International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, The World

21 June 2021

Engaging with its allies in Asia and the Pacific is the best way for the Biden Administration to avoid conflict with China while still challenging its growing belligerence, Daniel Fazio writes.

The United States’ regional alliance system came into being in 1951. The Communist Party’s ascension to power in China in October 1949, the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, and then China’s intervention in that conflict in November that year were the catalysts for the creation of this American alliance system.

Determined to contain the spread of communism in the Asia-Pacific, the United States also signed the ANZUS Treaty with Australia and New Zealand, a security treaty with the Philippines, and a peace and security treaty with Japan in 1951. It then signed security treaties with South Korea in 1953 and Taiwan in 1954 – the latter was superseded by the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979.

The architect of these treaties, John Foster Dulles, referred to this alliance system as a ‘hub and spokes’ system. The United States was the linchpin of this security arrangement, but Dulles, aware of the limits of American power, recognised the value of having regional allies.

Just as China was the crucial catalyst in the creation of this alliance system in 1951, the Biden Administration is now responding to China’s assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region, reaffirming this 70-year-old regional alliance system.

For instance, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-In were the first two foreign heads of government to meet with Biden in the White House, suggesting the administration regards this regional alliance as essential in managing the China challenge.

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Clearly, the Biden Administration also recognises the limits of American power and is investing in diplomacy and engagement to prevent conflict with China.

Active diplomacy between the United States and its regional allies may indeed be the best way to constrain the belligerence of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime.

China is fully aware of the combined military power of the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and the armed forces of the Philippines, Australia, and possibly India and Indonesia could be added to this list. For all its assertive behaviour, Beijing knows a military conflict would devastate the region.

Knowing it is unlikely to prevail in such a conflict could constrain China’s behaviour in the region so, despite geostrategic tensions, reaffirming this American alliance system makes sense.

When this alliance system came into being, the United States and China were at war on the Korean Peninsula and engaged in a standoff over Taiwan, and today, Taiwan and North Korea remain crucial factors in the geostrategic tensions between the two states.

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The United States has no option other than to push back in some way against Chinese posturing in the region. Acquiescence to China could mean an irretrievable loss of American geostrategic authority, international prestige, and trust among its allies.

This presents the middle powers of the region with a stark choice: support the United States and the democratic values it represents, or gravitate into China’s authoritarian orbit.

Economic dependence on China weakens national sovereignty and could make countries like Australia increasingly vulnerable to coercion, but it is hard to imagine America’s allies will acquiesce to pressure from China. Ultimately, America’s allies know that if Beijing pushes too far, the United States will inevitably push back.

Engaging with its regional allies is the best way for the Biden Administration to avoid what Graham Allison calls the ‘Thucydides trap’: the United States and China going to war because each fear the other poses a real threat to their respective geostrategic interests.

Policymakers need to realise that the danger of conflict between the United States and China is very real and, if conflict does break out, it will involve America’s regional allies. Drums of war rhetoric – whatever its actual intent – can have unintended consequences, and no one in the region wants conflict.

If war breaks out, it will be because of a miscalculation or faulty assumptions by one or both sides about the other’s intentions, and regional allies should work with the Biden Administration to prevent this from happening.

As an authoritarian regime, China is motivated by the acquisition, maintenance, and expansion of its power, and the suppression of any alternative and contrary sources of power. As such, its posturing must be challenged because it threatens the geostrategic interests of the United States and its regional allies, including Australia.

Given the difficult situation, the Biden Administration’s reaffirmation of the country’s 70-year-old alliance system in Asia through active diplomacy is a prudent response. In the face of the threat to regional stability posed by Chinese assertiveness, this alliance system provides the United States and its allies with a strong mechanism to contain China and avoid a disastrous conflict.

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