1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

How China's rise is reshaping Indo-Pacific security order

Rodion Ebbighausen
December 31, 2022

China's rise is upending the US-led security system in the Indo-Pacific, raising up the region's military spending. How could this shift affect global stability?

A US Marine CH53 helicopter takes off as US and Philippine marines take part in a joint amphibious assault exercise as part of the annual 'Balikatan' (shoulder-to-shoulder) US-Philippines war exercises
The US hub-and-spokes alliance model has been at the heart of Asia's security architecture for nearly seven decadesImage: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

"Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world," a quote often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, neatly summarizes the current geopolitical situation. China has awakened and is staking its claim to be a global superpower.     

President Xi Jinping said at the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in October that the country aims to lead the world in national strength and international influence by 2049, a year that marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP. 

China's new claim to global leadership is the first "real challenge" to Asia's existing security architecture, which has been in place since the end of the Korean War in 1953, Felix Heiduk, a political researcher at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), wrote in a recent study.

The US hub-and-spokes system

The US hub-and-spokes alliance model has been at the heart of Asia's security architecture for nearly seven decades. The United States is the hub in this system, while Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia are the so-called spokes. The US has bilateral alliances with these five countries.  

Washington also has security partnerships with a number of other countries in the region, including its special relationship with Taiwan.

US-Taiwanese ties are governed by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. At the time, Washington severed formal relations with the Republic of China — the official name of Taiwan — in order to establish ties with the People's Republic of China.

The Taiwan Relations Act stipulates that any attempt by Beijing to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait through coercive means should be seen as posing a threat to the US. The legislation also allows for the delivery of defensive weapons to Taiwan.

In 2014, Xi declared that the established, US-dominated security architecture was a "relic of the Cold War." He called for the US-led system to be replaced by a regional order led by Asian nations.

China itself has so far avoided entering into any military alliances, with the historic exception of its relationship with North Korea.

In recent years, however, Beijing has forged security partnerships with Russia, Cambodia, Laos, Iran and Pakistan.

Andrew Small of the German Marshall Fund even describes the partnership with Pakistan as a "quasi-alliance" in his recent book, "The China-Pakistan Axis."

Other security forums

In addition to these two security networks centered around the US and China, there are other partnerships in Asia designed to ensure security and stability. For instance, the forums set up by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) or the East Asia Summit (EAS), which are primarily intended to build confidence but are dismissed by critics as not very effective.

But it's not only the ASEAN states that are represented in these forums, there are also the US, China, India and Japan, among others.

Heiduk said that the hub-and-spokes model "has not carved out a collective defense or security system" in Asia, as exists with NATO in the Atlantic region and previously existed with the Warsaw Pact.

Instead, these are bilateral alliances and partnerships that are generally not networked among themselves, he pointed out. This means neither the hub-and-spoke system nor ASEAN's various security forums have created a permanently stable foundation for security in Asia.

Hot spots and military preparedness

A look at the current flashpoints in Asia, which form an arc around China, shows the fragile security situation in the region. Military spending has also been on the rise. Beijing has been determined to modernize its armed forces and equip them with state-of-the-art military gear. 

As early as 2012, China's then-leader Hu Jintao declared that the country had to become a "maritime superpower" in military terms.

Many countries in the Indo-Pacific are investing heavily in submarines  relatively expensive and complex weapons systems that nevertheless have a strong deterrent potential. Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia have concluded submarine deals in recent years.

Indo-Pacific Strategies

In response to the challenge posed by China's rise and growing geopolitical uncertainty, countries like Japan, Australia and India have unveiled new Indo-Pacific strategies. 

Even European nations have come up with their own strategies for the region, like Germany's "Policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific" and the European Union's "Strategy for Indo-Pacific Cooperation."

The so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) involving the US, Australia, Japan and India has deepened ties among these countries in recent years.

A meeting of the grouping's foreign ministers has been announced for early 2023. As part of QUAD, Japan has announced in its defense strategy that it will build a "counterstrike capability." Tokyo announced a doubling of its defense spending in mid-December for this purpose, among other measures.

China views QUAD as an "informal anti-China security group," according to the Communist Party's nationalist mouthpiece Global Times.

'Asianization' of security

In addition to the Indo-Pacific strategies and QUAD, there is a raft of other primarily bilateral cooperation arrangements and partnerships, like the Samudra Shakti military exercises between the Indonesian and Indian navies. There are also the so-called comprehensive strategic partnerships that Vietnam has with China, Russia and India. 

The hub-and-spokes architecture continues to exist, Heiduk said at a recent conference on the South China Sea at the University of Hamburg, but is reaching its limits in the face of Chinese pressure.

As an alternative, a web of partnerships involving a number of countries is emerging, he added. 

Heiduk said there is an ongoing "Asianization" of the region's security architecture, meaning a relative decline in the importance of the US and a corresponding increase in significance of Asian actors.

To a certain extent, Xi's demand for a security arrangement led by Asian nations has been met, albeit not in the sense of a Pax Sinica, meaning an order dominated by China, but in terms of a steadily growing network of mostly bilateral security cooperation among Asian countries, he noted.

Diverging interests

Heiduk's detailed analysis in the recent SWP study shows that the various actors have different interests and visions for reordering Indo-Pacific security.

Indonesia, for example, takes an explicitly cooperative and inclusive approach, viewing China as a partner. "Jakarta is thus trying to offer an inclusive, ASEAN-centric security alternative to the deepening Sino-American bipolarity for the Indo-Pacific," Heiduk said.

In contrast, the US, India and Australia "think of the regional security architecture as a construct in which security is established against, not with, China."

The goal is to contain China's geopolitical claims and share the burden of doing so across multiple players, as the US recognizes that it needs other partners to stand up to China in Asia, the expert underlined.

Growing insecurity instead of security

The different interests and strategies make it clear that security in Asia is increasingly thought of in antagonistic terms by important actors.

For influential players such as the US, Australia or India, security means containing China or securing their own supremacy. The result is growing tensions and a threat of overstretching the hub-and-spokes system. Whether the emerging new "security web" will be enough to stabilize the region is still unclear.

In some ways, the COVID pandemic has already demonstrated the terrible consequences an outbreak of conflict in the region could have on the world, with disrupted supply chains and a battered global economy.  

The Ukraine war, in turn, foreshadows the devastating impact that a war over Taiwan would have for Asia and the world. The world would shake.

This article was originally written in German.