As Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes his state visit to the United States, and after the historic conclave of the national security advisors of the United States, Japan, and the Philippines in Manila, the United States continues to develop its latticework (to use the turn of phrase adopted by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan) of “flexible partnerships, institutions, alliances and groups of countries” across the world to balance China. The challenge now facing the U.S. policy establishment, however, is how to prevent these partnerships from being derailed.
Twenty years ago, in these pages, David M. Lampton bemoaned an American tendency to conduct bilateral relations with other states on the basis of the “Christmas tree” approach: “hanging all sorts of conditions (oftentimes very minor or petty issues) as a price for other states to pay for the continuation of normal, bilateral relations.” To combine the two metaphors, a latticework approach cannot hold up if too many weights are placed on it.
The fact that a coalition of states might find extremely close alignment on a particular issue (or set of issues) and seek ways to facilitate common action does not, therefore, mean that there is complete harmony of interests or agreement on all questions. Yet over the last several decades, the United States has often operated from the premise that Washington can present partners with a laundry list of disparate preferences and demand compliance. Even two decades ago, it was clear that “a country may earnestly desire to be a partner of the United States, but this in no way means that it ceases to pursue its own national interests.” Today, when the rise of China and greater coordination among the states of the Global South offers greater hedging opportunities, other countries have options while the United States has diminished leverage.
A “latticework” approach to international affairs means that the mix of obligations and commitments to other partners will differ on a case-by-case basis. For instance, the Japan-Republic of the Philippines-United States security consultation, which Josh Rogin argues might herald the emergence of a JAROPUS coalition, is grounded firmly in the assessment of a shared threat arising out of China’s efforts to extend its maritime sphere of influence. It does not automatically follow that JAROPUS will move in lockstep with the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) partnership, even though AUKUS also exists to respond to China’s improved maritime capabilities in the Indo-Pacific basin. AUKUS implies a level of defense technological-industrial integration, for instance, that is not a step the JA or ROP parts of the JAROPUS triad are prepared to take. Nor do these two coalitions (JAROPUS and AUKUS) assume the emergence of a common security alliance with India (via the QUAD (Japan, Australia, India, U.S.) format.
It can seem very tempting to take all these developments and conclude that the end result is the creation of an all-encompassing alliance, akin to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In fact, a few years ago, my students at the Naval War College developed a timetable for the creation of an Indo-Pacific Area Treaty Organization, or IPATO. But even NATO is based on a series of limits: geographically confined to the North Atlantic area, and among states that share a vast, intertwined network of economic interests and general agreement on questions of values and governance. Yet NATO allies have often been very resistant to expanding their commitments to assisting the United States in other areas of the world.
The U.S.-India relationship shows the challenges of navigating a “latticework” relationship. When it comes to the rise of China as a regional and global challenger, the United States and India share common strategic assessments and concerns. For an America that seeks to reroute critical supply chains around a Chinese competitor, India is part and parcel of any robust Asian supply chain that bypasses China. Yet India’s strategic interests diverge from those of Washington when it comes to Russia and Iran. And on a whole host of issues related to understandings of human rights and what constitutes democratic governance, India is prepared to push back against U.S. efforts to argue that American (or Western) standards form the universal yardstick by which all others are measured. The challenge for the Biden administration, in the run-up to the Modi visit, has been whether it is possible to ringfence U.S.-India collaboration in the first two areas from the criticisms, particularly from members of Congress, about India’s divergence from U.S. preferences in the latter areas.
The “minilateralist” approach that Jada Fraser and others have discussed argues in favor of creating focused coalitions that are defined by a small set of issues. It also means that the United States has to become more comfortable with multitiered arrangements, where, beyond a small core group of allies (such as the UK, Germany, or Japan) that share an overlapping shared vision across an entire spectrum of security, political, and economic issues, the United States recognizes a larger group of associates who commit to some but not all of the obligations. For instance, Ash Jain and Matthew Kroening lay out a strategy for economic statecraft for a new democratic community of nations that brings together both a core group of U.S. allies but envisions a broader set of associated powers who partner with the U.S. on selected sets of issues. But a multilateralist, tiered level-of-association approach shifts the basis of engagement away from the broad parameters of alliance towards negotiating focused and specific agreements with other countries—laying out not only specific duties but also the benefits both parties expect to receive—and with the understanding that other issues not covered in those agreements will not alter the bargain.
Congress, in particular, never likes minilateralist, association approaches—members are loath to give up the power to insist on compliance with every possible demand or request. The Biden administration resisted those tendencies with the Modi visit, because of the strategic importance of India to the U.S. strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” basin. But in the context of the strategic competition with China, a black-or-white approach to partners can backfire, especially when Beijing is willing to deal in shades of gray.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College and director of the national security program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The views expressed here are his own.
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