Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Explaining US Strategic Partnerships in the Asia-Pacific Region: Origins, Developments and Prospects

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Explaining US Strategic Partnerships in the Asia-Pacific Region: Origins, Developments and Prospects

Article excerpt

Since the end of the rigid bipolar structure of the Cold War, there has been a growing focus on looser alignments between countries in addition to traditional alliances. (1) One of these forms of alignments which has proliferated in the Asia-Pacific region is the strategic partnership: a loose, structured and multifaceted framework of cooperation between two parties. (2) While strategic partnerships were initially employed by major Asian powers such as China and Japan, as well as by emerging powers like India and Indonesia, recently, the United States, the primary alliance builder since the end of the Second World War, has begun to use them more frequently, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. (3) Yet while there has been some discussion and debate about the value of these partnerships with specific states, the existing literature does not include a comprehensive study about why US strategic partnerships have arisen and how Washington conceptualizes them. (4)

This article attempts to fill this gap by exploring the emergence of strategic partnerships as a new form of alignment in US strategic thinking in the Asia Pacific under the Barack Obama administration. (5) Drawing on the existing literature on alignment, government documents, as well as conversations with policymakers, it argues that Washington is pursuing strategic partnerships as part of a deliberate effort to both enlist target countries to share the burden in addressing common challenges and to institutionalize and structure its relationships with Asia-Pacific countries. It constructs a three-part framework to understand the origins, development, and evaluation of US strategic partnerships and then applies it to analyse two US partnerships in Southeast Asia: Indonesia and Vietnam.

The article is divided into six parts. The first two sections introduce the topic and define strategic partnerships relative to traditional alliances. The third section explores the reasons why Washington is using these partnerships more widely in the Obama administration. The fourth and fifth sections develop a framework to explain the origins, development and evaluation of US strategic partnerships and then apply it to the two case studies. A sixth and final section offers some brief conclusions.

Defining Strategic Partnerships

Despite the proliferation of strategic partnerships, there have only been a few comprehensive attempts to define them. I draw on but modify Thomas Wilkins' conception of a strategic partnership and define it as a loose but structured framework of collaboration between parties to address common challenges and to seize opportunities in several areas. (6) I address four key components of the definition in greater detail below, explaining both their traits as well as how they differ from traditional alliances.

Before delving into the specifics, however, a brief word on terminology is necessary. Countries have used a variety of terms for the partnerships they sign with states, including "strategic partnerships", "comprehensive partnerships" and "comprehensive strategic partnerships". Some, like Vietnam, have even developed and publicly articulated the differences between these different designations, which are due to a range of factors including the history of individual relationships and assessments about the current state of cooperation. (7) While recognizing that these nuances exist, this section explores the definitional features of these partnerships more generally and hence uses the term "strategic partnerships" as an umbrella term. The next section also elaborates on how these different designations are viewed from a US policy perspective.

First, strategic partnerships are a loose form of alignment, entailing a much lower level and less binding commitment relative to tighter ones like alliances. This flexible, non-binding nature of strategic partnerships is arguably their main attraction. As John Ciorciari argues, in a post-Cold War world, most developing countries prefer this kind of "limited alignment" because it allows them to reap the rewards, such as economic or security assistance, without the attendant risks such as the loss of autonomy. …

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