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KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 353

Latticework and U.S. Influence : Is It Strengthening or Weakening?

Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy Associate Researcher
Jae Hyeok Lee

In May 2024, Lai Ching Te, the Chairperson of Taiwanese Democratic Progressive Party, became the 16th President of Taiwan. It once again proves that the majority of Taiwanese people are aspiring independence from China. However, China has been raising military tensions against Taiwan before and after the election season under ‘One China’ principle. At new year address on January 13th, Xi Jinping expressed his strong will for unification, saying Taiwan “will be unified with China”.

Tensions between China and the Philippines are also rising in the South China Sea. Since the conflict on Scarborough Shoal in 2012, the two countries have been continuing territorial disputes on islands and shoals. Recently, China and the Philippines almost went to military clash as Chinese coast guard fired water cannons at a Philippine vessel.

As Chinese military threat rises in Asia, U.S. and many like-minded countries are preparing for the rise of China by making minilateral groups. In 2017, U.S., India, Japan and Australia revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which was first established in 2007, and have been discussing regional security of the Indo-Pacific; in 2021, U.S., Australia and the UK formed AUKUS, which promotes high rank conversations as well as core technological exchanges such as cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, long range attack, and etc. Other minilateral groups such as U.S.-Japan-Korea trilateral pact and U.S.-Japan-Philippines trilateral summit are also made, and the U.S. refers to such cooperation structure as ‘latticework’ framework.

On May 14th, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell gave a keynote address at the Asan Plenum 2024, and emphasized the significance of the ‘latticework’ by saying “it is important for our allies to be interconnected as much as the U.S. is sincere to each of them”. He brought U.S.-Japan-Korea trilateral partnership as an example, and said “we wouldn’t be here without the tremendous courage that President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida have demonstrated in bringing Seoul and Tokyo closer together”. It shows that the U.S. tries to elevate its original U.S.-led alliance in the Indo-Pacific up to next level, strengthen cooperation among its allies, and effectively check and engage China via efficient networks and communications.

From ‘Hub and Spoke’ to ‘Latticework’ Alliance

The U.S. had maintained so called ‘hub and spoke’ strategy in Asia. It is a system of multiple bilateral relations, making U.S. centric alliance system in the region. U.S. signed mutual defense treaties with South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand, and has been maintaining such military alliances individually until today.

There are geopolitical reasons why U.S. chose multiple bilateral treaties in Asia instead of making multilateral alliance such as NATO in Europe. Right before the end of World War II, the U.S. had prepared for the war with communism. Although U.S. stood along with the Soviet Union under the cause of defeating German Nazism, U.S. regarded Soviet communism as the next biggest threat, and wanted to prepare in advance. After the War, the four victors divided Germany and kept under control, and the East-West borderline of Germany marked the beginning of Cold War in Europe. Meanwhile, as Soviet expansionism and military threat seemed to cross the border, the Western European countries gathered around the U.S. and other victors and established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Situation in Asia, however, was different from that in Europe. The U.S. was the only country from the Western bloc in the region. Republic of China, led by Chiang Kai-Shek of Kuomintang, was given the permanent membership of the UN Security Council as it fought against the Japanese Empire during the War, but Chiang and his followers fled to Taiwan after the defeat from the Civil War with Mao Zedong’s Communist Party in 1949. Also, as Asia had no industrialized imperial state like UK or France except for Japan (which was an axis power that fought against the U.S.), there were limits to form multilateral organization that could stand against the Soviet and Chinese influence effectively as in Europe. Afterwards, the Cold War came to an end along with the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the U.S. became the sole hegemon of the world. U.S. even strengthened the ‘hub and spoke’ system in Asia and kept U.S. influence in the region intact.

However, as the rise of China in the new millennia emerged as a new security threat, the U.S. had to come up with new strategy. The biggest feature of ‘latticework’ is to restructure U.S. centered bilateral alliances into multiple minilateral partnerships in the region, with U.S. being member of each group.

Concerns on Minilateralism and ‘Latticework’ Alliance

Some express concerns on strategic transition of the U.S. The biggest concern would be the increased burden of defense spendings of the allies. The original bilateral alliance system gave U.S. half of influence in total hence the leadership in the region, in return the allies were provided with nuclear umbrella and other security supports, costing less defense expenditures. In the long run, the U.S. will expect to pay less on defense budget as it decreases its influence in the region by transitioning from bilateral system to minilateral system, and the unpaid bills will be charged to its allies.

The second concern is that the strategic change of the U.S. might be perceived by opponents as a signal of weakening. As the U.S. became the sole superpower after the Cold War, NATO members and many other countries regarded U.S. as the ‘world police’, and expected to intervene and mediate global conflicts. In other words, American peace, or ‘Pax Americana’, lies with global over-reliance on U.S. For China, competing against the U.S. over global (if not regional) hegemony, U.S. strategic transition could be a chance for counteroffensive. China can break into the gap between decreasing role of U.S. in international community and high U.S. reliance of its allies.

It is true that the U.S.’s security interest is currently widely distracted as the Russian invasion on Ukraine since 2022 and the Israel-Hamas conflict since 2023 are still ongoing, and it is difficult to expect focused engagement on one specific region. Moreover, U.S. is not effectively showing its role as a hegemon in both conflicts. Former U.S. President Trump stressed ‘America First’ policy and said that “the U.S. cannot be ‘world police’ forever”, and President Biden also made a decision to fully withdraw from Afghanistan in 2021, both of which prove that the U.S. does not, or cannot, maintain world peace and order only with good will.

Benefits of Minilateralism and ‘Latticework’ Alliance

However, such concerns give more reasons for the necessity of ‘latticework’ framework and minilateral alliances as essential system for Korea and other Asian countries. Of course, the decrease of U.S. role and influence will return to its allies as burdens, but the minilateralism will enable allies to overcome their original passive “no can do without the U.S.” mentality, and build transformative idea of “together with the U.S.” as well as collective integrity. Also, as the case of AUKUS shows, minilateral groups are even more constructive system as it deals with not only security agenda, but also economic, diplomatic and technological cooperations.

The U.S.-Japan-Korea trilateral partnership made in 2023 is a big step forward in this respect. For South Korea, cooperation with Japan, which has long been regarded as the closest-yet-farthest country, can become a trigger for series of other minilateral talks with other like-minded countries. Furthermore, considering the situation of South Korea facing nuclear threat directly from the North, the ‘latticework’ alliance system can be not only a complement of decreased U.S. influence, but also a breakthrough by inviting other partners to share and solve South Korea’s own security issue.

Also, the strategic transition of U.S. does not mean total fragmentation of original strategy or alliances. Many minilateral groups are being made, but this does not mean the end of conventional bilateral alliances. In addition, it is too early to say that U.S. influence is only weakening, since U.S. is leading the change and strives to be part of almost every group including intercontinental groups such as Quad and AUKUS, and also regional partnerships such as U.S.-Japan-Korea pact and U.S.-Japan-Philippines cooperation. Therefore, it would be more suitable to say that strategic transition from ‘hub and spoke’ to ‘latticework’ framework is an improvement rather than a replacement, building minilateral cooperation system over conventional bilateral alliances.

Conclusion

As aforementioned, U.S. is occupied with conflicts in Ukraine and in the Middle East, as well as many other issues in the Indo-Pacific region such as Taiwan, South China Sea and North Korea. Partners of U.S. have been dealing with alliance in terms of military support and nuclear umbrella more as recipients, but the time has come for them to look for each other and help U.S. to come up with better strategy. In this respect, minilateralism is an advanced multilayered security cooperation framework that strengthens not only the U.S., but the allies as a whole. In the era of Neo-Cold War, a true cooperation with the U.S., not an over reliance on U.S. leadership, is ever more required.

Bowers, I. (Ed.). (2024). Coalition Navies during the Korean War: Understanding Combined Naval Operations (1st ed.). Routledge.

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