December 05, 2013

Asians Hedge Against China

By Richard Fontaine, Ely Ratner, and Dr. Patrick M. Cronin

Beijing's announcement of a new "air defense identification zone" that overlaps with existing Japanese and Korean airspace sent reverberations across the Indo-Pacific region. While Washington, Tokyo and Seoul responded most sharply, each sending military aircraft into the newly contested zone, governments across Asia are watching China's moves with growing alarm. Beijing's attempts to unilaterally change the territorial status quo in Asia is compelling a growing network of regional security ties that is more welcoming to Washington than ever.

Today's sovereignty disputes in Asia are taking shape against rapid changes in regional security arrangements. Following decades of economic integration, the region has established a sophisticated diplomatic architecture. Building on this foundation, countries across the region are now engaging in unprecedented forms of military cooperation. Often excluding both the United States and China, these new ties are supplementing the traditional U.S.-led "hub and spoke" alliance system that has undergirded Asian security for decades.

This emerging Asian power web of ever-closer military cooperation among key countries in the region represents a response to worries about China's rise and a hedge against any diminution of America's regional presence. And it is emerging quickly.

Government-to-government security agreements are proliferating, including between Singapore and Vietnam, Japan and Australia, and India and South Korea. Australia's new Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently dubbed Japan his country's closest friend in Asia and the two countries are likely to expand joint exercises, military exchanges and training. Canberra and Tokyo earlier this year implemented an agreement to facilitate bilateral defense support, and they are weighing cooperation on a next-generation submarine.

While stepping up cooperation with Australia, Japan conducted its first bilateral maritime exercise with India in 2012, the same year that saw joint field exercises between India and Singapore, Australia and South Korea, and Japan and Singapore.

Japan has also enhanced its ties with Vietnam. Hanoi was Prime Minister Abe's first foreign destination after his return to leadership last December, and the two governments are moving step by step to operationalize their self-described strategic partnership. Significantly, Japan is bolstering Vietnam's coast guard capabilities and has begun doing the same with the Philippines. Even Korean-Japanese relations, which have deteriorated in recent months, may be turning the corner, largely as a result of shared concern over Chinese moves.

Building stronger links between Northeast and Southeast Asia, South Korea has sold trainer aircraft to Indonesia's air force, inked a deal to sell Jakarta three diesel-electric submarines, and may work with the Indonesians to develop a new, next-generation fighter aircraft. Indonesia, meanwhile, signed a defense agreement with India in 2001 and the two countries have recently agreed to regular, biennial defense ministerial dialogues to advance cooperation.

There are clear limits to these relationships. Firm treaty commitments require constant reassurance and practice to remain credible, and these less-than-alliance ties do not imply a mutual defense arrangement. Yet American policy makers should expect them to deepen, particularly in the wake of the kinds of unilateral Chinese moves that the region has witnessed in recent days.

This presents an opportunity for the United States, one that Washington should seize in the wake of Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Japan, China and South Korea. American policy should aim to provide a foundation for Asian countries to deepen security ties with one another in ways that contribute to U.S. national security, which in turn is linked to a peaceful and prosperous region. This includes promoting greater interoperability between militaries, working more closely with highly capable allies and partners like Australia, Japan and Singapore to build capacity in third-party countries, and resisting unilateral attempts to change the existing rules of the road in Asia.

These attempts are likely to accelerate the emergence of the very constellation of intra-Asian security ties that Beijing presumably wishes to avoid. Washington can and should continue to seek peaceful and productive ties with Beijing, but it should do so by leveraging this growing web. With very few exceptions the appetite for greater American presence in Asia, and for closer relations among countries of the region, is larger than at any time in recent memory. As the vice president no doubt heard in Asia, the Chinese may yet prove an inadvertent ally in this endeavor.

Mr. Fontaine is the president of the Center for a New American Security, where Messrs. Cronin and Ratner are the senior director and deputy director respectively of the Asia-Pacific Security Program. This article is based on a longer report available on the CNAS website.

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