ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon Twitter
Opinion

Asia's US partners must work better together on defense

The idea of a collective regional security organization should be revisited

| Southeast Asia
U.S. military forces cross a flooded area during the annual Philippines-U.S. exercise at San Antonio, Philippines, in October 2016: the U.S. may conclude that the costs of defending its Asian partners against an assertive China are simply too high.   © Reuters

William Bratton is author of "China's Rise, Asia's Decline." He was previously head of equity research, Asia-Pacific, at HSBC.

Afghanistan is not the first country to find itself on the wrong side of a change in U.S. foreign policy, and nor will it be the last. Like other great powers throughout history, America has a rich tradition of discarding allegiances once they are no longer important to its changing political, ideological or economic priorities.

Afghanistan may now be discovering this to its detriment, but other Asian countries have also previously experienced the punitive consequences of changes in U.S. foreign policy, including South Vietnam and even Taiwan. The global list is even longer and they all highlight the embedded unpredictability of American foreign policy and the danger of assuming today's U.S. military support will be permanent.

This is the challenge for Asian countries which view their U.S. partnerships as essential to their national security. Although relying on the current global superpower to offset defensive weaknesses may appear an optimal near-term strategy, this dependency creates longer-term risks as Asia's balances of power shift away from the U.S. and toward China.

These risks are essentially twofold. The first is that the U.S. will at some stage conclude that the costs of defending its Asian partners against an assertive China are simply too high, especially as the two superpowers' military capabilities become more equal.

This is particularly true for those smaller Asian countries such as the Philippines. As President Rodrigo Duterte once recognized in a moment of realpolitik candor, it is now simply unrealistic to assume that the U.S. will always be willing to lose lives and equipment in the defense of his country in any dispute against China.

The second risk is that the U.S. may decide that its longer-term economic relationship with China is more important than its ideological or political differences, especially as both countries have historically demonstrated a high degree of foreign policy flexibility, including in their own bilateral partnership.

It is entirely possible, therefore, that as Beijing and Washington seek to reinvigorate their relationship over the long term, those countries rushing today to demonstrate their U.S. alignment could be left politically isolated.

Both these risks are set to grow and Asian countries need to take steps now to prepare for the very different geopolitical environment which will emerge over the decades to come.

First, there is an urgent need for countries across the region to significantly bolster their military capabilities and demonstrate a greater commitment to their own security. Yet few countries appear ready to prioritize defense spending. While many have increased budgets over recent years, these have often been insufficient.

In particular, countries such as Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, which have small defense budgets relative to their economic sizes, need to double their military spending to hit the 2% of gross domestic product target frequently cited by the U.S.

Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyers participate in a drill off the coast of Brunei in June 2019: Japan needs to double its military spending to hit the 2% of GDP target.   © AP

A failure to increase defense spending will not only be seen as free-riding on American largesse but raises the risk that should U.S. support be withdrawn, then their defensive fragilities would be brutally exposed.

Second, Asian countries need to work better together when it comes to procurement, maintenance and training, especially as the current lack of coordination and cooperation leads to unnecessary fragmentation, duplication and higher costs.

Multiple competing platforms across the region may reflect the deep-rooted belief that technological ownership is necessary for independent sovereignty. But if so, this fails to recognize that pooling capabilities can result in superior technologies at a lower cost.

Similarly, equipment acquisition programs could be undertaken across multiple countries with similar needs to ensure greater procurement scale, instead of the current piecemeal and subscale processes. Furthermore, greater equipment commonality across neighbors would allow for reduced maintenance and training costs.

Third, it is time to revisit the idea of a collective regional security organization. The last such effort, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, was unsuccessful partly because of limited regional participation. But times have changed and the logic of such an organization is growing, especially given China's relative scale, the region's changing geopolitical environment and uncertainty over long-term U.S. commitment.

Still, it is unclear whether existing frameworks such as ASEAN or the Quad could be used, or if an entirely new structure is needed. Furthermore, members would have to forgo historic grievances and disputes. But in a region dominated by significant power imbalances, such an organization may be the only mechanism through which smaller Asian countries can maintain autonomy in an increasingly bipolar world.

Ensuring national security must be based on a multi-decade forward view, especially given the timelines required to develop and embed military capabilities. As such, Asian countries need to prepare now for what the region will look like in 20 years: a super-scale and technologically dominant China, substantial power asymmetries, and the U.S. potentially displaced from the Western Pacific.

It is time, therefore, for countries across the region to ramp up military spending, cooperate more, and accept that a regional collective security structure would be more powerful than individual countries acting in isolation and relying on increasingly uncertain distant partners.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia;
the most dynamic market in the world.

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 1 month for $0.99

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most
dynamic market in the world
.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends July 31st

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to Nikkei Asia has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media

Nikkei Asian Review, now known as Nikkei Asia, will be the voice of the Asian Century.

Celebrate our next chapter
Free access for everyone - Sep. 30

Find out more