Shaping China’s rise: the reordering of US alliances and defence partnerships in East Asia


The US-led system of alliances and defence partnerships in East Asia has undergone profound change since the end of the Cold War. The so-called “hub-and-spokes” system of bilateral alliances has been gradually supplemented by a “networked security architecture”—a network of interwoven bilateral, minilateral and multilateral defence arrangements between the US and its regional allies and partners, in which China is also included through a variety of cooperation channels. This paper shows that, from Washington’s perspective, the networked security architecture is not merely a means to externally balance a revisionist China, as Structural Realist analyses contend. Rather, the US has sought to broaden the composition of the US-led hegemonic order in East Asia by diversifying the range of defence ties with and amongst its allies and partners, but also by seeking to include the PRC in it. Thereby, Washington aims to channel and shape the trajectory of China’s rise within the US-led hegemonic order, from a position of pre-eminence, through a mixture of negative and positive incentives (resistance and accommodation) with the ultimate goal of upholding the existing hegemonic order. To empirically substantiate this argument, the paper relies on a large body of elite interviews with senior US policymakers.

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  1. 1.

    Specifically, these norms are the recognition of great power status, respect of sovereignty, free trade, deterrence and international law (Buzan and Zhang 2014; Khong 2014)—and specifically, freedom of navigation and overflight and the multilateral, rules-based system of dispute resolution.

  2. 2.

    See the definition of ‘networked security architecture’ in the Introduction to this Special Issue. On the interweaving of formal alliances, bilateral partnerships, minilateral groupings and multilateral security arrangements in East Asia, see also Cha (2011), Cronin (2013), Fontaine et al. (2017), Green (2014a, b), and Simón et al. (2019). For a review of the various strands of the literature on the changing alliance dynamics in East Asia, and their shortcomings, see the Introduction to this Special Issue.

  3. 3.

    For a discussion of how the different strands within Structural Realism—despite their differences—concur on this point, see the Introduction to this Special Issue. For an overview of the key propositions of Realist scholars on the response by regional powers to China’s rise, see Mastanduno (2014).

  4. 4.

    See the definition of primary and secondary institutions in the Introduction to this Special Issue.

  5. 5.

    Between January 2016 and December 2018, seventy-five interviews were conducted with former political appointees and career officials in charge of political-military and East Asian affairs in the White House (National Security Council/NSC Staff), the Department of State (DoS) and the Department of Defence (DoD). In the NSC, the positions of the interviewees include senior directors and advisors to the President; in the DoD and DoS, the positions range from assistant secretary to the deputy secretary level. In addition to political appointees, interviews were conducted with lower-level officials, such as policy advisors to the political appointees and country directors. The information provided by the interviewees has consistently been triangulated with other interviews in order to ensure the contextualization and reliability of the empirical evidence. All interviewees quoted in this article have given their prior approval to being quoted. Those who have not given their approval to being quoted have been anonymized.

  6. 6.

    On the initiatives undertaken by the Clinton and Bush administrations, see Blair and Hanley (2001), McDevitt and Kelly (1999), Silove (2016); Green (2017: ch. 13–14).

  7. 7.

    The two countries also signed a new five-year package of host nation support for U.S. forces in Japan (US Department of State 2018).

  8. 8.

    For data on U.S. capacity building efforts, see Security Assistance Monitor (2018).

  9. 9.

    On the S&ED, see U.S. Department of Treasury (2016) and U.S. Department of State (2016). The S&ED was relabelled Comprehensive Dialogue under the Trump administration. See The White House (2017).

  10. 10.

    China is included in some of the initiatives constituting the networked security architecture (e.g. bilateral partnerships with individual regional powers, minilateral arrangements and multilateral fora), but not in others, i.e. the system of five U.S. bilateral mutual defence treaties.

  11. 11.

    On how this argument relates to, and differs from, the decades-long debate on whether the U.S. should engage or contain China, see the Introduction to this Special Issue.

  12. 12.

    The term “responsible stakeholder” in relation to China was first coined by former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick (2005) in the George W. Bush administration. See also U.S. Department of State (2015).

  13. 13.

    On this point, see also Christensen (2015).

  14. 14.

    Concomitantly, a number of scholars and former policymakers have begun to critically assess the underlying assumptions that had guided the policies of previous administrations (see among others, Campbell and Ratner 2018; Friedberg 2018a, b).


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For useful and constructive feedback on previous drafts of this article, the author would like to thank Evelyn Goh, John Hemmings, Tongfi Kim and Luis Simón.

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Meijer, H. Shaping China’s rise: the reordering of US alliances and defence partnerships in East Asia. Int Polit 57, 166–184 (2020).

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  • English School
  • Hegemony
  • Alliances
  • Defence cooperation
  • United States
  • China
  • East Asia