June 19, 2017

Networking Asian Security

An Integrated Approach to Order in the Pacific

Executive Summary

American security strategy in the Asia-Pacific has for decades been built on a “hub and spokes” model of bilateral, exclusive alliance relationships. Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand each share mutual defense treaties with the United States—but not with any other countries, and not with one another. In recent years, this atomized approach to regional security has begun to change. Political and economic integration has provided the foundation upon which deeper intra-Asian defense and security ties have organically emerged. Hedging against critical uncertainties surrounding China’s rise and America’s enduring presence in the region, U.S. allies and other countries are strengthening their security ties with one another. 

This report argues that the emergence of a more networked security architecture in the Asia-Pacific is not only a positive development, but a critical one that Washington should further encourage and cultivate. Moving beyond isolated hub-and-spoke ties toward a more densely connected security network is a cost-effective way for the United States to advance its interests and uphold the regional rules-based order. It is also fully consistent with a strategy of encouraging U.S. allies and partners to assume a greater share of the burden for their security.

Japan and Australia, two of Asia’s most capable powers and close U.S. allies, represent natural “nodes” around which a security network might converge. Each has established an array of ties with Asian countries ranging from high-end defense interoperability to information sharing to building military capacity. This paper, while not excluding the importance of other potential nodes in a regional network, focuses attention on the promise and limitations inherent in Japan’s and Australia’s approaches.

The role and response of China to networking efforts is of obvious importance. A properly constructed Asian security networking should be organized around deterring specific behaviors, rather than containing particular countries. The United States, Australia, Japan, and other partners must manage both perceptions and reality to prevent a “containment” narrative from taking hold, lest their networking elicit the very Chinese behaviors that it seeks to prevent. At the same time, the United States must work to dissuade potential partners from enlisting in an effort that will incur Beijing’s outright hostility. Both initiatives should include creating opportunities for China to participate in security activities, even if at first in highly circumscribed ways. 

Networking efforts do not start from scratch, and this report highlights the existing structures and institutions that should be expanded and adapted for modern challenges—from deepening trilateral information sharing to expanding standing drills and exercises. The report proposes new endeavors aimed at strengthening formal alliance linkages and bilateral partnerships as well as new activities and configurations in multilateral formats. The paper concludes with a roadmap for networking Asian security.

Networking Asian security is and should be integral to the next phase of the U.S. approach to the region. The United States will not be the sole beneficiary of such an arrangement. American allies will be able to do more, and in more places, with spoke-to-spoke connections as well as with new regional partners. Despite downside risks associated with such an Asian security network—including the possibility that the United States could be drawn into adventurism and regional rivalries—this effort, backed by an increasing commitment of U.S. defense, diplomatic, and economic resources, is the best insurance against instability and coercion.


The United States faces a dilemma in Asia. It wishes to preserve a balance of power, reinforce the rules-based regional order, avoid conflict, and maintain stable economic relations with China, all at the same time, and all at acceptable cost. While carrying off such a balancing act would be a challenge even in a region of strategic stability, today numerous drivers complicate the effort. Beijing couples rising assertiveness with a military modernization effort that directly affects U.S. and allied defense capabilities. North Korea is ever-erratic, routinely testing missiles and nuclear weapons, and terrorism is an ever-present challenge across the region. When the trafficking of narcotics is added to this mix, along with piracy in the maritime domain, the rising proliferation of cyberattacks, and the need to respond to large-scale natural disasters, it becomes clear that all of this increases the demand for U.S. attention and resources at precisely the same time as defense expenditures in the United States have been falling. It adds up to an ends-means mismatch in which U.S. objectives increasingly outstrip available resources. Managed security networking counteracts the problem.

The challenge posed by Beijing is foremost in this array. Its investment in long-range, precision strike forces and a blue-water navy hold at risk U.S. forces operating in the Western Pacific; its land reclamation and militarization activities in the South China Sea challenge regional rules and project power far from Chinese shores; the region’s increasing economic dependence, and Beijing’s coercive employment of economic tools for foreign policy ends, threaten the independence of key U.S. partners; and China’s acquisition and employment of high-end cyber, anti-satellite and other capabilities challenge traditional U.S. military advantages. In the long run, China appears to seek a regional order less dominated by the United States and more favorable to Beijing’s interests and leadership ambitions.

Already the previously privileged position of the United States is under new pressure. A congressionally mandated review of U.S. defense strategy in the Pacific concluded: “Actions by countries in the region routinely challenge the credibility of U.S. security commitments, and U.S. capability development is not keeping pace with challenges by potential competitors, resulting in the regional balance of military power shifting against the United States.” 

Yet other regional developments are more encouraging. Driven by a desire to hedge against critical uncertainties associated with China’s rise and the future role of the United States in the region, many Asian countries are increasing their own defense budgets and engaging with regional institutions in new ways. 

They are also developing new intra-Asian security ties. The region has seen a significant increase in high-level defense visits, bilateral security agreements, joint operations and military exercises, arms sales, and military education programs. In particular, Australia, India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam have deepened their bilateral security engagements throughout Asia in recent years, and other nations are making more modest moves. While most of the new or strengthened security ties remain bilateral in nature, interest in “minilateral” configurations of three or more countries (such as India-Australia-Japan) is rising. 

Herein lies opportunity, as these countries are also seeking to boost security ties with the United States. Strategists often note that America must overcome the “tyranny of distance” to uphold its place in Asia, and yet the geographic locations of its allies and partners confer significant advantage as China expands its reach. As a result, the next phase of U.S. strategy toward Asia should focus on embedding America’s alliances and nascent security relationships into a broader network of security partnerships. Building out a regional security network is a cost-effective way for the United States to advance its interests and uphold the rules-based order—not as a substitute for the alliance system, but as a necessary supplement to it. This approach is also fully consistent with one that encourages allies and partners to bear more of the burden for their own security. 

This paper examines the evolution from a hub-and-spokes alliance system in Asia toward a growing network of intra-Asian security ties, and then explores alternative regional network models. While a number of countries, including India and Singapore, represent important nodes in such a network, this report focuses on Japan and Australia as two natural hubs. Both are close allies of the United States, possess capable militaries, and have been at the forefront of enhancing bilateral security ties with other nations in the region and each other. The paper provides a baseline understanding of Japanese and Australian approaches to regional security, and then examines the networking possibilities while accounting for Japan’s and Australia’s political and economic constraints. Ways in which China is likely to respond to the network effect in Asia are examined, and a roadmap for the new U.S. administration is proposed as it charts regional policy.

The full report is available below.

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  1. Michael Green, Kathleen Hicks, Mark Cancian, Zack Cooper, and John Schaus, “Asia-Pacific Rebalance 2025: Capabilities, Presence, and Partnership” (Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 19, 2016), 4.
  2. Patrick M. Cronin, Richard Fontaine, Zachary M. Hosford, Oriana Skylar Mastro, Ely Ratner, and Alexander Sullivan, “The Emerging Asia Power Web: The Rise of Biltaeral Intra-Asian Security Ties” (Center for a New American Security, June 10, 2013), 5.


  • Richard Fontaine

    Chief Executive Officer

    Richard Fontaine is the Chief Executive Officer of CNAS. He served as President of CNAS from 2012–19 and as Senior Fellow from 2009–12. Prior to CNAS, he was foreign policy ad...

  • Patrick M. Cronin

    Former Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Patrick M. Cronin is a former Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, he was the ...

  • Mira Rapp-Hooper

    Former Adjunct Senior Fellow, Asia-Pacific Security Program

    Mira Rapp-Hooper is a former Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. She is formerly a Fellow with the CSIS Asia Program and Director of the CSIS...

  • Harry Krejsa

    Former Fellow, Center for a New American Security

    Harry Krejsa is a former fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). His research areas included the intersection of foreign policy and middle class economics, Ch...

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