October 15, 2020

Enhancing Forward Defense: The Role of Allies and Partners in the Indo-Pacific

The Bottom Line

  • Even though U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific are essential to meeting the challenge of a rising, assertive China, U.S. defense policy has not adapted to the reality of a changed strategic environment or the evolving needs and defense priorities of key allies.
  • The new National Defense Strategy (NDS) presents an opportunity for the next secretary of defense to do three things to remedy this:
    • Work with allies and partners to pursue more potent and sustainable defense capabilities.
    • Seek a more geographically distributed, networked, and federated force posture.
    • Marshal and organize the existing efforts of America’s allies and partners to effectively meet the unique challenges posed by China.


As strategic competition with China moves to the forefront of national security policy, an effective next NDS requires a clear plan for marshaling and organizing the efforts of U.S. allies and partners in new ways. The scale of the challenge China poses—its burgeoning defense budget, investments in high-technology warfare, ability to operate close to its own shores, effective deployment of gray zone tactics, and use of economic coercion, among other things—means that success will require a broad coalition. Traditional allies and new partners will need to work together innovatively with the United States to oppose illegitimate Chinese behavior and expansionism.

An effective next NDS requires a clear plan for marshaling and organizing the efforts of U.S. allies and partners in new ways.

Alliance management is difficult in the best of times. However, today the U.S.-constructed security architecture in Asia faces unprecedented challenges, which include questions about U.S. reliability, pressure from a rising China, the impact of COVID-19, and allies’ potentially more independent defense strategies. These multiply the complexity of the task for U.S. defense planners. At a time when increasing regional risks necessitate more allied coordination and synchronization of effort, the United States needs to develop a more effective framework through which to lead and empower its allies and partners.

The Alliance Dilemma

The alliance management challenge facing the United States today stems from at least three interrelated factors. First, U.S. allies and partners are asking fundamental questions about American reliability and capability, particularly in light of the U.S. president’s public questioning of the value of alliances, concerns about an inward turn in U.S. public opinion, basic failures of competence in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a belief that a politically distracted, economically depleted United States will be less able to honor its commitments. A second, and related, factor is that China has used this moment of global disruption to push harder and in more places, including in the South and East China Seas and the Taiwan Strait, and has sought to play on concerns about American reliability to undermine U.S. security relationships in the region. As a consequence of both of these factors, some U.S. allies and partners have moved toward pursuing more independent defense capabilities that are focused, in part, on securing their immediate neighborhoods in the event they cannot count on U.S. assistance. On the whole, such new investments and approaches by allies are desirable and help address long-standing U.S. concerns about their capabilities and burden sharing. However, they also risk creating new strategic and coordination challenges for the United States.

An urgent task for the next NDS is to articulate a new and integrated approach to alliance management that addresses the fears of allies and partners, respects their unique security priorities and investments, and combines their individual actions into a coherent collective effort that can effectively meet the security challenge that China poses.

The Threat Environment

Such alliance dilemmas are sufficiently challenging on their own. Making them more acute is the fact that they are playing out in an environment that is objectively worsening for U.S. security interests. This degrading security environment is the result of China’s ongoing military modernization and aggressive foreign policy, downward pressure on the defense budgets of U.S. allies, and further erosion of the regional balance of power. Taken together, these trends portend a more contested, dangerous region. More significantly, they point to a challenge that the United States is unlikely to meet without significant changes to how it approaches, empowers, and leads its alliances in Asia.

China’s decades-long economic expansion gave its rulers the resources to modernize the Chinese military. Beijing now has the world’s second-largest defense budget, fields the largest conventional missile force, and controls the biggest navy and coast guard. It has invested billions of dollars into cutting-edge technology. Growing capabilities, both quantitative and qualitative, have abetted an expanding set of goals. Once content to shelve territorial disputes with its neighbors, Beijing now uses its strengthened arsenal to increasingly lean on, intimidate, and attack neighboring states while it seizes disputed territory, builds military bases and outposts throughout the region, and projects its power farther afield.

China’s decades-long economic expansion gave its rulers the resources to modernize the Chinese military.

Moreover, while China has invested in its defense budget and grown its military capabilities, U.S. allies and partners have not kept pace. The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated this trend, as most allied nations face intense economic disruptions unleased by the crisis and will likely see increasing downward pressure on their defense budgets. There are some notable exceptions to this trend—Australia has called for a significant increase in its defense budget over the next decade—and Asian states generally continue to pursue military modernization. But this push will be challenged during the next several years as nations recover from the pandemic at different rates. Moreover, with defense spending flatlining or decreasing across the region, increases by Beijing, such as its recent announcement that it will boost defense spending by 6.6 percent, will have an outsize effect.

The United States still maintains an overall military advantage over China, but in Asia, the gap has been closing. In certain domains, America’s lead may have already been erased. Moreover, if current trendlines are not urgently addressed, the regional balance of power may tip in China’s favor within the next decade.

A shifting balance of hard power within Asia that inclines in Beijing’s direction has been accompanied by a more assertive turn in China’s dealings with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, and other nations. Moreover, China’s military activities have been amplified by paramilitary forces that constantly test others’ resolve and reactions. The growth of the Chinese military, its more aggressive employment, and the muted regional response has led Beijing to conclude that it is operating in a permissive environment, where its unilateral actions to erode the status quo are unlikely to be checked in any meaningful way.

Allies Going Their Own Way?

How should the United States and its allies respond to the shifting threat environment? For years, Washington has sought to knit together its five distinct bilateral alliances, develop new partnerships, and evolve its hub-and-spoke bilateral alliance model into a more networked defense architecture in Asia. While the goal of building a more networked, federated, and powerful perimeter defense is the right one, the most relevant questions for the next NDS are:

  • Is this happening fast enough to make a difference?
  • Are these efforts large enough to produce a useful outcome?
  • Do the U.S. efforts effectively link military and non-military tools?
  • Are the tools sufficiently coordinated to result in an outcome larger than the sum of its parts?

On these questions, there is considerable basis for concern. Little progress has been made during the past four years in making the goal of networked defense a reality. Indeed, one of the most significant steps toward this goal—U.S.-facilitated closer defense ties between Japan and South Korea—lies in tatters due to mutual recriminations between Tokyo and Seoul over wartime reparations. Even more consequentially, core U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea are under unprecedented stress as the current U.S. administration has sought to renegotiate Special Measures Agreements on mutual cost-sharing by making extortionate demands for increased allied contributions. Additionally, the administration has floated proposals to reduce the number of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula, far from building a more integrated, cohesive alliance network. Instead, recent years have seen a marked increase in centrifugal forces pulling the U.S.-led security system apart.

It is little wonder, then, that Japan, South Korea, and Australia, which have been watching recent developments warily, have each sought to bolster their independent capabilities as an insurance policy against abandonment by the United States. Moreover, each of these countries have carefully, quietly begun debating how to plan for a future that counts more on their own defensive capabilities.

Recent years have seen a marked increase in centrifugal forces pulling the U.S.-led security system apart.

Greater allied investments in defense modernization are welcome and in line with long-standing U.S. desires for allies to take more responsibility for their own defense. But there are potential complications too, as allies naturally focus on their backyards to the exclusion of theater-wide security concerns, and even potentially engage in behavior that is counterproductive to U.S. security interests, as seen in the widening rift between Japan and South Korea. In short, these developments could represent a trend toward more potent and capable, but also more uncoordinated and geographically circumscribed, defense strategies throughout the region.


Given the shifting balance of power in Asia, and potential changes in how America’s allies and partners are pursuing their individual, allied, and collective defense, the next secretary of defense should prioritize the following measures:

  • Strengthen ally and partner capabilities. These capabilities should be developed with the goals of enhancing allied and partner deterrent capabilities, and of accelerating their ability to establish anti-access/area denial across a number of domains.
    1. Initiate feasibility study of co-developing capabilities with Japan, Korea, and Australia that are suited for the Indo-Pacific environment. These could include specialized anti-ship cruise missiles; cheaper and more survivable surface, subsurface, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms; distributed strike platforms; missile defenses; and unmanned aerial vehicles.
  • Review roles, responsibilities, and primary lines of effort within, and between, allies and partners. Changing security and economic conditions should prompt a formal review of the traditional roles that the United States and its allies play. This should be undertaken to synchronize procurement efforts, minimize gaps in defense posture, maximize national comparative advantages, and clarify geographic prioritization.
    1. Establish military posture working groups with key allies and partners.
    2. Initiate ally and partner dialogue about potential force posture adjustments in light of a changing threat environment and the development of new military technologies.
  • Integrate the disparate efforts and promote a greater web of networks among U.S. allies and partners.
    1. Quickly conclude equitable cost-sharing agreements with Japan and South Korea.
    2. Pursue deepened cooperation with key partners including India, Vietnam, and Indonesia.
    3. Begin working with Southeast Asian partners on developing a multilateral maritime ISR network and building a joint maritime operations center.
    4. Develop mechanisms for key allies and partners for cooperation in defense innovation programs.
  • Expand joint naval, maritime security, and island defense training in northern Australia to include other allies and partners, particularly Southeast Asian nations.


A central factor contributing to the extraordinary rise of Asia in the post-World War II era has been the stability afforded by the U.S.-constructed and managed alliance system. That system is today under unprecedented strain. The next NDS must outline a priority effort to work with allies and partners to develop more potent and sustainable defense capabilities, seek a more geographically distributed, networked, and federated force posture, and marshal and organize the existing efforts of America’s allies and partners to meet the China challenge.

About the Authors

Charles Edel is a Senior Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia. He was previously a professor at the U.S. Naval War College and served on the U.S. Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff.

Siddharth Mohandas is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at CNAS. Previously he served as Principal Deputy Director of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and as an advisor to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

Learn More

From July to December 2020, CNAS will release new papers every week on the tough issues the next NDS should tackle. The goal of this project is to provide intellectual capital to the drafters of the 2022 NDS, focusing specifically on unfinished business from the past several defense strategies and areas where change is necessary but difficult.


The Next Defense Strategy

About this commentary series By statute, the Department of Defense (DoD) must deliver a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) to Congress in 2022. And CNAS is here to help. From...

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  1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2020, annual report to Congress, https://media.defense.gov/2020/Sep/01/2002488689/-1/-1/1/2020-DOD-CHINA-MILITARY-POWER-REPORT-FINAL.PDF.
  2. Australian Government Department of Defence, :2020 Defence Strategic Update,” https://www.defence.gov.au/StrategicUpdate-2020/docs/2020_Defence_Strategic_Update.pdf; and “2020 Force Structure Plan,” https://www.defence.gov.au/StrategicUpdate-2020/docs/2020_Force_Structure_Plan.pdf.
  3. Zhao Lei, “Defense Budget Increase Is Lowest in 23 Years,” China Daily, May 22, 2020, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202005/22/WS5ec73de1a310a8b241157994.html.
  4. Department of Defense, Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (June 1, 2019), https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF.
  5. Nicole Gaouette, “Trump Hikes Price Tag for U.S. Forces in Korea almost 400 percent As Seoul Questions Alliance,” CNN, November 15, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/14/politics/trump-south-korea-troops-price-hike/index.html.
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