The Biden administration appears disposed to reactivate the existing alliance arrangements as well as to cultivate new allies in the Indo-Pacific. The administration following the American withdrawal from Afghanistan seems poised to divert more resources towards the Indo-Pacific theatre while imposing an unstable border on Beijing to remain embroiled in the Afghan trap. It sought to strengthen Washington’s network of alliances in the Indo-Pacific by arranging a quad summit in virtual/online mode within 50 days of its coming into office and within a gap of a few months, the administration hosted first in-person meeting, in Washington DC on 24th September, 2021. Secretary Antony John Blinken not only chose Japan as the first country for his foreign visits, the administration took efforts at strengthening long-standing alliances such as those with Japan and South Korea.
Moreover, President Biden concluded a new Indo-Pacific security alliance with Britain and Australia – Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) paving the way for greater sharing of defense capabilities including helping equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. The emergence of the alliance was materialized in the backdrop of competing missile tests conducted by North and South Korea and China’s frequent intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). Further, the Biden administration has expressed its desire to invest in the development of AI-powered autonomous weapons systems to counter China’s military technological innovation.
China’s Changing Perception on Alliance Formation
In contrast to the American penchant for alliance-formations, China has relied more on building its own defence and deterrence capacities and creating a host of partners world-wide through economic diplomacy and win-win cooperation rather than investing in recruiting formal allies. This is exemplified by the fact that China has a mutual defence treaty only with North Korea making the latter its sole formal ally whereas it has official partnerships with many states around the world. These partners have been crucial in lending diplomatic support to Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy that seeks to legitimize Beijing’s authority over Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and claims of sovereignty over Taiwan.
Second, its economic penetration in the region channeled through its mega interconnectivity project – the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), easy loans and foreign aid and its predominance in the multilateral trade arrangements and financial institutions not only helped it dilute the American drive for allies, its economic permeation has enhanced its capacity to withhold assistance and force change in a state’s foreign policy. In view of this, many states including the Southeast Asian nations hesitate to take sides in the new great game. On military and strategic front, China has sought to enhance anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities by developing attack aircraft, submarines, mines, missiles, and air and missile defense systems which can prevent an adversary’s access to a territorial region (anti-access) and deny their freedom of movement on the battlefield (area denial). Second, to enhance maritime capabilities, China is engaged in developing many kinds of conventional warhead missiles, from short-range to long-range, which all can be turned into very powerful nuclear weapons and China’s new “hypersonic glide vehicle,” known as the DF-17, could also be equipped with nuclear warheads.
While China has often disparaged the American striving for alliance and considered it a relic of the Cold War, with the rising sense of American threat to its ‘One China’ policy-which represents its core interests, it is likely that there will be a palpable shift in Beijing’s attitude towards alliance formation. It is noteworthy that China’s partnership with Russia and Pakistan has deepened over the years and has been elevated to strategic levels along with China’s rising threat perception from the US. For instance, whereas China and Russia have preferred to title their partnership ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for a New Era’, China and Pakistan called their partnership ‘All Weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership’.
Under the changed label, China and Russia continued to conduct expansive military drills, including regular naval exercises in the East China and South China Sea, and at times in conjunction with third parties such as Iran and South Africa. China and North Korea not only renewed their mutual defense treaty but pledged to further tighten their alliance in July, 2021. North Korea recently claimed successful test of a hypersonic missile which could be fitted with a nuclear warhead and the alliance between Beijing and Pyongyang is turning into a serious challenge to the American drive for predominance in the region. China also signed a 25-year cooperation agreement with Iran this year widening bilateral cooperation to the areas of joint military exchanges, intelligence sharing, and weapons development.
Whereas China has avoided formation of allies based on mutual defense clauses, extensive troop-basing agreements, and joint military capabilities unlike the US, it is likely that the Biden administration’s renewed focus on alliance-building in the Indo-Pacific and perceived threats to its core interests may spur China to conclude defence deals even with rogue regimes as the one it has done with North Korea while elevating bilateral partnerships with other countries to strategic levels.