Strengthening Alliances in the Indo-Pacific

CSPS Fellow Nicholas Davidson examines how US alliances in the Indo-Pacific are reinvigorated following rising tensions with China.

A mere five years ago, US allies in the Indo-Pacific (namely South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines) had reason to fear abandonment by their once-close partner. While the outgoing Obama administration carefully fostered relations with our allies, closing out with something like a victory lap in the last year of his term, the incoming Trump administration did not necessarily build upon that foundation. The fickle nature of Trump’s relationship with the Indo-Pacific led US allies to forge their own path. This power gap allowed the region’s dominant power, China, to tighten economic ties with South Korea and Japan, while continuing to antagonize the Philippines in the South China Sea. With lessened US involvement, these core allies were looking at a future where the US was absent. Current US policy changes are fighting back against that future, where increased tensions between it and China are causing allies to balance against Beijing.

Over the past few years, US allies in the Indo-Pacific struggled with the issue of abandonment by their partner. In 2019, the US government blindsided South Korea with a demand to share the costs of maintaining the joint forces operation in the country after making off-handed remarks about withdrawing troop support entirely. While the Trump administration was ramping up its defense posture in the region, Japan simultaneously appreciated the effort while it worked quietly to explore other options critical to its armed forces. The Philippines, too, considered rescinding its Visiting Forces Agreement, a keystone treaty that facilitated US military and contractor personnel working in the island nation. While none of these alone constituted a major downturn in US influence in the region, collectively they signaled that cracks might be beginning to form in formerly air-tight partnerships.

This is not the case anymore. Tensions between China and the US are escalating with what is being dubbed the “Chip War.” Initiated by the Biden administration, US export controls are targeting China’s semiconductor development and manufacturing capabilities. As a follow-up to the Trump-era ban on electronic components built by Huawei and ZTE, the Department of Commerce updated its guidelines to limit sales of high-end chips to China. Additional limitations were set in the 2023 NDAA, which prohibits federal government agencies from entering contracts with companies who use electronics or semiconductors from China, although those limitations will take effect in 2028. These limitations target big tech manufacturers, many of whom hold sizeable contracts with the US government that they would sorely miss. Some US allies are working with the federal government in limiting chip exports to China, as well. In conjunction with the CHIPS and Science Act, which aims to boost domestic semiconductor manufacturing, the US is clearly signaling to China that it intends to continue cutting China out of a high-tech future.

Amidst the rising tensions between the US and China over semiconductor posturing, the United States has emboldened its allies. Despite its many missteps, the Trump administration did do its part in initiating disengagement from China, beginning in 2018 with import tariffs on Chinese products. The Biden administration has continued this policy, but has also spurred closer cooperation with its allies in the Indo-Pacific region. It secured an agreement with Japan to restrict high-tech exports to China and, along with South Korea and Taiwan, formed the “Chip 4 Alliance” or “Fab 4” to further cooperation among the world’s leading chip manufacturers. The Philippines, in stark contrast to their stance in 2020, are now inviting the US to increase its military presence. Although not permanent, an increased American presence in the country will help to counter the pressure China has been applying in the South China Sea. This circling of the wagons by the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies clearly signals its resolve to counter China in the coming decade.

Nicholas Davidson is MA student in the International Security program concentrating in Intelligence. He holds a BS in Political Science from Northern Arizona University. Having spent 8 years in South Korea, his research interests focus on East Asian security affairs. After graduation, he hopes to pursue a career in the federal government in a role supporting the security interests of the United States.

Photo can be found here.