Navigating Indo-Pacific Alliances: a shift towards a lattice alliance system

Professor Jina Kim,
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies

The United States actively engages in strengthening alliances and connections among nations that share in its vision of progress and prosperity for the future. The region is becoming increasingly complex, and as a result, the structure of alliances is evolving into a “lattice” system. This system emphasizes smaller, interconnected partnerships rather than relying solely on the US as the pivotal player. 

In August 2023, President Biden facilitated a new trilateral partnership between South Korea, Japan, and the United States at Camp David. In 2024, another trilateral arrangement involving Washington, Tokyo, and Manila was formed. Japanese Prime Minister Kishida visited Washington DC from April 8 to 14, celebrating the enduring ties between the US and Japan. Concurrently, President Marcos from the Philippines participated in the inaugural Trilateral United States-Japan-Philippines Leaders’ Summit.
While these events were taking place, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia issued a joint statement providing updates on the progress of the AUKUS defense and security partnership. They reiterated their commitment to enhancing and expanding collaboration under AUKUS, particularly with Japan on advanced capability projects. On May 2, a Trilateral Defense Ministerial Meeting was convened in Hawaii by the United States, Australia, and Japan, underscoring their strong strategic alignment. Additionally, at their second-ever joint meeting, defense chiefs from the United States, Australia, Japan, and the Philippines pledged to deepen cooperation.  

The US’ shifting alliance structure

These actions illustrate a growing trend of connecting mini-lateral partnerships into a broader network. Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan, aptly noted that the US is transitioning from the current “hub-and-spokes” system to a “lattice-like architecture”, suggesting strategic adjustments are occurring amid evolving geopolitics.  

The shift towards a lattice alliance system is part of US efforts to manage the regional order more efficiently amid Indo-Pacific overstretch and to counter regional threats by leveraging allies’ contributions. In a lattice-like alliance structure, the US is not the sole pillar, allowing for a broader range of states to influence regional dynamics. Strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific entails a delicate power balance, one in which key players aim for a stable, multipolar region, free from dominance by any single state, through cooperation. Each player’s ability to assume a significant role in the network will not depend solely on their identity as a traditional US ally, but on their shared responsibilities.  

However, the introduction of this new system may not fully address the challenge of band-wagoning – a strategy where weaker states align themselves with stronger powers, driven by the expectation of rewards – and the inherent sensitivity of states to relative gains in relation to another. States concerned with relative gains are not just interested in maximizing their own absolute benefits but are also keenly aware of the advantages their actions confer on others. The sensitivity of the technology being shared, along with the complexity of logistical requirements and the high level of strategic trust demanded, pose limitations on the expansion of partnerships. 

Australia, notably, appears actively engaged in realigning alliances and has arguably been among the quickest to respond to geopolitical shifts. Its focus on “strategic equilibrium” appears to be a novel response to the realignment of Indo-Pacific alliances. However, these changes will present both challenges and opportunities for US allies. 

Benefits of a lattice alliance system

Indo-Pacific threats necessitate a multidisciplinary response encompassing economic, security, and technical cooperation. A lattice system facilitates various cooperative arrangements across multiple domains such as critical infrastructure, semiconductors, digitalization, cybersecurity, critical minerals, renewable energy, defense, and maritime security. By intertwining military, economic, and political capabilities, the lattice alliance system offers more flexibility than the hub-and-spoke model. The notion of strategic equilibrium also seeks holistic stability through balanced power, interests, and influence distribution across military, economic, political, and diplomatic realms. Australia’s efforts in developing advanced capabilities through AUKUS and positioning itself as a reliable supplier of critical minerals exemplify its commitment to shaping regional dynamics. The inclusive nature of a lattice-like alliance system means that countries can address a broader array of issues that are important to them.  

Challenges of a lattice alliance system

However, with an increased number of countries involved and the complexity of relationships, competition among states for influence within the networked system can be a challenge. This competition has the potential to undermine the unity and effectiveness of the new alliance system. 

Divergent perspectives on burden-sharing among US allies could signify a significant hurdle, highlighting the complex dynamics and potential strains within partnerships in a lattice alliance system. US allies will continue to view changes to the alliance system through the lens of perceived US decline. The establishment of a new system will inevitably lead to additional transaction costs, particularly as the US is expected to request greater burden-sharing from its allies. Collaboration among capable partners with shared values and interests may expedite the resolution of “cost-sharing” issues. Allies will demonstrate stronger commitment to the alliance when they perceive that the benefits of remaining within the system outweigh the potential gains from aligning with an external power like China, especially when these benefits exceed the increased costs of membership. However, states in the region have different strategic priorities and national interests, which can lead to disagreements over what constitutes a fair contribution. Additionally, political dynamics, such as shifting political will and fluctuating public support within each country, can lead to tensions within the alliance system.  

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