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Alliances and Partnerships

Moving strategic relationships to the next level

Dr. Alfred Oehlers/Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies


We often hear that alliances and partnerships are a vital asset. These relationships distinguish the United States from its competitors. They also confer decisive advantages, especially at crucial moments. As the U.S. faces future challenges, it likely will again turn to Allies and Partners for support. It is in our collective interest to ensure these relationships are sustained and remain vigorous. 

Improving on an enviable track record is no easy task. What might we change in these relationships? Where and how might we innovate? What opportunities remain to be discovered and seized? These are important questions to repeatedly ask. In the current strategic competition, the stakes are high. It behooves us to continuously challenge ourselves, consider what else our alliances and partnerships might encompass, and seek out the game-changing benefits they might deliver at crucial junctures.

Five factors speak to broad opportunities for Allies and Partners. Together these offer the potential to catalyze our networks, rendering them more resilient and relevant to the tactical and strategic challenges of today and the future. First, we must refresh the relationships we have. Second, we should expand these established networks. Third, we need to innovate how we configure our connections. Fourth, we must deepen our integration. Fifth, we need to exercise these networks and relationships with increasing focus and intensity.


Many of our alliances and partnerships have existed for years. These relationships reflect past conditions and priorities. We have tried to keep pace with changes by periodically updating relationships and the activities conducted under their frameworks. Arguably, however, with growing strategic competition, the ground has shifted dramatically. Punctuated by developments such as Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, we find ourselves at a historic turning point. Are our alliances and partnerships up to this? 

Our strategic context, though increasingly competitive, is muddied by deep economic bonds and interdependencies, often with potential adversaries. The threats we face are increasingly multidimensional and complex. Conflict no longer just spans traditional air, sea and land domains. Newer domains such as cyber, space and information are fast emerging as pivotal. 

With so much changing, there is reason to reevaluate whether our alliances and partnerships are still fit for purpose. Reassessing our agreements and their relevance to contemporary challenges will be beneficial. In conjunction, frank conversations around potential pathways forward, to address gaps or seize opportunities, might be needed.

A Republic of Korea tank disembarks during Cobra Gold 2023 in eastern Thailand.


If we examine alliances and partnerships solely in terms of connections among militaries in the region, the situation appears encouraging. Our alliances and partnerships are impressive numerically and in terms of geographic coverage. Yet there is room to grow and improve. Addressing gaps, such as the omission of nations without militaries, might be a case in point. Still, on the whole, there is reason to be satisfied.

Things look less satisfactory, however, if a different metric is applied. What if, instead of only military interfaces, we evaluated our alliances and partnerships on their ability to marshal more effective responses to the threats now faced? Our networks, after all, possess a powerful convening authority to assemble military partners. They could potentially be harnessed to bring aboard other key national, regional and international players for valuable contributions to the battlespace. Doing so would acknowledge an important point. In our current strategic competition, with its hybrid or gray-zone challenges, the military remains a key figure. Increasingly, however, it will not be the only figure. In some instances, it might not be the most vital. Who or what else should our networks include?

At one level, this could involve the familiar issue of assembling the right interagency partners. That’s a start. But it could be more. Whole-of-society approaches have been proposed to more comprehensively address gray-zone and hybrid challenges. The important roles of nonstate actors such as the private sector or nongovernmental organizations are frequently mentioned in this regard. 

Somewhere in the conduct of our alliance and partner relations we must bring aboard additional nonmilitary partners with important contributions to resilience against gray-zone and hybrid threats. Differing missions, priorities and organizational cultures can make this a daunting proposition. Progress is essential, however. In expanding participation by these additional partners, the relevance and effectiveness of the entire network will be amplified. This will be a worthwhile investment of time and effort.


Our alliances and partnerships are largely founded on bilateral agreements. Often, however, the solutions we seek may require a multilateral approach. In the context of intensifying state-on-state strategic competition, alongside gray-zone or hybrid transnational threats, coalition-based solutions may make more sense. These need not be huge coalitions. Whether for reasons of agility and timeliness, geographic focus, efficiency in resource-sharing, complementary coalitions or the unique nature of the problems addressed, they might number just three or four nations. The term “minilaterals” often is used to describe these smaller-scale multinational efforts.

The Quadrilateral partnership, or Quad, brings together Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. to discuss shared strategic concerns. Meanwhile, the trilateral partnership among Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S., known as AUKUS, focuses on defense science and technology sharing and development. Many other configurations are possible to address broad-based and more specialized topics or geographical concerns. Some might be informal or ad hoc while others are codified by formal pacts. An encouraging trend is the increasing diversity of nations convening or participating in minilaterals, including Australia, Canada, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam.

Our alliances and partnerships are ideal foundations for exploring novel minilateral configurations, which hold the potential for imaginative ways to address challenges. They also strengthen the latticework of relationships across the region, helping to deter and constrain malign activities by the governments of countries such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia. Where possible and appropriate, opportunities merit investigation.

Deepen Integration

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed a major vulnerability. When global supply chains were disrupted, economies ground to a halt. When we realized the outsized control that one country, the PRC, exercised on international supply chains, the prospect of economic collapse, already a national security concern, acquired another alarming dimension: How did a strategic competitor gain such influence?

It was against this backdrop that alliances and partnerships gained further significance. Economic vulnerabilities spawned an intense debate over the need to “decouple” or “de-risk” from the PRC. Homeshoring or reshoring industries are often cited as solutions. With reference to Allies and Partners, “friend-shoring” is another option, whether in terms of locating sensitive industries in safer havens or diversifying sources of critical materials, components or technologies. 

Allies and Partners also have deepened industrial and economic integration, most prominently in industries vital to national defense. This integration seeks to fuse partners’ relative strengths, bringing collective capabilities to bear throughout the supply chain in key industries. Terms such as “allied by design” describe this deeper level of collaboration and integration from basic research to product deployment. The collaboration among Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. on defense science and technology is an example of such ambitious integration. Many opportunities exist, potentially involving a wider range of partners across diverse high-tech areas. Cyber, space and information operations are examples, as are artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

Such collaboration and integration is not easy. It reflects a qualitatively deeper level of commitment among partners. Yet the benefits contribute to a more resilient industry and economy, addressing vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic, fostering economic strength, and better equipping Allies and Partners for the multidomain, multidimensional challenges of the future. It represents the next momentous step forward for our alliances and partnerships.

Exercise Networks 

Practice makes perfect. Military exercises test operational readiness, and crucial to the preparedness and effectiveness of a joint force. For coalitions, exercises are indispensable for interoperability among diverse joint force partners. The ability of militaries to work seamlessly alongside each other is a hallmark of our alliances and partnerships. It presents a compelling integrated deterrence to potential adversaries.

The Indo-Pacific is home to many multinational exercises, including Balikatan, Cobra Gold, Garuda Shield, Malabar and Talisman Sabre. This dense network presents an excellent foundation. There are encouraging signs that such exercises are expanding and strengthening alliances and partnerships as forces innovate to face modern challenges. The number of participating nations has been consistently rising. The range of scenarios addressed has grown in number, sophistication and complexity. Increasingly, newer domains such as space and cyber are featuring prominently, with the information domain not far behind. In all, progressively deeper levels of interoperability and integration are being tested and accomplished. 

While this speaks volumes for our alliances and partnerships, we should remain alert to the progress of potential adversaries. We must continuously seek to outpace them despite any constraints in time or resources. This means raising the bar after each exercise, and requires an incessant search for new ways to stress test and strengthen capabilities crucial to working together.

What we do next with our alliances and partnerships will be consequential. We cannot be content with the status quo. Instead, a certain restlessness is healthy. Our networks are an essential pathway toward an integrated deterrence crucial to upholding the international rules-based order and a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. There is much riding on our actions.  

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