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Research Questions

  1. How are U.S. allies and partners likely to make conflict-phase access and basing decisions?
  2. What circumstances influence the outcome of this decisionmaking?
  3. What might the United States and USAF be able to do to affect these decisions in peacetime?

Ensuring military access to the territory 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. The physical and political geography of the region sharply limits U.S. options to such an extent that some allied and partner decisions to provide or refuse access could determine the outcome of a conflict. 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 the decisions ahead of time, is therefore essential.

In this report, the authors examine how U.S. allies and partners make conflict-phase access decisions and how the United States and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) might be able to influence decisions in advance. The authors developed a framework for assessing such decisionmaking, then applied it to five specific allies and partners in the region (Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, and India) to assess their strategic outlooks, internal politics, and economic incentives and to identify the peacetime policy levers that are most promising for affecting the states' decisionmaking.

Key Findings

U.S. policymakers and planners should limit expectations for how much U.S. peacetime policies may be able to affect the conflict-phase access decisionmaking of U.S. allies and partners

  • The specific characteristics of the future conflict and the broader geopolitical alignment decisions of states are likely to affect these decisions more than individual U.S. policy levers.

Some allies and partners may permit lower-level access but will carefully scrutinize higher-level requests, such as those associated with allowing the United States to conduct combat operations from their territory

  • Allies or partners that provide lower-level peacetime access, such as overflight and logistics, may be more willing to grant similar requests during conflict but will still carefully scrutinize requests to launch combat operations from their soil.

Allies and partners in the region view the United States as a counterweight against Chinese power and potential aggression

  • The United States is seen as having a critically important role in the region to balance against Chinese power and potential aggression, which could motivate allies and partners to approve U.S. conflict-phase access requests.

Some allies and partners are, however, concerned about U.S. commitment to their defense

  • Addressing these concerns is likely to be essential for increasing the likelihood of conflict-phase access in these countries.

Regional and international attitudes toward China will play into access decisions

  • Consensus on the importance of opposing aggression from China and the potential for a collective response to that aggression will likely heavily influence conflict-phase access decisions in many U.S. allies and partners.

Recommendations

  • Consider clarifying or expanding security guarantees for allies and partners uncertain of U.S. defense commitments.
  • Expand U.S. economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific to provide a credible regional economic counterweight to China.
  • Expand efforts to build regional consensus against Chinese aggression.
  • Expand high-level discussions with allies and partners about likely U.S. access requests in a future contingency.
  • Increase intelligence-sharing, information resilience, and cyber cooperation with allies and partners to underline the U.S. commitment and enhance awareness of aggression from the People's Republic of China.
  • Focus USAF security cooperation activities in the Indo-Pacific on demonstrating the U.S. commitment and enhancing capabilities for combined operations with allies and partners rather than building independent allied or partner capabilities.
  • Prepare to cooperate with allies and partners on their defense against a wider range of threats.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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