America’s Asian allies face a predicament. Regional security threats are growing as China’s military modernization and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs continue apace. Meanwhile, some worry that President-elect Trump’s “America first” approach to foreign policy and trade could lead to a diminished U.S. role in Asia. Facing these dual challenges, U.S. allies are asking fundamental questions about their security alignments and policies.
With the future of the U.S.-led security architecture in Asia unclear, War on the Rocks has convened experts to explore the main issues at hand, weigh possible outcomes, and issue recommendations. The essays in this series discuss these challenges from the perspective of a select group of U.S. allies and partners in Asia: Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan. The foremost question in these and other friendly capitals is how to keep the United States engaged in Asia despite growing U.S. public support for an “America first” approach.
This is not the first time that U.S. allies and partners in Asia have sought to enmesh the United States in the region. Indeed, the series of bilateral U.S. alliances that have underwritten security in Asia since World War II emerged from efforts by policymakers in Washington and in foreign capitals to ensure that the United States would remain engaged in Asia. The resulting “hub-and-spokes” system centered on Washington, which shouldered much of the burden for coordinating regional approaches to shared security challenges. Efforts to “network” these alliances are still nascent, so any decrease in U.S. involvement threatens to undermine not just U.S. alliances, but the entire regional order.
To introduce this series, I focus on one of the core questions on the U.S. role in Asia: whether disengagement would trigger allies and partners to share more of the burden. Some experts argue that the threat of U.S. disengagement would convince allies and partners to substantially increase defense spending. After all, states seek to maximize their security while minimizing costs, so why shouldn’t U.S. allies avoid otherwise unnecessary burdens? Yet, today’s burden-sharing debate is occurring while allied concerns grow about not just abandonment by the United States, but also potential entrapment in an unwanted conflict. Thus, U.S. threats to disengage from Asia are likely to lead to dangerous discounting, distancing, and duplicating dynamics.
Discounting, Distancing, and Duplication Dynamics
Incoming U.S. leaders have repeatedly committed to increase allied defense contributions. Trump has insisted that the “distribution of costs has to be changed… I don’t think it’s fair.” He appears to think that U.S. allies will contribute more if they believe the United States might otherwise renounce its alliances, arguing that “countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense, and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.” This approach is intended to increase allied burden-sharing, but it could undermine allied efforts through three mechanisms: discounting, distancing, and duplication.
Discounting could occur if allies ignore Washington’s threats because they find abandonment unlikely. For example, few U.S. allies changed spending levels when Barack Obama noted that “Free riders aggravate me” and warned U.S. allies to pay their “fair share.” Although Trump has been more explicit about his willingness to reconsider longstanding alliances, the American people still favor alliances. According to a survey published this year, 89 percent of Americans say that maintaining alliances has been effective for achieving U.S. foreign policy goals. Furthermore, 75 percent of Americans believe that the United States should maintain or increase its commitment to NATO, and 71 percent think that the United States should maintain or increase the number of its overseas bases. Even Trump supporters back U.S. basing abroad, with 62 percent in favor of U.S. bases in Germany, 66 percent in Japan, and 72 percent in South Korea. Therefore, allied leaders have reason to be skeptical that a new administration would be willing to disengage from allies if they refuse to accept a greater share of the burden.
Distancing, on the other hand, could take place if Washington overemphasizes its willingness to disengage from allies. Lack of confidence in the United States is likely to strengthen foreign advocates of independent security policies and weaken supporters of strong alliance relationships. Threats that undermine U.S. alliances could therefore cause friendly states to de-align from the United States. Even worse, if foreign leaders believe that Washington will not support them in a crisis, then they might re-align by bandwagoning with potential adversaries rather than balancing against them. For example, the perception of insufficient U.S. support is one reason that Philippine leaders cite for their apparent realignment toward China. Similar shifts could also occur in other Asian capitals, in which case the greatest danger to the hub-and-spokes system might not be U.S. abandonment of allies, but instead allies’ abandonment of the United States.
Duplication is a third risk that could undermine burden-sharing efforts by leading to inefficient and ineffective allied military spending. One of the main benefits of alliances is their ability to offset capacity and capability gaps through reliance on complementary capabilities. If allies and partners believe that they might have to face threats on their own, then will be more likely to duplicate U.S. capabilities rather than supplement them. Duplication is inefficient for both the United States and its allies and partners. Moreover, given that disengagement by the United States would require allies to develop independent defense strategies, foreign leaders might seek new approaches misaligned with U.S. interests. In particular, if the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence is undermined, regional states might seek to acquire nuclear weapons, creating another regional security challenge.
The new administration is likely to take steps to avoid discounting, distancing, and duplication, but these risks are interrelated, so any effort to mitigate one problem will exacerbate others. For example, the obvious antidote to allied discounting is to clearly threaten disengagement, yet this would reinforce distancing and duplication. Conversely, distancing and duplication can be offset by reassuring allies, but this would trigger allied discounting. As a result, the incoming administration is likely to find that its best approach to increase allied burden-sharing is not threatening to disengage from allies, but rather credibly committing to work alongside them. Indeed, there are already signs that this transformation is occurring.
Working cooperatively with allies to share a larger portion of the alliance burden is both possible and in America’s self-interest. Indeed, some foreign leaders have already expressed a willingness to discuss additional defense spending. In these discussions, U.S. leaders should acknowledge that some allies, such as Japan and South Korea, already pay billions to host and support U.S. forces. Pulling U.S. forces back to the United States would require that American taxpayers fund new basing and training facilities without foreign support. Moreover, the increased distance to potential contingency locations would likely require that the U.S. military add additional force structure or accept more risk and longer timelines to resolve potential contingencies. Worse still, such shifts might embolden adversaries to test U.S. commitments, challenging these new arrangements.
Avoiding discounting, distancing, and duplication is particularly important because U.S. allies are more important than ever to U.S. military strategy. Throughout the Cold War, the United States out-innovated and outspent its main adversary. Today, however, the U.S. military confronts multiple potential challengers, each of which presents a different type of threat and all of which rely on rapidly proliferating military technologies. Therefore, the United States will be increasingly dependent on its allies for both capability and capacity. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work has noted, the United States relies on allies for targeted development of niche capabilities that can be “federated” to confront shared threats. To make the most out of its alliances, the United States must jointly assess threats, define roles and missions, deepen defense industrial cooperation, and develop and exercise new concepts of operations. Each of these efforts will require that foreign leaders have faith in U.S. commitments and capabilities.
U.S. alliances have proven remarkably sticky over time. Allies in Asia have survived previous challenges, such as Richard Nixon’s Guam doctrine in 1969 and Jimmy Carter’s commitment to withdraw forces from South Korea in 1979. Yet these debates drew needed focus away from addressing shared concerns. Today’s challenges are too severe to permit the distractions of discounting, distancing, and duplication. Instead, the incoming administration should continue to refocus its efforts on working with Asian allies and partners to advance shared interests. After all, putting America first is what got the United States into its alliances in the first place.
Zack Cooper is a fellow with the Asia team at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served in the White House and Pentagon and received his PhD from Princeton University.
Image: U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Jennings