The recent movement of USS Nimitz (CVN 68) via South China Sea and conducting PHOTOEX with the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) Carrier Strike Groups on 6thof July as well as the cooperative exercises with the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean showcase in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS shifting theatres of geopolitical confrontation towards Indo-Pacific. Accelerated by the current COVID pandemic, China’s aggressive posturing & the USA’s haphazard foreign policy under Donald Trump has compromised the USA’s hub & spoke model of bilateral relationships in the Indo-Pacific. Although Xi Jinping in an interview stated that the Pacific Ocean is large enough for both China and the USA to co-exist, however, 2020 has shown that the Chinese pragmatism may have been a sugarcoated lie to stall any immediate confrontation.
The establishment of US hegemony in East Asia was a long-drawn process, starting from Wanghia Treaty towards Washington Conference, 1921 & culminating in San Francisco System (Hub & Spokes architecture). One thing which is very American is that they found ways to maximize economic profits and were not interested in direct colonialization (exceptions being the Philippines and Sandwich Islands). How the USA established itself as an East Asian hegemon without colonial presence was possible because of its hub and spokes model of bilateral treaties. In the following writeup we will try to answer questions like, why & how did this system came to being? How effective was it in the Cold War Era and after the end of it? How the architecture is facing challenges?
San Francisco System (Hub & Spokes Model)
The definition of this model is best described by Victor D. Cha in his work Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia. It goes “Hub & Spoke Model is defined as a set of tightly held and exclusive, one-to-one bilateral partnerships with countries in the region. Like a bicycle wheel, each of these allies and partners constituted “spokes” connected with the central hub (the United States), but with few connections between the spokes.”
The situation post second world war was a world of doubts and apprehensions. Nobody trusted Japan and were asking for reparations from the Japanese. These nations (New Zealand, Australia and many other South East Asian region) saw the way United States handled Japan too lenient. However, the policymakers very well understood that it was the only way forward and the only way to see the history not repeat itself. The United States made itself the exclusive partner of countries that were distrustful of one another, which afforded it a great deal of leeway and advantage in these relationships (example can be given of making Australia & New Zealand buy Japanese products, providing a consumer market for Japanese economic redevelopment as well as providing a vent for future normalization).
Why & How did this system came to being?
Let us take the example of Japan in the post-war period to understand the establishment of Hub & Scope architecture. The advent of the Cold War compelled the United States to think more strategically and long-term about the Japan project. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman pledged that the United States would help any nation resist communism in order to prevent its spread. His policy of containment is known as the Truman Doctrine. The institutional design choices for a relationship with Japan were wideranging & depended on the thinkers who were Douglas MacArthur, George Kennan, John Foster Dulles and Eisenhower. The only certainty was that Japan was going to play a pivotal role in USA’s East Asian Policy and containment of communism from the eastern flank.
At one end of the policy spectrum was a neutralization approach, which amounted to a protracted occupation and complete demilitarization and political neutralization of Japan. At the other end was a rearmament approach, which called for the early signing of a peace treaty and encouragement of rebuilding Japanese security capabilities such that it could balance against the emerging communist threat. Neither worked for US interests, which focused on three immediate needs—to prevent Japan from becoming a revisionist power again; to deny it to communist influence; and, not unlike its plans for Korea and Taiwan, to ensure that the United States had absolute control over Japan’s postwar disposition.
Strategic thinkers ultimately determined that the best sort of security institution to achieve these objectives was a bilateral alliance with Japan (In his memoirs, MacArthur recounts relaying the initial policy to his staff in late Aug’45: “First, destroy the military power. Punish war criminals. Build the structure of representative government. Modernize the constitution. Hold free elections. Enfranchise women. Release political prisoners. Liberate the farmers. Establish a free labor movement. Encourage a free economy. Abolish police oppression. Develop a free and responsible press. Liberalize education. Decentralize political power. Separate the church from state.”
The US foreign policy changed drastically after George F. Kennan urged that “Economic recovery should be made the prime objective of United States policy in Japan for the coming period”. However, like the USA in a steadfast manner moved towards a bilateral alliance with Japan, other East and South-East Asian countries who had faced the Japanese onslaught were against it and even criticized in different capacities any attempt by the US to bring about an alliance of these states which included Japan.
At the San Francisco Conference in September 1951 the US signed the US-Japan treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Later on, it moved to sign a Mutual Defenses Treaty with the Philippines in August 1951, the US-Republic of Korea Defense treaty with Republic of Korea in October 1953, and the US-Republic of China security treaty with China in December 1954. With these treaties the US was able to construct the Hub and Spokes System.With this USA was able to control East Asian Economic their foreign policy in general without having to invest capital, military, etc. at a similar level to the colonialists and imperialists of the 19th and early 20th century.
Network power is also sometimes operationalized as bargaining strength. A central “node” (state) with interconnections within a cluster of states & between clusters has bargaining strength granted to it solely by its position. This was where the United States sat in Asia, allowing it great leverage in negotiations with and between its Asian partners and allies. Moreover, the states in the network lacked “exit” options or the possibility to “delink.” For the period of the cold war, it was the perpetual threat of communism and in addition to it the economic benefits were plenty to even consider delinking.
End of Cold War & the contemporary world
The Neo-realist theorists had exclaimed in the 80s that Bi-polar world order of cold war is the most stable one which has ever existed. However, the collapse of USSR which no one expected suddenly formalized and was a reality. With the biggest threat of communism gone, the void of security requirement was filled with increased trade and commercial relations among the USA and its allies in East Asia. Although the USA has been enjoying the position of the hegemon all this time even after the cold war, the rise of China in many ways is challenging the position of the USA.
All this while when USA was embroiled mostly in the Middle East, China was fast becoming a large manufacturing hub. With its acceptance into the World Trade Organization, a slew of markets opened and a cycle of increasing demand -> increased manufacturing -> increasing supply -> increasing Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) -> increasing domestic consumer demand led to further increased production as well as supply. This growth was exponential & with the improved infrastructure & skilled human resource. Riding high on the developmental wave, China became more and more confident in itself. The transition in its language for defining its foreign policy can be considered a way to judged China’s confidence and intention at the same time. It transitioned from “hide your strength & bide your time” to “peaceful rise of China” and now under Xi Jinping, the four comprehensives: “comprehensively building a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepen reform, comprehensively implement the rule of law and comprehensively strengthen Party discipline”; In his first speech Xi Jinping also talked about ‘China dream: the great renewal of Chinese nation’.
Contrary to Western beliefs ‘the Chinese assimilation into the international supply chains, will lead to political opening up of People’s Republic of China’ and learning from the disaster of the policies that USSR’s Glasnost and Perestroika, they have quite successfully maintained the CCP’s control politically and showing a façade of private company Huawei being a good example. With everyone turning its blind eye China continued on pursuing scrupulous tactics and jeopardizing the international rules of the game be it devaluing currency or other things. By the time the world took notice of China, it was already an economic powerhouse. After the 2008 Economic crisis that his West disproportionately, saw China coming to the center stage of world politics.
Let us look at some statistics to understand what was behind China’s assertiveness and confidence. To put things into perspective (in comparison to the USA), China holds 1.1 Trillion USD somewhat equal to or more than what Japan holds. China has a nominal GDP of 14.14 Trillion USD (second only to USA), GDP (PPP) of 27.307 Trillion USD (ranking 1st). Its exports measured a whopping 2.5 Trillion USD, with USA being its largest trading partner which consumes about 19.25% of the overall exports.
Backed up with the unprecedented economic success, China has slowly yet steadily built its own sphere of influence. Till recently, a view propounded by Wang Dong was that China is employing a hedging strategy against USA. He defines hedging as “an insurance strategy that aims at reducing or minimizing risks arising from the uncertainties in the system, increasing freedom of maneuver, diversifying strategic options, and shaping the preferences of adversaries. It is a portfolio or mixed strategy that consists of both cooperative and competitive strategic instruments ranging from engagement and enmeshment, all the way up to balancing.”
It can be read in a subtle way as, China wants to reclaim its centrality and if it is not in a position to fulfil that in the near future, hedging is a way to ensure it in the long run. The Chinese have been encroaching on the US sphere of influence all the while US was busy in its costly enterprises in Middle East & Afghanistan. The Chinese have marketed CNS (Chinese Partnership Network) as the scholar Zhou Yiqi has termed it, is a circle of friends looking for prospering together in a free market promoting, multi-polar world order. Many countries even believed it, as the same author explains how, many of the members of United States’ Alliance System (UAS) have joined in the China’s “Circle of friends”.
The Chinese approach to create a clique of Economic partners, be it bilateral or multilateral, ex. ASEAN, Australia, European Union, SCO (Shanghai CO-operation Organization), BRICS, RCEP, etc. These multilateral organizations some created by Chinese participation and others have intensive trade relations with China. The Chinese learnt a lot from the United States, they initially entered multilateral forums to increase their presence and economic activities as well. In situations when it is difficult to make favorable arrangements, it starts to reach-out bilaterally with the member states, weakening the multilateral forum and making weaker states in the forum dependent on China. The best example I can think of is 17+1 dialogue, which is carved out of European Union Eastern European member countries. And in a way acting as a forum for, one, bypassing the European Union and two, influencing European Union’s functioning and decisions.
Can the Liberal Institutional World Order be saved?
The question is very obvious after looking at the facts and the obvious departure (in parts) of the USA from being the world’s policeman. It may change coming November, yet, many of the treaty allies and friends of USA have come to a reckoning that it is disastrous to entirely depend on the US for maintaining the security and status quo in the face of hyper-nationalist and overtly confident China. The concept of a middle power coalition can be worked to create a counter weight to the Chinese dominance and restructuring the UN Security Council to accommodate G4 countries can be a start. Giving teeth to Quad, countering China in ASEAN, Indo-Pacific, Africa and Europe will be a challenge that the middle powers need to take head-on if they want to save the order preemptively. In the near future, China may create a bipolar world or if not so, may well create its own East Asian order. The only thing that can stop China from dreaming of bringing the myth of Middle Kingdom into reality, is the emergence of a middle power structure, which is built in principle with the existing structures created by the USA in last 70 years, providing much needed strength to the structure.
However, change is imminent and as Henry Kissinger says “the viability of any international order depends on how eﬀectively it maintains the balance between legitimacy and power. Both are subject to evolution and change. However, when this balance is disturbed, the limiting mechanisms fail, which gives room to unbounded ambitions and unrestrained actions by some of the global actors; a reign of chaos begins, which lasts until a new order is established.”
Cha, Victor. 2016. Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia. 123-124
 Ibid 127-128
Tan, See Sang. 2004. Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation: National Interests and Regional Order. M.E. Sharpe. 9.
Henry Kissinger, World Order: Reﬂections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History (London: Allen Lane, 2014)