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Over the past decade, we have witnessed one of the most significant shifts in the tectonic plates of international relations. It is linked to the resurgence of American foreign policy attention towards the Southeast Asia region, from the so-called “pivot to Asia” under Barack Obama, the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) during Donald Trump’s time, to the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) established by Joe Biden. This is a process that, due to its magnitude and reciprocal resources, probably does not happen as quickly as the local dynamics suggest. However, in the Indo-Pacific, we observe Washington not as an initiating force but rather as a reactive force (which is a drastic difference in the role of the United States compared to the processes in Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the past three decades).

This reactive nature of American foreign policy in the mentioned context is postulated by the geopolitical amplification of China and the resulting consequences for the regional geostrategic constellation. The latter is undergoing revision, driven by Beijing’s foreign policy impulses, from the militarization of the South China Sea, compromising the autonomy of Hong Kong, to intrusions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. In a sense, this is the “securitization” of China’s foreign policy, which is becoming increasingly characteristic of states with an authoritarian character (Turkey) or militaristic character (Pakistan).[1] Examples of this filtering of diplomacy through the reflexes of force in the system are both Chinese military exercises around Taiwan and joint exercises with Moscow, whether in the Arabian Sea or the East China Sea. Although not directly addressed in this text, the renewed tension along the Line of Control between India and China in Kashmir also mediates such discourse.[2] China manages to extrapolate this focus on the securitization of international relations both organizationally (through the strong role of Beijing in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, SCO) and conceptually (through the Global Security Initiative, GSI). Of course, emphasizing the latter should not create the impression that Chinese foreign policy activity is one-sided, as it also has equally assertive economic and cultural dimensions.[3]

This geopolitical “swelling” of China puts the United States and its partners in the Indo-Pacific in a situation of a new order. At least the last three American administrations, with growing interest, have been trying to address the cultural, economic, and military expansion of the Celestial Empire. However, they encounter various standard problems, some of which can be relatively easily identified:

  • The protectionist nature of India’s economy
  • Periodically deteriorating bilateral relations between South Korea and Japan
  • Lack of depth in the relations between India and Australia, which suggests their development in an accelerated and catching-up order
  • Lack of organizational effectiveness of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
  • Trade incentives with China for local economies (Beijing is the largest trading partner of US strategic allies, such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea)
  • Increasing cooperation – from hydrocarbon transfers to joint military training and patrols – between China and Russia
  • Other region-specific issues (from the military coup in Myanmar to the Philippines’ alignment with China during the previous presidential administration)
  • Conceptual inconsistencies between the US and other key Indo-Pacific states (whether it’s India’s policy of strategic non-alignment or Indonesia’s “hedging between two reefs”[4]). As a result, the practical implementation of the US-led concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) lags behind its declaratory commitment.
  • Inherent American deficits. For example, the scope of the aforementioned International Private Equity Fund (IPEF) is modest and not competitive with its Chinese counterparts. It also represents a recognizable lack of instrumental consistency in the approach of different US administrations: if Donald Trump prioritized bilateral relations, the current administration of Joe Biden gradually rehabilitates multilateral formats. Concurrently, the US-led Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) within the G7 has not developed dynamically yet.
  • Some of these obstacles to US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific can be explicit (like the Russia-China symbiosis) or implicit factors (for example, Indian economic protectionism is partly driven by considerations related to cheap Chinese exports). However, as mentioned, other problems are a function of inherent American deficits. Nonetheless, over the past few years, mainly during the Biden administration, US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific has managed to achieve results that, while not overcoming a number of the aforementioned problems, still soften their character. The aim of this text is precisely to provide examples of some of these, let’s call them niche successes. Some of them are a result of the purposeful actions of Washington’s diplomacy, while others are not, but still, serve the interests of the United States in the Indo-Pacific.

US and the Philippines: Revitalizing the Alliance

The Philippines is one of the oldest partners of the United States in terms of an established bilateral agreement for collective defense. However, the relations between the two countries did not correspond to this foundation during Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency (2016-2022). The political chronology of the latter was characterized by a policy of rapprochement between Manila and Beijing. This was a function of a symbiosis between two stimuli: positive (the possibility of Chinese investments in the country’s infrastructure) and negative (fear of China’s expansion in the archipelago’s exclusive economic zone).[5] The prevalence of the latter led Duterte to not take advantage of the Hague court’s ruling in 2016, which rejected China’s claims to exploit economically disputed waters in the South China Sea. Additionally, although he did not terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) regarding the presence of US forces in the country, Duterte threatened to annul it several times.

With the incoming power of the new presidential administration in Manila in mid-2022, represented by Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and despite initial considerations in the US, the Philippines’ relations with the United States received a new impetus. In March of this year, while negotiating the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), Manila provided four new military bases to the Americans – three of them are expected to be on Luzon Island, and the fourth on Palawan Island. Given the proximity of these islands to Taiwan (in the case of Luzon) and the South China Sea (in the case of Palawan), they provide additional logistical capabilities for the US military in the event of escalating tensions with China.

In April of this year, the Philippines and the United States conducted their largest joint military exercise to date, called “Balikatan,” which took place in the South China Sea and involved around 12,200 American and 5,400 Filipino servicemen. Meanwhile, Manila is expanding its partnership in the security and defense sphere with other allied countries of the United States.[6] Ferdinand Marcos Jr. canceled the plan of the previous presidential administration, which aimed to purchase Russian helicopters, stating that he intends to acquire such helicopters from the United States.

However, all of this does not mean that Manila has turned its back on Beijing. Despite the decision of the Supreme Court of the Philippines, which ruled that the project for the exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons in the South China Sea with China is unconstitutional, the authorities in Manila, following the position of the Duterte administration, continue to promote this idea. They also make efforts to convince their Chinese partners that the additional American bases on Philippine territory are more related to needs that do not necessarily concern the Chinese Empire. Although Manila continues to consider Washington a “trusted ally,” Filipinos cannot remain “forever the little brown brothers of America.”[7]

The United States and South Korea: The Washington Declaration

In late April of this year, US President Joe Biden hosted only his second state dinner.[8] The guest was the head of state of South Korea, Yun Suk-yol. The arrival of the latter at the helm of a conservative administration has facilitated greater convergence in the foreign policies of the South Korean and American administrations. This happened against the backdrop of a lack of congeniality and effective dialogue between the previous heads of state of both countries, Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump.[9]

During the aforementioned state visit between the acting leaders of the United States and South Korea, the so-called “Washington Declaration” was signed.[10] At its core, it envisions deepening the alliance between the two countries in the field of defense. In particular, the document postulates greater participation and engagement by Seoul in the possible deployment of American platforms with nuclear arsenals in South Korean territory or territorial waters, as well as additional synchronization between Seoul’s conventional forces and Washington’s nuclear forces. This facilitates the establishment of a joint Nuclear Consultative Group. For the first time in several decades, it is also established that an American submarine with a nuclear arsenal will conduct periodic courses in South Korean territorial waters.[11]

Through the provisions laid down in the Washington Declaration and the accompanying discussions between Joe Biden and Yun Suk-yol, several objectives were pursued. Firstly, an increase in the options for nuclear deterrence against North Korea. The previous progressive administration in Seoul acted as a brake on this, preferring a “policy of incentives” towards its militarized and nuclear-armed northern neighbor (i.e., a policy of economic stimuli to alleviate tensions and facilitate inter-Korean dialogue). Secondly, the further materialization of the US-South Korean partnership, which has implications not only for Pyongyang but also for the regional context as a whole (as a response to the military Chinese-Russian and American-Japanese partnerships). Lastly, with the additional security guarantees received from the US, it seems that Americans aimed to prevent Seoul from acquiring its own nuclear weapons.[12]

The volume of deepening relations between Seoul and Washington certainly has its limit. This is particularly evident when it comes to the ambition of the United States to build secure supply chains and restrict the transfer of high technologies, particularly semiconductors, to China, which goes against the trade interests of South Korea.[13] After all, Beijing is Seoul’s largest trading partner, upon which its own supply chains depend, including those with the Celestial Empire. Furthermore, South Korea has invested billions of dollars in semiconductor production in China. These factors define the unenviable position of the Blue House, placing it between a rock and a hard place: while South Korean chip manufacturers are dependent on American technology, around 40% of their exports go to the Chinese market.[14] This strategic ambivalence of South Korea takes on a new, more complex connotation when the country is seen as economically dependent on China, while its main reference for national security continues to be the United States. This is the “Korean paradox”[15] from which the Blue House cannot emancipate itself when forming its bilateral partnerships.

Japan and South Korea: Winter is Thawing

The rise of the conservative administration of Yun Suk-yol in South Korea, however, not only brought a new impetus to relations with the United States but also made a more significant breakthrough regarding those with Japan, given the periodic display of enduring historical discomfort between the two countries.[16] This accounts for a spiral of low temperature in diplomatic communication between Seoul and Tokyo: if it was cool in the past 10-12 years, it has turned openly cold and hostile in the last 5. This is one of the most serious problems for US foreign policy in East Asia.

In a process (1) initiated by Yun Suk-yol, (2) encouraged by the American administration, and (3) met with understanding from the Japanese, this negative trend of cold diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Seoul began to reverse its course, particularly noticeable since the beginning of 2023. Within just a few months, mainly from March to April, South Korea developed and proposed a mechanism to compensate for those affected by Japanese occupation[17] and restored the privileged trading partner status to the Celestial Empire, corresponding to the respective concessions. In return, Tokyo committed to do the same and lifted its regulations on the export of raw materials necessary for the South Korean semiconductor industry (such measures, having the character of sanctions, are painful for any country, but especially so for South Korea, which is highly dependent on imports of raw materials). The two sides also agreed to normalize their bilateral agreement on sharing intelligence information (General Security of Military Information Agreement, GSOMIA, the primary subject of interest being North Korea’s nuclear and missile program[18]). As a symbolic peak of this positive development, visits were exchanged between Yun Suk-yol and Fumio Kishida. In his capacity as the host, the Prime Minister of Japan invited the South Korean President to the G-7 meeting held in Hiroshima in May. Seeking to build upon the positive trend in bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo, the American administration invited Yun Suk-yol and Fumio Kishida to a trilateral meeting with Joe Biden in Washington.[19]

However, while the United States tries to play the role of a catalyst in bringing together and coordinating the foreign policies of South Korea and Japan, China continues to divide them.[20] This stems from the fact that when it comes to threats, Seoul usually looks east across the Sea of Japan, rather than west toward the Celestial Empire. On the other hand, Tokyo will likely remain true to its instincts, considering the Korean Peninsula as a “dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.”[21] Similar to the changing of seasons, winter cyclically departs and returns in the relations between Tokyo and Seoul.

The Shared Parenthood of American Niche Successes

The improvement of relations between South Korea and Japan is an example of development whose driving force is not necessarily American but certainly aligns with the interests of US foreign policy. The same goes for the publication of several strategic documents[22] in Tokyo concerning national security and the geopolitical positioning of the country, according to which it should acquire capabilities for counterattacks and increase its defense budget by 60% by 2027. Furthermore, with a focus specifically on defense, there is a deepening of Australia’s relations with Japan, [23] the Philippines,[24] South Korea,[25] and so on.

The impulses in the foreign policy network that intertwines between the US and its partners in the Indo-Pacific, as well as between the countries within the region, leave a visible material trace.[26] This gives a new type of software update to the “San Francisco system”.[27] This diplomatic intensity is contributed not only by the relevant efforts of Washington but also by those of the mentioned countries here, motivated by their concerns about the geopolitical amplifications of China. It seems that these countries believe that even Washington cannot provide them with as much as China can take from them.[28] The most current example of the considerations that Beijing generates in its geopolitical neighborhood is the growing cooperation between the Philippines and Vietnam, which, within ASEAN, are trying to form a “hub of resistance” against Beijing in the South China Sea.[29] This is another example of the niche foreign policy successes of the US, whose parenthood, however, is not always necessarily American. However, this should not be excluded from the assessment of the effectiveness of Washington’s efforts in addressing the centrifugal geopolitical movements of China, which are characteristic of the power chronology of Xi Jinping.

The outlined sketches here, which predominantly have a bilateral character and serve the interests of US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific, are just part of the assessment concerning its success (there may be other examples in this regard[30]). Furthermore, a more panoramic illustration of it involves placing the bilateral US relations within the context of their multilateral ones regarding the region (such as the Quad and AUKUS). Such an effort, however, requires a different textual space.

[1] Such “securitization” of foreign policy discourse may be more noticeable in states with a centralized and command political process, but it is not limited to them. For example, countries with democratic political systems also possess such a dimension: the “Malabar” naval exercises of the Quad; the signing of the trilateral security pact AUKUS between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom; the joint training exercise “Balikatan” between the United States and the Philippines, which will be discussed in the current text.

[2] Particularly considering the previously shared understanding that the increasing Chinese pressure in Kashmir forces India to focus a larger portion of its military and financial resources there, hindering the allocation of a parallel one for the Bay of Bengal.

[3] Here, we will simply highlight the global strategy “One Belt, One Road” (The Belt and Road Initiative, BRI), which is often the focus of analysts, as well as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

[4] According to the old but golden definition by Mohammed Hatta, Prime Minister (1948-1949) and Vice President (1945-1956) of Indonesia.

[5] The Spratly Islands, as well as Scarborough Shoal, located in the South China Sea, are disputed between China and the Philippines, among other countries. Manila often accuses Beijing of Chinese maritime vessels (from the coast guard to fishing boats) entering waters that the Philippines consider as their own.

[6] Japanese defense forces will have the right to access the territory of the Philippines, according to an agreement reached between Tokyo and Manila in February 2023. The Philippines, Japan, and the United States have started conducting joint counter-terrorism training related to the protection of Manila’s maritime borders. Discussions are also underway for conducting joint maritime patrols between Manila and Canberra.

[7] According to Perfecto Rivas Yasay Jr., former Foreign Minister of the Philippines (2016-2017).

[8] The first one took place in early December 2022, with French Head of State Emmanuel Macron as the guest.

[9] There were at least three fundamental reasons for this. First, progressive Moon Jae-in and conservative Donald Trump had diverging assessments of the risk of Chinese influence in the region. Second, the US president had established good and direct communication with former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which was lacking between the latter and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Third, former leaders of the White House and the Blue House addressed the development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile program in different ways.

[10] The text of the Washington Declaration is available here: (accessed on 09.06.2023).

[11] This provoked a Chinese reaction, according to which these actions of Washington are contrary to the established system of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and are counterproductive for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Available here: (accessed on 09.06.2023).

[12] While such a development would be a clear violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the discussion about acquiring nuclear weapons has resurfaced with the rise of Yun Suk-yol to power. However, the author of these lines acknowledges that there is no definitive clarity about whether these intentions of the conservative administration in Seoul were serious or rather represented a negotiating card in talks with the Americans.

[13] The motive for “decoupling” with China, softened to “de-risking” after European reflections on the subject, is between difficult and impossible when viewed from Seoul.

[14] According to Reuters. Available here: (accessed 09.06.2023).

[15] Milani M., Dian M., Fiori A., Interpreting South Korea’s Foreign and Security Policy under the “Asian Paradox,” In: The Korean Paradox, Routledge, 2019, p.3.

[16] For example, forced labor and sexual exploitation from the time of World War II. Part of the dispute between Seoul and Tokyo concerns the volume and source of owed compensation to the victims. There is no consensus regarding whether Japan has already officially and sufficiently apologized.

[17] The reason why this mechanism was relatively acceptable to Tokyo is that the fund created for this purpose does not require Japanese companies to participate in it, but rather expects them to be encouraged to do so by the government of the Land of the Rising Sun.

[18] GSOMIA, although not formally suspended as a result of the chronic crises of relations between the two countries, was in practice dysfunctional.

[19] However, the date of this meeting is still unknown at the time of concluding this text.

[20] In South Korean popular psychology, the image of Japan as a colonizer continues to be particularly persistent. In Seoul, it is widely believed that China is the balancing factor against Japanese expansion. If we can summarize this thinking for the purposes of this text, it would be expressed as follows: a weak China is an invitation for a strong Japan (which corresponds to historical circumstances in East Asia).

[21] Peattie M., introduction to The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945, ed. Ramon Hawley Myers, Mark Peattie, Princeton University Press, 1984, p.15, цитат по Green M., Line of Advantage, Columbia University Press, 2022, p. 162.

[22] National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, Defense Buildup Program. All mentioned documents are from 2022.

[23] (accessed on 10.06.23)

[24] (accessed on 10.06.23)

[25] (accessed on 10.06.23)

[26] Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s National Security Advisor, has described this diplomatic activity by the United States as creating a “network of alliances and partnerships.” Available here: (accessed on 10.06.2023).

[27] Also known as the “Hub and Spokes” system. For the role of the “San Francisco System” in international relations in the Asia-Pacific region, see Hara K. (ed.), The San Francisco System and Its Legacies Continuation, Transformation, and Historical Reconciliation in the Asia-Pacific, Routledge, 2014. The mentioned software update of the San Francisco System involves increasing the delegation of activity and responsibility from the “center” to the “spokes.” A convenient case to consider the latter is the changes taking place in the functioning of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, for example.

[28] Of course, this conclusion is not universal, and its generalizing nature should not be absolutized. States such as Cambodia and Laos, for example, do not fit into it.

[29] Heydarian R., Philippines-Vietnam Teaming up on China in the South China Sea, 25.05.2023. Available here: (accessed on 10.06.2023)

[30] For example, the two agreements concluded at the end of May developing security cooperation between the US and Papua New Guinea. At the time of this writing, however, the contents of the two signed documents-the Defense Cooperation Agreement and the Agreement Concerning Counter Illicit Transnational Maritime Activity Operations-are not publicly available. A possible interpretation of their nature may be read here:

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