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Biden Administration Looks to Contain China With Allies’ Help, Despite No Asian NATO

The Biden administration has found a receptive ear in Asian capitals for pushing back on China’s territorial expansion. It is getting increased buy-in for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue from Japan, as well as from long-wary partners India and Australia, which recently began military exercises together again after a long pause. And the new team is trying to make strides with Japan and South Korea by burying the hatchet on negotiations over the cost of hosting U.S. troops there.

But in the rare moments that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin weren’t slammed with meetings, calls, and press conferences in their first overseas visit last week, U.S. officials were wrestling with a more far-reaching question: What should the American alliance structure look like in a continent that houses nearly two-thirds of the world’s population and America’s biggest strategic rival?

The Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, has tagged China as its top geopolitical rival. But President Joe Biden and his team, unlike their direct predecessors, want to contain any threat from China with the help of allies and partners, rather than unilaterally. In the early days of the Cold War, Washington helped shepherd a group of like-minded European countries to counter the Soviet threat. In the confrontation with China, the United States doesn’t have those same options. The question, essentially, is how to contain China with a very different mix of partners.

What’s safe to assume, U.S. officials said, is that the United States isn’t going to assemble a NATO-like group to counter China. But, after World War II, Washington did build a constellation of treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand, which became the much-vaunted hub-and-spoke model for U.S. security in Asia for more than half a century. Today, the Biden administration hopes to turn to smaller groupings—bilateral, trilateral, or even multilateral clusters of countries that can do something similar.

“Look, for a variety of reasons—history, geography, politics—Asia doesn’t have the type of structured alliance like what we have in the trans-Atlantic alliance,” said a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’re trying to deliberately evolve from that hub-and-spoke model” to a series of overlapping relationships, the official said. 

That boils down to small alliance pairings that can help build connective tissue between militaries and shore up contested territory in the Asia-Pacific with more joint military exercises, but short of an Asian NATO with a full-on equivalent of the trans-Atlantic pact’s Article 5, which requires signatories to come to the defense of allies under attack.

Right now, the senior defense official, the Biden administration is hoping to bolster existing groupings like the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the “Quad.” The problem is that ASEAN mostly focuses on economics and steers well clear of security issues, especially when it comes to the South China Sea, one of the biggest points of friction between Washington and Beijing. And the Quad, while revitalized with a video call among the heads of state and by Australia rejoining the Malabar exercise with India and Japan after a long pause, is focused squarely on security issues in the Indo-Pacific region. 

But other than Japan, which reiterated during the trip that it would cooperate closely with the United States in the event of a Chinese clash with Taiwan, most nations in the region are focused on protecting their own borders, and that’s by design, former U.S. officials said. 

“Basically every state should be focused on its own defense. We’re already in huge trouble with a central front such as the first island chain” from Japan through the South China Sea, said Elbridge Colby, a principal at the Marathon Initiative and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration. “From a military perspective, I don’t think we’re heading for an Asian NATO.”

Another difference comes in intelligence sharing. The United States, NATO allies, and key partners collectively known as the “Five Eyes” routinely share information. There’s nothing similar to the network all of Asia (though Australia is part of Five Eyes). But officials stressed that Five Eyes is a mature relationship, among English-speaking countries with longtime ties. Coalition information sharing in Asia in any bloc, such as the Quad, requires the concurrence of each member state, which can gum up basic exchanges. “Once you get outside [Five Eyes] it becomes exponentially more difficult,” a second senior defense official said.

What the United States is looking for, in the long term, is a communications system that will allow it to exchange classified and confidential information with all American allies and partners in the region, something that U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has tried to champion in its latest budget submission. For now, Washington has to talk pell-mell on different systems for nations like South Korea, the Philippines, and India.

“Just imagine working on Microsoft versus Apple here in the United States, that’s a pain in the ass enough, but imagine everything is different,” a third senior defense official said. “It’s the biggest hole in our swing right now.”

But the multitude of differences in U.S. relationships in the region show up more viscerally through tone and body language. It was visible in recent weeks even among the closest U.S. allies in the region. In Tokyo, Blinken was greeted warmly by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga in a scene that resembled a meeting of long-lost friends. In Seoul, the South Korean defense minister appeared to challenge the top U.S. diplomat’s call for the “denuclearization of North Korea” at a high-level press conference. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea’s long-running historical animus has limited ties beyond a 2019 intelligence-sharing pact.

The Biden administration must also navigate different human rights standards across the region, an issue the new White House has promised to emphasize in national security policymaking. 

Austin raised concerns about treatment of India’s Muslim population with top officials there. Thailand and the Philippines, which have repeatedly clashed with China in territorial disputes over the South China Sea, are both beset by domestic human rights challenges, and they were not part of the first overseas junket by senior Biden administration officials. 

Even though officials have cautioned that U.S. multinational partnerships are likely to proceed in baby steps in the wake of the trip, the Biden administration could also use Asia’s lack of its own NATO to its advantage. While successive administrations have leaned on NATO nations to spend more on defense, Asia’s less formal alliance structure could allow U.S. allies to collaborate on information sharing and military exercises in exchanges that aren’t necessarily guided by Washington.

“That even doesn’t mean that the United States has to be involved,” the first senior defense official said. “If we can help partners to be able to be better prepared to defend their own interests and be more secure in their own sovereignty, then that’s to the good of everyone.”

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