Washington’s San Francisco system of bilateral alliances, which has sustained its strategic primacy in the Asia Pacific, is under duress.
– President Trump’s erratic leadership is undermining allies’ trust and threatening to erode the US alliance system in the region
– The current standoff between Seoul and Tokyo calls into question their continuing status as quasi-allies
– The San Francisco system is likely to remain in form but may no longer be as efficient and effective as before
The San Francisco System of the United States, also known as the hub and spokes architecture, is entering a period of crisis and change.
The system is the web of interlocking bilateral alliances established by the US in the Asia Pacific. It consists of various ‘spokes’ — such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand — connected to the US as the central ‘hub’ of the alliance regional network. Founded in the early 1950s, the system has served two primary functions. First, it allowed the US to position itself against the Soviet Union and communist China in the East-West divide and, following the Cold War, assert strategic primacy in the region. Through the alliance network, Washington could forward deploy its forces into contested regions and check the emergence of potentially hostile powers. Second, the system gave Washington the flexibility to engage bilaterally with each ally, whose relations with one another had been fractured by the memory of Imperial Japanese aggression. The bilateral structure not only allows Washington to keep a lid on potential Japanese militarism but also put a leash on allies that might otherwise confront Japan’s over wrongdoing dating to the colonial era.
The resilience of the hub and spokes architecture has led to growing optimism about the strength of US alliance system, with speculations about a ‘quasi-multilateral’ pact emerging among the ‘spokes’, due to the growing interconnection and joint interoperability of the alliance network. It is thus surprising that this system, which has lasted for more than sixty years, is now facing rupture within three years of change in US leadership.
TRUMP BREAKING ALLIES’ TRUST
The first rupture came with the election of an unpredictable US president in 2016, who sought to achieve bilateral trade balances even at the expense of allies’ trust and the US ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy. Following Trump’s retreat from multilateralism (such as his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership), demands for alliance protection money, alleged plans for a unilateral ‘bloody nose’ operation on North Korea and suspension of US–South Korea military exercises, Tokyo has seemingly assessed that it can no longer assume its traditional ally will guarantee its national interests. As Abe’s foreign affairs adviser, Katsuyuki Kawai, lamented, “the alliance has changed from one based on shared values to a transactional alliance… it is risky to leave Japan’s destiny to another country.” Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte made a similar assessment in reference to Washington’s defence of the country’s sovereign claims vis-a-vis Beijing in the South China Sea, while South Korea is straying away from Washington’s preferred line in its dealings with North Korea and China.
US allies are repositioning themselves in ways that undermine US strategic interests in the region. Having assessed that it can no longer remain cold towards Beijing without Washington’s support, Japan has begun collaborating with China on many issues: addressing the North Korea challenge, re-establishing confidence-building measures in the East China Sea, joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative — a significant reversal from Japan’s earlier alignment with the Obama administration to oppose China’s geo-economic gambit — and advancing bilateral trade amidst Trump’s damaging trade war. In Manila, Duterte has criticised Washington for provoking Beijing with freedom of navigation operations, opposed US forward-stationing and sought a more independent position on the South China Sea dispute. As for Seoul, President Moon Jae-In has attempted to hedge between the US and China on the issue of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system by permitting the deployment of the THAAD battery while continuing to oppose a trilateral alliance with Washington and Tokyo or join US regional missile defense system.
The hubs and spokes architecture remains intact for now. Washington has not recalled its forward-deployed forces in the region and has recently stepped up its presence with several bills, including the US Reassurance Initiative Act. But the fear of entrapment amidst the intense US–China strategic competition is forcing allies to rethink their traditional position as spokes. Indeed, even Australia, which has traditionally relied on its great and powerful ally for security, is holding an intense debate over its responsibilities within the US–Australia alliance. A failure to uphold commitments, especially in times of exigency, would hasten the prospect of alliance termination.
The second rupture came with the recent standoff between Japan and South Korea, which initially began with Seoul’s request for Japanese companies to pay reparations for forced labour during Japan’s colonial occupation. It started to escalate in July when Tokyo imposed export controls on Seoul in retaliation for the seizure of Japanese assets in South Korea. Japan then downgraded its trade relationship with South Korea, provoking Seoul to terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement, a military-intelligence sharing pact that took years to negotiate.
The standoff should not be viewed in isolation, as it took place amidst the breakdown of traditional US diplomatic efforts. Seoul and Tokyo have long been viewed as ‘quasi-allies’ operating interdependently in the US alliance network. However, the demise of the General Security of Military Information Agreement signalled a clear break in the relationship: a sign that both countries have exhausted their friendship and goodwill, and a growing willingness to assert their self-interests at the expense of the quasi-alliance. This was further inflamed by the resumption of tensions over the Dokdo/Takashima dispute in the East China Sea, with Japan denouncing South Korea’s military exercises in the area as ‘unacceptable’.
Throughout the standoff, the Trump administration has exercised caution by sending mixed signals to avoid picking sides. However, this approach has not only given Beijing the opportunity to exploit the rift between Seoul and Tokyo, but potentially also undermined Washington’s reliability as an ally should Japan or South Korea expect US assistance in a face-off against the other. This could weaken Washington’s ability to formulate a coherent Indo-Pacific strategy incorporating both Japan and South Korea.
Although the US could still engage with each ally bilaterally on alliance security issues, the standoff undermines the efficiency and effectiveness of intra-alliance coordination, specialisation and tasking. Furthermore, Washington may no longer be able to aggregate as many capabilities from Seoul and Tokyo against Pyongyang (or Beijing), since Seoul and Tokyo are seemingly preoccupied with confronting each other in the East China Sea. Given that Japan and South Korea are the strongest anchors of the US hubs and spokes architecture, a failure to mend their dispute could seriously hamper Washington’s ability to preserve strategic primacy in the region.
The current standoff between Seoul and Tokyo calls into question their continuing status as quasi-allies and signals the ongoing rupture of the US alliance system in the Asia Pacific. Resolving the problem will require deft diplomacy and an administration committed to taking the helm and uniting allies amidst increasing tensions with China. Should Trump remain recalcitrant — and indeed, with the continued reshuffling of cabinet officials generating anxieties about US security commitments — the alliance system may not return to normalcy under a Trump presidency.
Tommy is a member of the East and South East Asia team. He covers strategic and crisis developments pertaining to the use of force, with a concentration on flashpoints in East Asia.