A widespread criticism of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is that it wrecked—or at least severely undermined—the United States’ power and standing in the world, particularly by alienating long-standing allies and partners. Besides his public disdain for NATO, then-U.S. President Donald Trump questioned aloud why the United States maintained a security alliance with Japan, pressed South Korea to pay five-fold more to house U.S. troops, and approved of then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s plan to terminate a visiting forces agreement with the U.S. military. He also picked fights with India and Vietnam—two emerging strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific that could be key to countering China—over alleged unfair trade practices. To top it off, Trump apparently didn’t share the same commitment to defending Taiwan against Chinese military aggression as other U.S. leaders, including his successor, current U.S. President Joe Biden.
But as 2023 draws to a close, it is remarkable to observe that U.S. alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific are just about the deepest and most robust they have been in all their history. Some of this is a testament to the exceptional durability of the United States’ alliances and partnerships, given that they survived—and, in the case of India and Japan, even thrived—in spite of Trump’s bullying and destructiveness. Indeed, Washington has been cultivating and institutionalizing these friendship networks for decades. Credit is also due to the Biden administration: Not only has it returned these important relationships to their normal status quo following four years of disruption under Trump, but it has also bolstered them to enhance deterrence against China and North Korea, the two main threats in the region.
The Biden team is also receiving a huge assist from Beijing itself, whose relentless assertiveness is heightening anxiety among its neighbors. This has convinced more and more countries in the region to ditch their hedging—the old but increasingly unworkable mantra of not wanting to choose sides—and engage in a balancing strategy against China, just as any student of international relations would predict.
Although it is theoretically possible that Chinese President Xi Jinping will look to dial down China’s assertiveness in the aftermath of his productive meeting with Biden in mid-November, this looks unlikely for several reasons. Beijing’s growing economic and military strength is boosting its confidence to push ahead, on its own terms, with longstanding sovereignty and territorial claims in the region. And Beijing has certainly not shied away from fiercely waging strategic competition against Washington in the region and beyond. North Korea is similarly pushing U.S. allies in northeast Asia closer together by constantly threatening additional ballistic missile and nuclear tests.
It is unclear whether this new geostrategic balancing is good or bad for prospects of maintaining global peace and stability. Regardless, it is clearly good news for the United States, which is bolstering and expanding its already robust alliance and partnership network.
U.S. President Joe Biden sits at a desk in the East Room of the White House as he hosts a meeting of the Quad Leaders Summit in the White House. The room is elaborately decorated with an ornate rug, chandeliers, and gold drapes. Biden sits in front of the flags of the four Quad alliance nations, and leaders from those nations sit at desks around the room, all facing a centerpiece that holds a potted plant.
In Northeast Asia, the United States is in a historically powerful position. The U.S.-Japan security alliance has always been the cornerstone of Washington’s strategy in the region, but today the two allies cooperate and coordinate on nearly every aspect of their foreign policy and defense strategy. As a like-minded democratic power that seeks a free and open Indo-Pacific, Tokyo is part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad (alongside Australia, India, and the United States). In recent years, Japan has carved out some wiggle room from Article 9 of its constitution to allow it to conduct military operations farther away from Japanese shores, including joint patrols with the U.S. Navy and other partners in the South China Sea. Japan consistently raises not only concerns over North Korea, but also the need to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, which has greatly irked China as it considers Taiwan’s status an internal matter. Washington and Tokyo are further deepening their intelligence sharing against these threats, and Japan is enhancing security cooperation with other U.S. allies and partners, such as the Philippines, South Korea, India, and Vietnam.
It is hard to imagine relations with the United States’ other security ally in Northeast Asia, South Korea, being much better than they are now. Since the election of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol last year, Seoul has staunchly supported U.S. initiatives not only concerning the peninsula, but also in the general region and beyond. In most respects, Yoon is mirroring the Biden administration’s approach toward North Korea, which is essentially one of strategic patience—a policy first adopted by the Obama administration that seeks to ignore Pyongyang until sanctions bite hard enough for it to come to the negotiating table on denuclearization. Under Yoon, South Korea has also deepened its alliance with the United States by expanding information sharing and coordination into the nuclear domain—a new milestone for the two countries.
Yoon also took the unprecedented step of meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in March, the first such visit of a South Korean leader to Japan in over a decade. Relations have been perpetually frustrated by South Korean grievances over Japan’s World War II-era atrocities on the peninsula. And in August, Biden met with Yoon and Kishida simultaneously at Camp David, marking the first-ever such tripartite summit. Like Japan, South Korea has been outspoken against China’s aggressive behavior toward Taiwan. Yoon also took the unprecedented step of attending an annual NATO summit—not just once, but twice—to criticize both China’s assertiveness and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, underscoring his view that South Korea must become what he called “a global pivotal state” that looks beyond its own peninsula.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, U.S. President Joe Biden, and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio speak at podiums during a joint news conference at Camp David. All three men are dressed in dark suits without ties and stand in front of a green landscape of trees and bushes. Members of the press and other attendees are seen from behind as they sit in chairs in front of the podiums.
The U.S.-Taiwan partnership is the strongest it has been since 1979, the year Washington revoked diplomatic recognition of Taipei in favor of Beijing. Taiwan has consistently welcomed high-level U.S. engagement, most recently when then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island in August 2022. Taipei has also embraced U.S. legislation dating back to the Trump era—namely the Taiwan Travel Act and TAIPEI Act—that has sought to entrench Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty and independence from China, widening Taiwan’s diplomatic breathing room for higher-level relationships with the United States and other countries around the world.
Under Biden, the U.S. Navy continues to sail warships through the Taiwan Strait on a near-monthly basis to demonstrate the strait’s international status and deter Beijing. Washington also remains committed to regular arms sales. On four separate occasions, Biden has publicly stated that if China ever attacked Taiwan, the U.S. would intervene militarily, regardless of the fact that Washington has no security alliance with Taipei—nor even recognizes it as a country. Although Biden’s statements have created jittersamong some in Taiwan (reportedly including Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen herself) that Washington may be unnecessarily provoking Beijing, this is an unprecedented level of commitment to the island that Taipei has certainly welcomed. Regardless of who wins Taiwan’s presidential election in January 2024, the new government is almost certain to implement a U.S.-friendly policy. Even China-friendly opposition nominees would be hard-pressed to do otherwise, given the Taiwanese public’s desire to elevate U.S. support.
Key Southeast Asian nations are shifting toward alignment with the United States, too. The U.S.-Philippines alliance, for example, has fully recovered from Duterte’s flirt with Beijing. Since entering office in 2022, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has met with Biden twice, and Washington continues to underscore its “ironclad” commitment to the Philippine government in Manila as the latter faces increasingly aggressive and coercive gray-zone tactics within its exclusive economic zone, including at Second Thomas Shoal, Scarborough Shoal, and Pag-asa Island. Notably, after a particularly aggressive incident on Oct. 22, during which two Chinese ships rammed a Philippine resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal and its Philippine Coast Guard escort, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Biden himself all reiterated that the U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty could be triggered if China attacks Philippine government and military assets.
Although bothersome and worrying, Beijing’s tactics have remained beneath this threshold, suggesting that deterrence has been effective. But not leaving anything to chance, Manila earlier this year expanded the number of military bases covered by its Enhanced Defense Cooperation Arrangement with Washington from five to nine, allowing U.S. forces to pre-deploy weapons and rotational troops to assist in a future China-related contingency. Marcos has further expressed concerns over the Taiwan Strait and has welcomed stepped-up patrols in the South China Sea by the U.S., Australian, and Japanese navies. In late November, Marcos visited U.S. Indo-Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, subsequently welcoming joint U.S.-Philippines air and sea patrols not far from Taiwan, the first joint patrols since Duterte suspended them in 2016.
In September, Biden visited Vietnam to raise the two countries’ partnership from “comprehensive” to “comprehensive strategic”—the highest level in Hanoi’s hierarchy of external relations, putting the United States on par with China, India, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. (Vietnam only elevated South Korea’s and Japan’s statuses in December 2022 and last month, respectively.) Vietnam boosted the United States to the top category in part to deepen security cooperation against China in the South China Sea, where Hanoi also has serious sovereignty and territorial disputes with Beijing.
Since Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s visit to the White House last month, the United States and Indonesia have their own upgraded “comprehensive strategic partnership.” When U.S. Defense Secretary Austin was at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers’ meeting in Jakarta in November, the two nations also signed a defense cooperation agreement. Although details have yet to be released, it is clear that the United States and Indonesia are pursuing closer security cooperation on a variety of fronts, including in maritime domain awareness, that could be leveraged against China.