In a hypothetical war between the United States and China, a “Catch-22” exists in the Pacific. If the United States is dominant, its Pacific allies will be incentivized to honor their treaty commitments—i.e., bandwagon with the United States. Conversely, if China approaches military parity, U.S. allies will incur greater risks; they will be incentivized to fence-sit or defect. In short, the more reliant the United States is on its Pacific allies in a war against China, the less it can depend on them.
Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines are sovereign countries that look out for their own self-interests, as does the United States.1 In a fight between the United States and China, would they rush in, or would they wait to make sure the United States will win before committing? The risk to these allies is high. In a non-nuclear war, China does not pose an existential threat to the United States. To its neighbors, however, China’s conventional capability could prove devastating.
The assumption that U.S. allies in the Pacific would join the United States in a kinetic fight against China is just that—an assumption. While necessary for planning, assumptions are not facts. They need to be continuously revalidated.
Theories of alliance formation, divergent national interests, and lessons from history suggest U.S. assumptions of allied resolve no longer may be valid (if they ever were). If the United States is not granted access to allied ports and airfields, maritime power projection will be the deciding factor against China. Are we appropriately allocating resources to reflect this reality?
Alliances or Collective Security?
Do U.S. treaty allies in the Pacific represent a realist power balancing bloc of states? Or can they be more accurately described as a liberal institutionalist collective security apparatus? The distinction is important when considering whether the relationships provide the desired deterrent effect on China. It also has implications on the network’s dependability in a conflict.
Stephen Walt argues that states will balance against “threats posed by the power, proximity, offensive capabilities, and intentions of others.”2 China meets all these threat criteria: its power is rising; it is in close proximity to U.S. allies; it is expanding its military capabilities; and it intends on attaining hegemony over the South China Sea. On the surface, this supports the assertion that the United States’ allies represent a classic power-balancing construct.
But this does not account for the original reasons for the Pacific alliances. During the Cold War, the United States’ five bilateral treaties in the Pacific were a true expression of power balancing against a common threat: Communist expansion. After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, “the international political system became unipolar.”3 With no common threat to balance against, the alliances could be described more accurately as bandwagoning with the world’s only superpower.
China is still Communist in name but hypercapitalist in many other respects. While it may be authoritarian, its goals are not ideologically driven. It wants to attain regional hegemony, not foster an international revolution of the proletariat. In short, it is not the Soviet Union, and U.S. allies and partners have different perceptions of China’s threat; many see it more as an economic opportunity.4 States typically power balance and form alliances in response to a common threat, not potential opportunities. The lack of a united, power-balancing body in the Pacific puts China’s weaker neighbors at risk and makes them likely candidates for bandwagoning with China.5
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was a united front against a single threat, the Soviet Union. It was the “manifestation of the bipolar distribution of power in Europe during the Cold War.” Even with the benefit of single purpose, NATO per se was not the primary factor that maintained stability on the continent; it was the power-balancing effect it produced.6
NATO’s credible threat of force provided deterrence. Can the Pacific allies attain a similar deterrence effect against China? No, not under the current bilateral alliance framework. The Pacific allies are not a united bloc, and there are numerous opportunities for China to influence defections or, at the very least, promote fence-sitting. A scenario in which Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States form a coalition to fight China is unrealistic, not only for political reasons, but also for lack of interoperability.
The United States’ five bilateral alliances in the Pacific are more akin to collective security. John Mearsheimer argues that both logic and empirical evidence show collective security is ineffective in deterring aggression, because of both the incentive for states to “pass the buck and get other states to pay the heavy price of confronting the aggressor” and the “historical enmity between states.”7 For example, even though the threat suggests Japan and the Republic of Korea should be natural allies, lingering issues from World War II inhibit cooperation.
A subscriber to liberal institutionalism could argue that the United States’ network of bilateral alliances is sufficient to deter a recalcitrant China. Numerous security cooperation engagements and exercises feed this narrative. A subscriber to realism, however, might see the myriad of Pacific security cooperation efforts as poor investments that do not get to the desired end state: credible deterrence.
Australia and the United States have fought together in “every significant conflict since World War I” and enjoy close defense ties.8 U.S. Marine Rotational Force–Darwin (MRF-D) and U.S. Air Force aircraft conduct regular rotations to Australia. The biennial Exercise Talisman Saber showcases the interoperability of the two countries. Australia also is procuring numerous U.S. weapon platforms to enhance interoperability.9 Bottom line: the alliance is strong, and the assumption that Australia would back the United States in a fight with China is probably safe.
There are several seams and gaps, however, that could be manipulated by China to promote fence-sitting. Professors Brendan Taylor and William Tow argue that two camps exist in Australia on how to navigate the future: Crusaders and Pragmatists. Crusaders advocate for Canberra to “double down” on the U.S. alliance, while Pragmatists think Australia should move closer to China.10
Australia already is playing both sides. In 2015, it joined the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, even though it was strongly opposed by the Obama administration. Also in 2015, Australia leased the Darwin port to China for 99 years.11 This is the same Darwin that hosts the U.S. Marine Rotational Force. In addition, Canberra refuses to take a hard stance against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.12
China is Australia’s lead trading partner and vital to the Australian economy. This dynamic alone would make war with China particularly painful for Australia. While the U.S.-Australia alliance is strong now, there is no guarantee it will be so in 2025, the year identified by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford as when China will become the United States’ greatest threat.13
Japan is unambiguously and unapologetically balancing against Chinese aggression. In 2015, it passed the Legislation for Peace and Security, which reinterpreted the meaning of “self-defense.” This allows the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) constitutional latitude to defend allies and to fight abroad.14 The new legislation also is a sign Japan is seeking to “become a more active U.S. ally.”15
Strong economic ties between Japan and China have not decreased tensions, and the relationship continues to worsen. A major point of contention is the disputed Senkaku Islands. In 2010, this disagreement came to a head when a Chinese fishing boat rammed a Japanese Coast Guard ship near the Senkakus, forcing Japan to reevaluate its threat perceptions of China. Japan now sees China’s rise as the dominant challenge in the Pacific and is actively balancing against the threat.16
Japan’s desired balancing construct would be a security “diamond” in the Indo-Pacific consisting of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia.17 This is part of a “hedging strategy” to increase Japan’s deterrence capability. Japan has a lot to lose in a war with China, and its power balancing is a sign of its threat perceptions. Arguably, Japan would be the United States’ most dependable ally in such a fight. The assumption that Japan would fulfill its treaty obligations is as solid as one can get.
Republic of Korea
In 2016, the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) deployed the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system in response to North Korea’s missile program. This move was opposed vehemently by China, and the ROK economy has suffered; still, the Republic of Korea has remained resolute—a tangible sign that it is not afraid to make sacrifices.18 On the surface, this would suggest that the ROK would be a dependable ally against China.
The problem with this assumption, however, is that it does not account for the North Korea “spoiler” factor. China and North Korea still have an active mutual-defense treaty, which requires the participants to “immediately render military and other assistance by all means” at their disposal.19 If North Korea were attacked for its nuclear program, it is arguable whether China would honor its treaty commitments. If China calls on North Korea’s support in a conflict, however, it is almost certain North Korea will honor its obligations. North Korea relies on China for its economic survival, and it could not afford to deny China’s request.
North Korea’s entry into a conflict would focus ROK resources on the Korean Peninsula and effectively sideline them in a U.S.-China conflict. Ironically, it might be in the best interest of the United States if the ROK remained a fence-sitter, similar to Israel in the first Gulf War.
The U.S. State Department labels Thailand a “key U.S. security ally in Asia.”20 The only problem with this assertion is that Thailand does not feel the same, and “the United States does not have a major role in Thai security thinking.” True, the United States conducts more than 50 exercises with Thailand each year and enjoys a high level of interoperability, but to what end? Thailand’s security focus is on counternarcotics, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, peacekeeping operations, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief. In these areas, there are plenty of opportunities for cooperation. The aim of “common strategic thinking and action” between the United States and Thailand, however, is unrealistic.21
China’s influence with Thailand is rising, while U.S. influence is declining.22 There are numerous reasons for this shift, but the primary one is that China does not judge Thailand’s internal issues. For example, after the 2006 and 2014 military coups, the United States criticized Thailand and drastically decreased military cooperation; China stepped in to fill the void. China also is Thailand’s biggest trading partner. The United States simply cannot compete when it comes to economic leverage.
The relationship between Thailand and China is close, and it has more relevance to Thailand than its alliance with the United States. For examples in 2012 and 2015, Thailand denied the United States use of U-Tapao airport, in part because of Chinese perceptions.23 The assumption that Thailand would support the United States in a fight against China is not valid. Thailand is a good candidate for defection.
The official stance of U.S. Pacific Command is that “the U.S.-Philippine alliance remains resolute.”24 Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, however, is clearly hedging between the United States and China. During the last U.S. administration, Duterte said President Barack Obama could “go to hell,” and he pursued alliances with China and Russia.25
Under the Trump administration, tensions between the United States and the Philippines seem to have “been repaired.”26 Duterte’s change of tone could be seen as a return to normalized relations, but his “180” turn also shows how easily he can change when it is in his self-interest. The ease with which Duterte switched from damning to praising shows he is motivated less by dogmatic convictions than by pragmatic incentives.
The Philippines gains many benefits through its alliance with the United States. The country is fundamentally weak, yet it maintains a “robust defense relationship” with the world’s only superpower.27 This defense relationship includes 258 activities for 2017, multimillion-dollar infrastructure projects, and invaluable counterterrorism support.28 What would happen if these benefits dried up and the Philippines was called on to meet its treaty obligations? Would it sacrifice blood and treasure, or is it a “fair-weather” ally?
Optimists claim Duterte’s vitriol represents a “blip” in the U.S.-Philippine alliance. This would be true if the Philippines saw China as an existential threat, but it does not. On the contrary, “Philippine leaders have increasingly come to view China not as a major security threat, but as a relatively benign power.”29 The assumption that the Philippines would fight with the United States against China is not a valid one. Its maximum gains would be from fence-sitting or bandwagoning with China.
Bandwagon or Die
Especially weak states will be more likely to bandwagon. . . . Because they can do little to affect the outcome, they are more likely to opt for the winning side.
— Stephen M. Walt
“Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power”
Graham Allison argues that war between the United States and China is “more likely than not.”30 He points to Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War to illustrate what usually happens when an established power (Sparta) feels threatened by a rising power (Athens). Allison sees parallels in the United States and China. He calls this dynamic “Thucydides’s Trap,” a term that has garnered much attention.
Thucydides’s Melian Dialogue is lesser know but much more germane when discussing the interests of smaller partners and allies. The Dialogue describes what happened when Athens sent delegates to Melos to demand tribute. The island of Melos was officially neutral but had historic ties to Sparta. The Melians were given reasonable terms, especially given Athens’ overwhelming military superiority, but they refused to capitulate. In response, Athens crushed Melos and enslaved its people.
The debate between the Melians and the Athenians reinforced the importance of power projection in the maritime domain. The Melians argued that Athenian aggression would incur retribution from Sparta, a land power. The Athenian’s response was brutal realism and illustrated the primacy of sea power: “Why, the fact is that continentals generally give us but little alarm.”31 The Spartans did not have the power projection capability to challenge Athens in the maritime domain. This left their Melian kin at Athens’ mercy.
The Melian Dialogue is more allegory than history. The stubborn idealism of Melos led to its destruction. The island’s only course of action against a vastly superior foe was hope—hope that Sparta would intervene and that the threat would be a deterrent. It reinforces the argument that a state’s primary responsibility is self-preservation. If China approaches maritime parity with the United States, will smaller U.S. allies and partners face a dilemma similar to Melos? If they do, wouldn’t bandwagoning with China be the most responsible decision?
If the United States and China were to go to war, U.S. allies in the Pacific are likely to be a coalition of the unwilling. For some, benefits would be gained by fence-sitting or bandwagoning with China. Assumptions that these allies automatically will provide support or access are flawed and need to be revisited.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States’ Pacific alliances have not represented states power balancing against a common threat but rather states bandwagoning with the only superpower in a unipolar system. As China reaches military parity with the United States, the power dynamic in the Pacific is becoming bipolar. In this new system, U.S. allies are hedging, and China’s opportunities to promote defections are increasing.
Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines do not uniformly perceive China as a threat; some see China’s rise as an opportunity. These differing threat perceptions make the formation of a multilateral, power-balancing bloc unlikely if not impossible.
In a war against China, the United States cannot rely on its allies for basing and port access; it can only rely on its own organic force-projection capabilities. In the Pacific, that force projection is predominantly maritime. The strategic importance of sea power remains paramount.
The United States spends a tremendous amount of time and resources developing relationships in the Pacific. Will these opportunity costs bear dividends when it makes a margin call on its partners? Or could that money have been better spent elsewhere, like investing in the United States’ own maritime superiority?
2. Stephen M. Walt, “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power,” International Security 9, no. 4 (Spring 1985), 18.
3. Kenneth N. Waltz, “Structural Realism after the Cold War,” International Security 25, no.1 (Summer 2000), 27.
4. Kitti Prasirtsuk, “An Ally at the Crossroads,” in Global Allies: Comparing US Alliances in the 21st Century, ed. Michael Wesley (Canberra, Australia: ANU Press, 2017), 124; and Evan S. Medeiros, Keith Crane, Eric Heginbotham, et al., Pacific Currents: The Responses of U.S. allies and Security Partners in East Asia to China’s Rise (RAND Corporation, 2008), xv.
5. Waltz, “Structural Realism after the Cold War,” 18.
6. John J. Mearsheimer, “The False Promise of International Institutions,” International Security 19, no. 3 (Winter 1994–95), 14.
7. Ibid., 31.
8. “U.S. Relations with Australia,” U.S. Department of State, 24 February 2017.
9. “Statement of Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr.,” 25.
10. Brendan Taylor and William T. Tow, “Crusaders and Pragmatists: Australia Debates the American Alliance,” in Global Allies: Comparing US Alliances in the 21st Century, ed. Michael Wesley (Canberra, Australia: ANU Press, 2017), 82.
11. Jane Perlez, “U.S. Casts Wary Eye on Australian Port Leased by Chinese,” The New York Times, 20 March 2016.
12. Taylor and Tow, “Crusaders and Pragmatists,” 82.
13. Ryan Browne, “Top US General: China Will be ‘Greatest Threat’ to US by 2025,” CNN, 27 September 2017.
14. “Japan Military Legislation Changes Draw Protests,” BBC News, 30 August 2015.
15. H. D. P. Envall, “Japan: From Passive Partner to Active Ally,” in Global Allies: Comparing US Alliances in the 21st Century, ed. Michael Wesley (Canberra, Australia: ANU Press, 2017), 16.
16. Ibid., 22, 27, 28.
17. Harsh V. Pant, “Take Note: Asia’s ‘Quad’ Is Back,” The Diplomat, 10 November 2017.
18. Celine Ge, “South Korea’s Hyundai, Kia Sales Halve in China Amid Diplomatic Spat over THAAD,” South China Morning Post, 5 April 2017.
19. Jesse Johnson, “For North Korea and China, Defense Pact Proves a Complicated Document,” The Japan Times, 18 April 2017.
20. “U.S. Relations with Thailand,” U.S. Department of State, 24 January 2017,
21. Prasirtsuk, “An Ally at the Crossroads,” 124, 128, 132.
22. Ibid., 131.
23. Prashanth Parameswaran, “Thailand Mulls New US Aircraft Basing Request,” The Diplomat, 28 May 2015.
24. “Statement of Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr.,” 26.
25. Bill Chappell, “Philippines’ Duterte Says He’s ‘Separated’ from U.S., As He Cozies Up to China,” National Public Radio, 20 October 2016.
26. Martin Petty, “U.S., Philippines Ties Back on Track as Trump, Duterte Make Up and Bond,” Reuters, 14 November 2017.
27. Medeiros et al., Pacific Currents, xix, and “Statement of Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr.,” 26.
28. “Statement of Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr.,” 26.
29. Medeiros et al., Pacific Currents, xx.
30. Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic, 24 September 2015.
31. Thucydides, “History of the Peloponnesian War."
Major Nappi, an intelligence officer and foreign area officer, is the South Asia Country Director, Marine Corps Forces Pacific, G-37. He holds a master’s degree in security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School.