic and strategic loyalties are increasingly divergent. Finally, political calculations among America’s Asian allies are far more complicated than they were in Europe. Antagonisms and distrust over past aggression continues to roil relations between Japan and South Korea (for example), have not been able to find a way to move beyond their past the way France and Germany have.

Even the term “alliance” is growing more complicated for American strategy in the Asia-Pacific. While the United States has five formal treaty allies in Asia (Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand), it also has robust partnership relations with a host of other Asian powers, such as India, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, and (unofficially) Taiwan. Since pursuing a rebalancing strategy, the United States has recognized the geopolitical importance of strengthening its relationships with these nations and has consequently intensified its outreach.

As part of rebalancing, the United States has sought to upgrade its alliances and partnerships for the 21st century with a series of political, economic, and military initiatives. These moves – which including the United States joining the East Asia Summit, reinvigorating efforts to conclude a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) economic agreement, and upgrading its military arrangements with several countries around the region – signal that alliances and partnerships are evolving from relationships based primarily on military arrangements to robust platforms that support political, economic, and military cooperation and coordination.

3) America’s success will hinge on its sensitivity to the specific interests, fears, and ambitions of each individual ally and partner.

Each ally and partner has its particular interests informing its approach to relations with China and the United States. Some, such as Japan and Australia, have embraced their status as an ally of the United States and are actively seeking ways to enhance all aspects of their relations with Washington. Others, such as Indonesia, India, and Vietnam have more complicated considerations at play: while they certainly seek closer relations with the United States in part to help balance a potentially aggressive China, they are also highly sensitive to any appearance that they are being treated as pawns in a geopolitical game between Asia’s major powers. Moreover, many strategists in these countries are allergic to even the suggestion that they are taking sides in some of these disputes – in part out of fear of retribution by the other part, but also out of a normative belief in the importance of nonalignment. These challenges are entirely navigable by the United States. But they will require adroit diplomacy and eternal vigilance against taking these relationships for granted.

4) As the U.S. rebalances, its allies and partners will look for opportunities to lead and contribute.

Efforts to upgrade its alliance and partner relationships will have the effect of expanding the role they have in preserving regional stability and promoting its prosperity, while also evolving America’s system of alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific from a “hub and spoke” arrangement to a networked model. Deepening economic integration, political coordination, and military cooperation will have the natural effect of expanding the role that U.S. allies and partners can play in regional geopolitics.

This can mean a wide variety of complex dynamics, in which American friends act – sometimes with the U.S., sometimes with one another, and sometimes unilaterally – to defend themselves and advance their interests. Generally speaking, this is a phenomenon that the United States should encourage and foster. Like-minded nations such as South Korea, Japan, and Australia have a great potential to take the lead on several political, economic, and military issues. Specialization and cooperation – essential for nations with limited resources and unique geopolitical objectives – will give each nation unique roles to play, while also ensuring that the United States remains the leading nation among equals.

Abraham M. Denmark is Senior Vice President for Political and Security Affairs and External Relations at the National Bureau for Asian of Asian Research (NBR). He is on Twitter @AbeDenmark. Image Credit: CC by Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr.

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