Nov 28, 2023
U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific would play central roles in any regional campaign to deter aggression from the People's Republic of China (PRC). Not only would the allies and partners bring their own important capabilities to defend their own territories, but access to their territories, airspaces, and waters would be vital for the U.S. prosecution of any such campaign. This access would be particularly important for the U.S. Air Force (USAF), which would likely rely on access to allied and partner airspaces and bases in the region to counter the PRC.
Photo by Airman 1st Class Sebastian Romawac/Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs
The USAF and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) have invested substantial time and effort in increasing the access of U.S. forces to allied and partner territories in the Indo-Pacific region during peacetime, but the extent to which this peacetime access would translate into conflict-phase access is unclear. Both the physical and political geography of the region limit U.S. options for access to such an extent that some allied and partner decisions regarding conflict-phase access could determine the outcome of a conflict.
For these reasons, ensuring access to the territories of allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific in the event of a future conflict with China is a critical concern for U.S. policymakers. A clearer understanding of how and why U.S. allies and partners are likely to make conflict-phase access decisions, and what U.S. policymakers can do to affect those decisions, is therefore essential.
To assess what the United States and the USAF can do to affect these decisions, a RAND Corporation team reviewed the literature on conflict-phase access decisions, surveyed relevant historical case studies, built a framework of how states make those decisions, and applied the framework to five U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region: Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, and India. This application involved a deep-dive investigation of the strategic outlook, internal politics, and economic incentives of each nation, including interviews with experts and government officials in the United States and the allied and partner nations. The RAND team then developed a typology of the full range of potential policy levers that the United States could use to shift allied and partner access decisions and identified the levers that would be most promising to improve the chances of gaining conflict-phase access to each country.
The findings should limit expectations about the influence that U.S. policies can have on allied and partner conflict-phase access decisions. In many cases, such decisions are likely to be considered tantamount to going to war against the most powerful state in the region and, thus, are likely to be driven by the highest-level strategic calculations of each country's most vital national interests. U.S. policymakers should understand up front that changing these calculations will not be easy. U.S. policymakers should not expect large or dramatic changes in the host-nation calculations to follow smaller or limited U.S. policy initiatives. Neither should U.S. policymakers expect improvements in peacetime access to necessarily carry over to conflict-phase access. Nonetheless, there are some policies that can improve the likelihood of conflict-phase access being granted. These policies typically focus on addressing specific allied and partner concerns.
This brief summarizes how the five U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region that this research assessed are likely to make their conflict-phase access decisions, based on the factors likely to be most influential in informing each decision. The brief then identifies the U.S. policy levers that are most promising for potentially shifting the allied and partner calculations toward approving U.S. conflict-phase access requests. Finally, the brief offers recommendations for U.S. policymakers at three levels: the U.S. government broadly, DoD , and the USAF.
When deciding whether to approve conflict-phase access requests, leaders of states are likely to ask themselves five questions. These questions incorporate strategic, economic, political, and diplomatic considerations and reflect how states in general tend to approach such requests. How leaders answer these questions is likely to determine how they will respond to any access requests from the United States during a potential future conflict:
Photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew Kakaris/USAF
These questions are broadly applicable to all states facing the prospect of deciding whether to approve conflict-phase access requests. The RAND team explored the factors most likely to affect the decisionmaking when the five Indo-Pacific countries ask themselves these five questions. The most important factors for each country are as follows:
Japanese reliance on the U.S. security umbrella: Japan's perception that its alliance with the United States is the fundamental guarantee of its security is likely to strongly influence its conflict-phase access decision. There are substantial fears in Japan that refusing U.S. conflict-phase access requests, including access to existing U.S. bases, could undermine the alliance and risk forcing Japan to confront China on its own.
U.S. dependence on Japanese bases: Japan assesses that U.S. success in many Indo-Pacific scenarios, particularly those involving Taiwan, would require U.S. access to U.S. bases in Japan. Should Japan refuse this access, it would substantially hamper U.S. efforts, likely worsening long-term Japanese security in the process.
Risk of retaliation from China: A Philippine assessment of the potential scope of Chinese retaliation, both military and economic, would factor heavily into a conflict-phase access decision. Philippine leaders are concerned about the vulnerability of their territory to Chinese attack, particularly in the South China Sea. Economic retaliation is even more of a concern because the Philippine economy, being so tied to Chinese trade and investment, is quite vulnerable to PRC economic coercion.
Philippine assessment of the likelihood that the United States will defend Philippine territory: Philippine uncertainty over whether the United States will defend Philippine territory if China attacks, particularly in the South China Sea, is likely to influence a Philippine access decision. The Philippines would also consider whether refusing access might degrade the U.S.-Philippine alliance and thereby reduce the likelihood of the United States defending Philippine territory in the future.
Singapore's concern over losing its status as a regional economic hub: For Singapore's policymakers, economic prosperity is inextricably linked to both the survival of the political regime and the national security of the nation. If Singapore granted access in a potential U.S.-China conflict, China could devastate Singapore's position as a regional economic hub that offers a safe, efficient, and trustworthy place in which to make exchanges.
Necessity of U.S. balancing role in the region to safeguard Singapore's autonomy: Singapore seeks to maintain foreign policy autonomy and avoid becoming too close to or too dependent on any single power. But Singapore's hedging is informed by a general preference for the United States as the guarantor of order, prosperity, and security in Southeast Asia. Singapore would consider whether refusing access would lead to a U.S. defeat in a potential conflict, which would leave the island-nation vulnerable to a regional order dominated by an assertive China.
Singapore's strong commitment to and reliance on the rule of law and the current regional order: As a small state in a dangerous neighborhood, Singapore relies on the rule of law and the current regional order to safeguard its interests. An order driven more by the whims of larger, more-powerful states could leave Singapore exposed to attack or coercion. Singapore may thus be more amenable to granting access to prevent larger states from using force to violate the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Indonesia's nonalignment policy: Indonesia views its nonalignment policy as the best way to keep the country secure by maintaining neutrality and addressing security challenges multilaterally through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). A strong preference among Indonesian elites to maintain a nonalignment policy even during a conflict would factor heavily into Indonesia's access decision.
Risk of retaliation from China: Indonesian policymakers are concerned about military and economic retaliation from China. As for military retaliation, a primary concern is the vulnerability of the Natuna Islands to a Chinese attack. Indonesia's economy is very vulnerable to economic retaliation, given the amount of Indonesia's trade and investment with China, which is significantly greater than Indonesia's trade with the United States.
Whether ASEAN supports U.S. operations: Indonesia would consider the stance of ASEAN members in making its decision. Although ASEAN would be unlikely to form a consensus regarding a U.S.-China conflict, Indonesia's position as the head of ASEAN and its preference to work through ASEAN on regional issues would carry weight with Indonesia's policymakers. Indonesia would likely look to ASEAN to assess the level of support for the United States in a conflict with China before deciding whether to grant access.
Indian policymakers' extreme caution and risk aversion vis-à-vis China: India would hesitate to take actions it perceives would antagonize China. India recognizes that China is too economically and militarily powerful for India to prevail in any sustained confrontation with it. Indian policymakers would fear that granting conflict-phase access to the United States would lead to full-scale war with China or, at least, provoke a PRC reaction sufficiently dangerous to warrant caution.
India's traditional reluctance to join any sort of military alliance: India regards formal alliances, informal security cooperation blocs, or even any partnership that might be characterized as "alignment" as detrimental to its sovereignty and national interests. Indian policymakers believe the nation's core interests are best served by a foreign policy that balances competing nations against each other and maintains Delhi's freedom of action. U.S. policymakers should not underestimate the depth and endurance of this worldview.
Photo by Capt. Mark Lazane/Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs
The RAND team next analyzed what policy levers, if any, could allow U.S. policymakers to shift the access calculations. The team reviewed the policy levers that the United States could use to expand its influence among allies and partners in general terms and then identified the levers most applicable to affecting each conflict-phase access decision in each potential host nation.
The team then assessed which levers could most plausibly affect the conflict-phase access decisions that the five countries make, given their most important deciding factors, as outlined in the previous section. This assessment evaluated both whether and to what extent peacetime policies could influence conflict-phase access decisions. Table 1 highlights the U.S. policy levers most likely to improve the likelihood of the United States being granted conflict-phase access to each country, given its key deciding factors.
|Most Important Deciding Factors
|U.S. Policy Levers Most Likely to Be Effective
Across the five countries, ranging from those with high levels of military cooperation with the United States (such as Japan) to those with very limited current relationships (such as Indonesia), the analysis found that new or altered U.S. government policies are likely to have relatively limited effects on decisions to grant the United States access during a conflict. That said, the analysis did identify three main areas in which U.S. policies could make marginal differences in multiple countries, as well as a fourth area of larger U.S. policy changes that could make a difference across the board (as shown below).
Photo by Airman 1st Class Amanda Jett/Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
The findings led the RAND team to offer the following policy recommendations for the U.S. government, DoD, and the USAF: