Recent disputes among some of the United States' closest Asian allies over largely uninhabited islands in the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the South China Sea underscore the challenges facing Washington in moving beyond the classic hub-and-spoke structure of its security system in the Western Pacific and in crafting a more collective approach. For some time — and as most recently reiterated in the 2010 National Security Strategy, the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review report and the 2011 National Military Strategy — the United States has sought to "multilateralize" its security relationships in the Pacific, similar to what exists in its ties to Europe.
American and Western European leaders have crafted a security architecture that relies on collective action. Decades before the phrase "pooling and sharing" came into vogue, the allies of the North Atlantic region pooled their security in the 1949 treaty that created NATO and shared, if somewhat unequally, the burdens and risks of defending against common security threats.
However, Washington has long proved unable to coerce or cajole its Pacific allies into a similar round-table or multilateral approach. Therefore, the United States adopted a hub-and-spoke system, with Washington at the center, connected by bilateral "spokes" to its key allies in the Pacific theater, such as Japan, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia.
Unfortunately, efforts to move beyond this type of security structure in the Asia-Pacific region appear destined to fail, at least in the short run. Whether it's Taiwan versus the Philippines (and China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei) in the South China Sea, Japan versus Taiwan (and China) in the East China Sea or South Korea versus Japan in the Sea of Japan, many of Washington's key allies here have little interest in cooperating more closely on security issues.
If there is one thing America's Pacific allies do share, though, it's a collective anxiety over China's rise, and specifically over Beijing's increasingly overt ability and willingness to translate its economic power into political muscle. These factors have yet to compel in a resounding manner the kind of cooperation that spurred France and Germany to overcome decades, if not centuries, of mutual mistrust and resentment in the aftermath of World War II.
The prospect of key Pacific allies quarreling among themselves instead of collectively focusing on their common security challenges places the United States in a no-win situation. Washington may be able, through a kind of neutrality, to avoid getting dragged into such disputes, but this won't necessarily prevent those allies from clashing with each other. If the United States is drawn in on one side or the other, it risks seeing one of its allies — namely, the loser — unnecessarily weakened politically, militarily and/or economically, an unhelpful outcome in this era of American defense austerity at home and China's rising influence in Asia.
Indeed, the way ahead for the United States — and the best path by which to avoid the aforementioned risks — is unclear, in part because of the differing nature of the conflicts outlined above.
In those cases in which disputes have more to do with national pride and the weight of history, the United States has proved it has limited ability to prevent regional leaders from exploiting such disputes to stir nationalist sentiment for political advantage, at least as evidenced in the Western Balkans during the 1990s. During that decade, several political leaders in Serbia, Croatia and elsewhere who otherwise had limited domestic support exploited historical disputes that had largely faded from contemporary memory to gain or retain power. This ultimately and tragically resulted in multiple armed conflicts and tens of thousands of deaths.
Where Washington might find greater success in staving off such disasters is in exercising adroit diplomacy, and in playing the role of trusted arbiter in those conflicts among its Asia-Pacific allies that include economic or resource issues. Although such disputes might seem more intractable, since there appears to be more at stake, each of the disputants actually has a greater incentive to engage in give-and-take negotiation over potential economic benefits. Otherwise, the alternative to a negotiated settlement is to fight and potentially lose out on any potential gains — hence, better to get something rather than nothing.
Regardless of whether Washington can succeed in making this case with and defusing conflicts among its closest Pacific allies, the hub-and-spoke security system appears destined to stick around for the foreseeable future. Greater collaboration among America's allies in the Asia-Pacific theater is unlikely any time soon.
John R. Deni, a former advisor to the U.S. Army in Europe, is a research professor of joint, interagency, intergovernmental and multinational security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute. These views are his own.