“Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia” by Victor D Cha


It is unfortunate that Victor Cha chose to overlay his otherwise interesting history of the development of America’s Asian alliances in the early Cold War years with international relations theory and academic jargon more suitable to journals that only professors read. After reading the initial chapters where he discusses “determinants of overdependence,” “entrapment fear,” “undercommitment pathology,” “conditions for distancing,” and separates multilateralism and bilateralism into “quandrants,” I nearly gave up. I am glad that I plodded on because much of the rest of the book is thought-provoking, especially when divorced from the academic models.

Cha’s main argument is that in the early Cold War years, US statesmen intentionally constructed alliances in Asia differently than they did in Europe. There was no Asian NATO, but instead a series of bilateral alliances with key Asian partners such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Cha asserts that this did not just happen as a result of historical circumstances, but rather because of a well-conceived plan to enable the United States to exercise greater control over less-trusted Asian allies.

Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia Victor D Cha (Princeton University Press, August 2016)
Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia Victor D Cha (Princeton University Press, August 2016)

Cha maintains that American leaders considered but ultimately rejected plans for a multilateral defense and security pact in Asia largely because an Asian NATO would have diminished or diluted US control over its allies in the region. Instead, it formed bilateral security arrangements with Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan in order to foster its twin goals of containing communism in Asia and, in the cases of Taiwan and South Korea, restraining its allies from enmeshing the United States in civil wars and possibly another world war. This is what Cha calls “powerplay”.

The book’s central focus is the Truman and Eisenhower administrations’ policies regarding postwar Japan, the “loss” of China and relations with the Nationalists on Taiwan, and the Korean War and settlement in the context of the US global policy of containment. The author notes that the Truman administration’s primary security focus was Europe, and that Asia was viewed as at most as a strategic periphery. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Cha notes, was “an Atlanticist to the core” who “had virtually no interest in Asian affairs”. An observer described Acheson’s approach to the Asian mainland as one of “salutary neglect”.

As far as the Asia-Pacific was concerned, it was Japan, not China, that received most of America’s attention. US occupation policy, originally dominated by General Douglas MacArthur who (in contrast to Acheson and the State Department) viewed Asia, not Europe, as the key battleground of the Cold War, shifted from instituting revolutionary domestic reforms and military demobilization to promoting Japan’s revitalization as an economic partner and security ally of the US.

China was in the midst of a civil war and American policy ultimately did nothing to prevent China’s communists from defeating the Nationalists on the mainland. Key figures in the Truman administration, Cha notes, distrusted and disliked Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. In addition, though not mentioned by Cha, some in the administration portrayed the Chinese communists as democratic agrarian reformers while others (such as Harry Dexter White and Lauchlin Currie) attempted to influence US policy to the benefit of the communists.

Though US officials initially viewed Taiwan (Formosa) as unimportant to American security in the Far East, the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 changed that. But it did not change US officials’ distrust of Chiang. Therefore, according to Cha, the US constructed a bilateral alliance with Chiang, including a defense treaty, which had the dual purpose of containing the Sino-Soviet bloc and restraining Chiang’s efforts to reconquer the mainland and possibly ignite World War III.

Similarly, US policymakers originally viewed the Korean peninsula as outside of its security perimeter in the Far East, but that changed when communist forces in North Korea, supplied by the Soviets and the Chinese, invaded and quickly overran South Korean forces. This was the beginning, Cha writes, of America’s attachment to the “domino theory”, which, like the lessons of Munich, held that when the democracies do not effectively resist revolutionary aggression against one country they invite such aggression elsewhere.

After fighting that bloody war to a stalemate, the United States forged a bilateral alliance with South Korea and its leader Syngman Rhee. Cha contends that US leaders distrusted Rhee almost as much as they distrusted Chiang, and they constructed the alliance with South Korea to both strengthen containment and restrain Rhee’s desires to unify the Korean peninsula under his rule.

At the end of the book, Cha reverts to professorial mode in an effort to show that history fits neatly within his academic model. But history rarely, if ever, fits neatly into academic models or formulas, and statesmen usually react to events in a piecemeal fashion based on the exigencies of the moment.

Cha notes elsewhere in the book that the US formed similar bilateral alliances with Israel and other nations, including most recently, Iraq and Afghanistan, with similar dual purposes. And he notes that today in the Asia-Pacific, despite the growing number of limited regional associations among nations, both the US and China take a bilateral approach to relations with individual countries.

In the end, what escapes Cha’s analysis is that NATO is the exception to the rule in world history. Bilateral alliances are the norm. In the past, nations formed temporary coalitions or alliances to defend against an aggressor power or alliance of powers, but those coalitions and alliances dissolved when the threat ended. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, some observers have argued that NATO’s purpose has ended and it, too, should be dissolved. The recent actions of Putin’s Russia have temporarily revived the Atlantic Alliance, but its permanency is unlikely in the long term.

Quite simply, academic jargon aside, America forged bilateral alliances in Asia after World War II because that is what countries normally do.

Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.