Hub and Spokes: The Origins and Evolution of the US Bilateral Alliance System in the Asia-Pacific


Why has the ‘hub-and-spokes’ network of bilateral alliances become and remained the dominant structure of the US alliance system in Asia? This question, often phrased as “Why is there no NATO in Asia?,” has been a highly debated puzzle among scholars studying international relations and US foreign policy. For a structured analysis, I disaggregate the main puzzle of the American bilateral alliance system into the sub-puzzles of (a) its origins, (b) missed opportunities for institutional change, and (c) the persistence of this bilateralism. In tackling each puzzle, I elucidate and test theoretically derived causal mechanisms, drawing from the literature on social choice theory, interstate bargaining, dysfunctional international organizations (IOs), and historical institutionalism.


Based on this approach, I argue that both the origins and persistence of the bilateral system were strongly influenced by the institutional preferences and strategies of regional allies who preferred bilateralism over multilateralism. This claim is significant because it challenges the predominant view in the field that the US deliberately designed and maintained the hub-and-spokes network to maximize its influence over the region. More specifically, based on my extensive analysis of new primary sources from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and the US, I present three major findings: (1) The creation of the hub-and-spokes system was an outcome of the bargaining in which the US made a series of concessions regarding the institutional design of its alliance system; (2) the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which could have been developed into an alternative multilateral platform in the region, failed to survive due to its flawed organizational design strategically chosen by the regional powers; (3) regional allies, who made the bilateral structure “sticky” by investing in institutional linkages between their national security institutions and bilateral alliances, contributed to the persistence of the bilateral structure. 


This project makes four contributions to the study of US foreign policy, the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, and IR theory. First, by shedding new light on regional powers’ agency in shaping and solidifying the US-led bilateral system, it calls for a reassessment of our conventional wisdom about the US-led Asia-Pacific security architecture. Second, this research reveals the conditions under which minor powers influence the institutional dimension of a great power’s grand strategy. Third, drawing on social choice theory, it provides new insight into the role of preference intensity in determining the outcome of asymmetric negotiation and institutional designs. Fourth, building upon insights from organizational theory and historical institutionalism, it offers novel theoretical mechanisms that explain the formation of dysfunctional IOs and the evolution of international security institutions.

Table of Contents



Ch. 1. Unforced Concession: The Unexpected Origins of the US Bilateral Alliances System in the Asia Pacific 


Ch. 2. A Patchwork of Concessions: The Origins of the US Alliances with South Korea and Taiwan 


Ch. 3. Missed Opportunity? The Failure of SEATO, or How Rational States Design a Dysfunctional International Organization


Ch. 4. Just the Two of Us: How Regional US Allies Solidified the Bilateral Structure



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