The Nature of US Leadership in the Asia-Pacific


Andrew O’Neil and Michael Heazle discuss the role of the US and it’s relationships in the Asia-Pacific.

The preeminence of US material power is a key factor in explaining the longevity of America’s post-war strategic presence in Asia. But it is Washington’s willingness to exercise leadership, and acceptance of that leadership, that has provided the critical agency for enduring US influence in the region. The purpose of this book is to develop a better understanding of the role of US leadership, and the liberal order it underpins in Asia, as a driver of Australia-Japan security relations. Explaining the linkage between how Australia and Japan perceive their respective relationships with the US reveals insights into the scope for further security cooperation between these two key US allies, the nature of US leadership in the Asia-Pacific, and how the existing regional order is likely to evolve in the prevailing strategic climate.

US leadership in Asia is pivotal to the region. China is challenging it, some in ASEAN are ambivalent about it, but Australia and Japan clearly want US leadership to remain. Despite persistent doubts about President Trump’s commitment to allies, senior US officials have reaffirmed a willingness to use military force to defend the territorial interests of allies in Asia; but what does it mean to speak of US leadership in this context? Japanese and Australian governments continue to highlight what they regard as the link between ongoing US military, economic, and political engagement and the region’s stability and prosperity. Focusing on Australian and Japanese perceptions of America’s leadership role, as distinct from their different perceptions of China, is important for two reasons.

First, as two of the region’s most militarily capable and diplomatically proactive US allies, Australia and Japan’s perceptions of American leadership are critical indicators of the prospects for change in the regional order. And while a discernible drift away from the current US-led order towards China on the part of ASEAN would certainly indicate the inevitability of change, this is unlikely given the diverse interests within ASEAN and the strong divisions over China.

Second, the different threat perceptions of China held by Australia and Japan has not impeded accelerated security cooperation between Canberra and Tokyo since the conclusion of the landmark Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2007. Both sides have worked hard to build more intimate strategic ties in the domain of intelligence sharing and military cooperation, as well as increasingly regular interaction between senior national security officials. This suggests that threat perceptions of China are not the major driver of this sustained security engagement, or perhaps even a necessary condition for this cooperation to occur.

This is supported further by the fact that Australia and Japan’s efforts to keep the US engaged in the Asia-Pacific began in the early 1990s and culminated in the first meeting of the US, Australia, Japan Trilateral Security Dialogue in 2006. Significantly, enhanced Australia-Japanese security cooperation was first mooted at a time when China’s rise still was widely believed to be benign and status quo orientated. Australia’s lower threat perception of China relative to that of Japan, moreover, suggests that Australia’s strategic thinking is influenced more by US engagement and its linkage with ANZUS and the regional order more broadly.

The major goals of our book are to examine how Australia and Japan regard US leadership in the region through the lens of their respective alliance relationships; how their perceptions of the US and the associated importance they place on the current order shape bilateral relations between Canberra and Tokyo; and finally to provide guidance on the options for promoting regional stability and continued US engagement.

The chapters in this book yield insights into the nature of US leadership in the Asia-Pacific through the prism of Australian and Japanese perceptions of America’s role and by asking how these perceptions shape bilateral relations between Tokyo and Canberra. Contributors to the book are also concerned with outlining what can be done to further promote regional stability and ongoing American engagement in a context where uncertainty is intensifying over the endurance of US alliances and global commitments. Each chapter outlines the characteristics it assigns to US leadership in terms of the author’s perspective on whether this leadership has been an effective driver of security cooperation and engagement between Australia, Japan, and other states in the Asia-Pacific.

There are four prominent themes that emerge in the book. The first is that, while the post-war ‘hub and spokes’ alliance system has become outdated in the sense that its initial purpose is no longer pertinent, it is still important for the evolution of a new system of security relations in Asia. Second, Australia and Japan remain strongly committed to their alliances with the US and to supporting continuing US leadership of the current order. Third, despite uncertainty over the intentions of the Trump administration, concern over the durability of US security commitments is not new and will continue to be a factor shaping security thinking in Canberra, Tokyo, and elsewhere. Fourth, managing the fluid regional security environment in the context of growing uncertainty over US foreign policy is the immediate challenge confronting Australia, Japan, and other US allies in the region. Increased security cooperation between US allies and with other security partners in the region (for example, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia) is an approach that pays dividends both in addressing the Trump administration’s demands for a greater material contribution from US allies, but also in hedging against a possible future drawdown of US engagement in the region.

Michael Heazle and Andrew O’Neil, Griffith Asia Institute and School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University, Australia

Heazle Chinas

China’s Rise and Australia–Japan–US Relations is available now.

Read chapter one free on Elgaronline.


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