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March 20, 2024

Arming Allies and Partners: How Foreign Military Sales Can Change the China Problem

Brennan Deveraux

Allies and partners are “a center of gravity” for the DoD National Defense Strategy in the Indo-Pacific.1 But are regional nations building military capacity to help the United States prepare for and deter a potential clash with the People’s Republic of China, or are they solely focused on defending their own territories? Although regional nations’ aims may often overlap, they also diverge in some cases. Partner-capacity development must therefore reflect the distinction between deterrence and territorial defense.

The US military has been diligently building relationships and developing partner capacity in the Indo-Pacific region for years, conducting dozens of exercises annually and recently establishing the Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center.2 These efforts in the Indo-Pacific region have increased with the US military’s attempt to shift away from the Middle East, and President Joe Biden’s declaration that China is “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.”3

Regardless of efforts in the region, not all relationships with partners are equal; the potential assistance each partner would be willing to provide the US military in a conflict with China will vary for myriad reasons. Although each nation’s support requirements and development goals are distinct, assistance through military sales is a foundational aspect of building capacity, providing allies and partners a venue for acquiring military equipment. The Foreign Military Sales program, often critiqued for its inefficiencies, is being revamped by the US Department of State and Department of Defense.4 Partner nations purchasing US military equipment will remain focused on their own national interests, which for many partners remain security and the defense of sovereign territory. Updates to how the United States approaches military sales can also be tailored to support US military interests more effectively. In other words, US strategic objectives should underpin the prioritization of sales to specific countries, and US efforts should extend beyond financial benefits or the intangibles of building partnerships. To account for the unique and distinct challenges the US military faces in the Indo-Pacific theater, the modernization of Foreign Military Sales should aim to provide the United States with a relative military advantage over China by tailoring the program’s approach to arming allies in a way that complements US military efforts in the region. Modernizing Foreign Military Sales begins by categorizing nations based on their expected roles in a potential clash between the United States and China.

Foreign Military Sales and Partner Capacity

The Foreign Military Sales program is a government system that allows allies and partners to purchase military equipment and training from the United States. The United States is a global leader in arms sales, which provides ample strategic benefits.5 Some strategic benefits are tangible; for the past few years, the program has brought in an average of $45 billion annually and grown the US defense-industrial base.6 Other benefits are more challenging to measure but are nonetheless linked to US strategic objectives. These benefits include stronger partnerships, increased US influence, a degree of control over allied decision making, and sending a demand signal to essential defense manufacturing institutions.7

The Foreign Military Sales program is customer driven, meaning the recipient country determines needs and formulates requests. Customers can request specific equipment, or they can identify a mission requirement and have the United States propose how to fill the shortfall. The upcoming changes to the program focus on improving the Department of Defense’s “understanding of ally and partner requirements,” and the upcoming changes include creating a new organization called the Defense Security Cooperation Service to help with military sales.8

Current modernization efforts are missing a focus on how military sales directly affect US military efforts. Douglas Ollivant, a former National Security Council director, highlights this point: “In recent decades, US sales of military equipment have been largely uncoordinated and not tied to a strategy of global competition.”9 The Department of State’s reforms briefly address the issue of uncoordinated military-equipment sales, identifying the need to prioritize cases “based on National Security Strategy goals,” and proposing “developing a regional approach to arms transfers.”10 Still, the Department of State’s approach relies on the intangibles: the idea of gaining influence with strategically relevant nations and a broader logic of the inherent benefit of building friendly nations’ military capacity.

Context matters, however. Building partner capacity is not a one-size-fits-all foreign policy tool. The process of building partner capacity must consider distinct theaters and varying US strategic objectives.

Different Problem Sets Require Different Solutions

Every region of the world has unique problems and distinct US objectives. In the Middle East, for example, the United States aims to maintain the flow of energy and trade, counter weapons of mass destruction, and support critical allies like Israel.11 Although other great powers compete over influence in the region, the United States has no near-peer threat to balance against. Iran continues to frustrate the United States, but it remains a rogue state, a nonnuclear power that challenges stability in the region. Consequently, US objectives are more about regional stability and continued access than preparing for a great war. Therefore, beyond the billions of dollars in revenue, the military-sales goals in the region are inherently tied to intangible effects.

Yet, because intangibles are harder to measure, whether military sales provide the United States with intangible regional benefits is somewhat contentious. Wesley Hallman, the senior vice president for strategy and policy at the National Defense Industrial Association, argues, “America would exercise little ability or influence to impose moderating policies in current Middle East conflicts without those nations’ desire for superior US equipment.”12 In direct contrast, Jordan Cohen and Jon Hoffman, policy analysts at the Cato Institute, contend, “US arms sales to the Middle East are predicated on the false notion such transfers provide Washington with leverage over recipient countries,” adding, “the opposite has proven to be true.”13 The ambiguity of US arms sales to the Middle East is not reflected globally, as the United States finds itself in direct regional competition with great powers in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

The European theater is also unique. US objectives in the region resemble the Indo-Pacific in relation to countering and competing with a near-peer adversary. For generations, the US military’s primary threat has been the Soviet Union, now the Russian Federation. Because of the long-standing existential threat to European nations, the relationships and roles of allies and partners in the European theater are straightforward. The region is united, with a 32-country collective security agreement and a clearly defined model for a potential conflict. Because of Europe’s unity, any improvement to an allied nation’s military capabilities will complement US military efforts in the region, as doing so strengthens the overall alliance and creates additional options for the United States. Although China’s military poses a threat comparable to the former Soviet Union or the modern Russian military, superimposing the European model onto the Indo-Pacific region would be a mistake.

The US military faces a daunting task in preparing for and deterring a potential clash with China. From the rising power’s rapidly modernizing military capabilities to the sheer geographical challenge of operating in the Pacific, the China problem requires creative solutions. The 2022 National Defense Strategy is built to address the China problem, and it acknowledges the United States “cannot meet these complex and interconnected challenges alone”; instead, the US strategy for the Indo-Pacific relies on allies and partners, proclaiming ally and partner relationships to be the United States’ “greatest global strategic advantage” over its adversaries.14

Without a comparable alliance to NATO in the Indo-Pacific theater, the precise role for each ally and partner nation in preparing for and deterring a regional conflict remains unclear. No overarching collective defense agreement or Article 5 exists. Instead, the region includes numerous smaller organizations and groupings of nations, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Australia-United Kingdom-United States security pact, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and a host of bilateral security agreements and mutual-defense treaties. Recently, Lindsey Ford, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, said, “We do not believe that something like an Asian NATO is relevant to the Indo-Pacific,” adding, “there’s not going to be any single one size fits all model in the Indo-Pacific.”15 Complicating matters, the Indo-Pacific theater is not polarized like Europe.

Instead, the Indo-Pacific theater is a stark contrast to Europe. In fact, many regional nations do not apply precise categorizations of ally and adversary to the great powers competing for their attention. The adage “with us or against us” does not apply. Although Europe has developed into a West-against-Russia environment, Asia is not so black and white. Many of the nations in the region have strong ties to the People’s Republic of China and the United States and hope to continue partnering with both great powers. Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s deputy prime minister, recently commented, “All the countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore, are friends with both China and the US. . . . We avoid exclusive commitments with any single party. We just want to be friends with everyone.”16 Singapore is not alone in its stance.

Consequently, the challenges of building partner capacity and evaluating the type of military equipment a partner nation needs vary drastically for each nation based on its geography and how it perceives threats. In turn, each nation’s contribution to enabling the US military’s efforts in the Indo-Pacific region will vary.

A recent Taiwan Strait war game displayed nations’ differing impacts in a potential conflict. During the war game, the Center for Strategic and International Studies made assumptions about the level of commitment of regional allies and partners to support US operations to defend Taiwan. The authors identified a conflict between the great powers “would put all countries in the region in a dilemma,” forcing them to balance any desire to support the United States with an underlying fear of Chinese aggression as a response.17 The authors conclude, “the safest course of action for most countries would be to remain neutral,” asserting, “Asian scholars are relatively unified” and neutrality is the likeliest course of action for most nations in the region.18

If the authors’ assumptions, and ones like them, are driving military planning in the Indo-Pacific theater, the United States must reassess the objectives of its Foreign Military Sales program. Instead of building armies for the sake of building armies, the United States should focus and tailor its efforts to build partner capacity to account for expected tangible contributions to US military efforts.

A Tailored Approach to Foreign Military Sales in the Pacific

Notably, some general advantages underlie efforts to build the capacity and capability of partner nations in the Indo-Pacific theater, regardless of the potential role those nations will play in a future fight or the economic benefits those sales provide the United States. The Foreign Military Sales program strengthens relationships for the US military by promoting technical interoperability, paving the way for increased training opportunities and access. Further, building up regional militaries that are friendly to the United States strengthens a deterrence-by-denial strategy, presenting the People’s Republic of China with ample obstacles, depending on the equipment purchased.19 The underlying principle is increasing the likelihood of something failing or the associated cost required to achieve an objective reduces the potential for someone to act. Consequently, the perception its neighbors in the Pacific could offer stiff resistance is something China must account for when considering any military undertaking in the region. Yet, the United States could strengthen deterrence if military sales reinforced capabilities that supported US military efforts or demonstrated capabilities tailored to make a Chinese incursion costly.

No policy forces nations to purchase specific military equipment, nor should such a policy exist. Although the Foreign Military Sales program is not prescriptive, US objectives must drive the program. If the United States were to articulate specific expectations for each partner nation, then exercises, key leader engagements, and incentivized packages could help reinforce the mutual benefits of military sales. Significant nuances and caveats to these assessments would arise. For example, certain nations may not appear very willing to support the United States initially but could find themselves forced to play a more significant role in a protracted conflict if the region became destabilized. Further, many of the regional security agreements, mutual-defense treaties, and general bilateral relationships are very specific, meaning though a certain country may remain neutral in a Taiwan conflict, the country may be treaty obligated to join the conflict if Chinese aggression targeted the US Navy.

Notably, the Department of Defense’s identification of each partner’s assumed role in supporting the United States in the region would likely remain classified. Still, more broadly, the region can be broken up into four categories that complement US military efforts.

The first category includes primary actors. Primary-actor nations, such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea, are heavily investing in their military capabilities and have historic relationships with the United States. As with NATO allies, any investment in the defense capacity of nations perceived to be strong US allies or expected to fight alongside the United States in a clash against China benefits a broader US military strategy in the region. Although the United States can attempt to tailor its efforts, primary-actor nations have pursued capabilities that allow them to defend their territory more effectively as well as to participate in a regional conflict. For example, Australia is acquiring nuclear-powered submarines and purchasing rocket artillery systems; Japan is purchasing an assortment of missiles, including the extended-range joint air-to-surface standoff missile; and South Korea is strengthening its airpower and antisubmarine capabilities.20 The other categories of support, however, are not so straightforward.

The second category is potential contributors. Capabilities in this category can mirror China’s anti-access and area-denial strategy. The potential-contributors category includes both kinetic and nonkinetic capabilities. For example, the emphasis for potentially contributing nations could include air-defense and missile-defense platforms like the Patriot system sold to South Korea, emerging coastal-defense platforms, drones capable of disrupting naval operations, and cyber and electronic warfare capabilities.21 Combined, these smaller anti-access bubbles throughout the theater force China to account for potential threats in the region and contribute to a broader deterrence-by-denial strategy. The Philippines could be a nation in the potential contributor category. Although the Taiwan war game recently assessed the Philippines as likely to remain neutral in an engagement over Taiwan, the Philippines has continued to push back against China’s maritime claims. The United States and other allies already support the Filipino challenge to Chinese actions in the region with joint maritime patrols, but military sales can enhance the challenge further.22 For example, acquiring antinaval capabilities would bolster Filipino efforts to contend with the Chinese navy, which is disproportionally more capable. Along this line of reasoning, the United States could tailor military sales to align the Filipino need for territorial protection with actions that complement US military efforts.

The third category is passive supporter. Although the previous two categories are fraught with risk to the individual nation, the passive-supporter category allows nations to balance support to the United States with avoiding confrontation with the People’s Republic of China. Passive support can take on numerous shapes based on a nation’s willingness to support the United States and the mutual benefits gained from the Foreign Military Sales program. When assessing Chinese aggression against Taiwan, Mark Cancian, Matthew Cancian, and Eric Heginbotham of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argue India, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam “would be concerned about Chinese encroachment but also fear Chinese power.”23 Cancian, Cancian, and Heginbotham argue, though these nations may be sympathetic to the situation, any actions they took would have to limit exposing their territory to a Chinese attack. Exercising caution means taking “a passive approach, allowing US overflight and transit but not participating themselves or allowing operations from their territory.”24 Therefore, instead of focusing on lethality, nations in the passive-support category would best complement US military efforts through sustainment and logistics support, including maintenance and medical expertise. A passive-support strategy can also include information support through reconnaissance drones or radar systems that could tie into coalition collection efforts, without hosting any coalition forces; and signals support to maintain communications across the vast theater. Tailoring exercises and leader engagements to support the development of enabling capabilities will likely prove difficult, but Foreign Military Sales can combine a tailored approach with the general development of military forces to support the defense of a nation’s territory.

The final category is inward-looking nations. At its core, every nation looks inward, balancing security requirements with national interests. The inward-looker category therefore serves as a catchall. Further, many nations in the region have no desire to support the United States in a great-power conflict and are internally focused to the exclusion of regional stability. Yet, their development can still complement US military efforts indirectly. Every nation in the Indo-Pacific theater must be able to defend its borders and coastline, though no nation could expect to hold off a Chinese invasion on its own. Because “armies play a central role in territorial defense and protecting their national sovereignty,” US Army Pacific Commanding General Charles Flynn recently commented, land power is “the security architecture that binds this region together.”25 Applying Flynn’s logic to the Foreign Military Sales program, land power capability purchases like Stryker infantry-carrier vehicles for Thailand, attack-helicopter platforms for the Philippines, and an Integrated Air Defense Weapons System for India all strengthen deterrence by denial at the individual-country level and open the door for continued US military access and training.26 The inward-looker category, too, should be tailored. Some military equipment that looks great in a parade or is used to maintain the rule of law may prove unhelpful against a Chinese incursion. Instead, the US military needs to continue training and exercises like Super Garuda Shield in Indonesia and Balikatan in the Philippines, while also highlighting the lessons of the Russia-Ukraine War and exploring ways to prepare all partners in the region to frustrate an invading force.


Allies and partners are critical to any US military strategy in the Indo-Pacific theater. Because roles and relationships vary drastically from nation to nation, the United States must also vary its approach to arming different allies and partners. By first identifying the expected tangible contributions each ally or partner can make to deterrence and preparations for a regional conflict with China, the US military can best focus its efforts in the Indo-Pacific. The United States should highlight capabilities allied and partner nations can pursue to complement US military efforts directly and indirectly. By categorizing the region into primary actors, potential contributors, passive supporters, and inward-looking nations, the US Department of State and the Department of Defense can craft long-term engagement plans to facilitate a tailored approach to the Foreign Military Sales program. With a tailored approach, the United States would gain more than just economic growth and intangible strategic benefits; indeed, tailoring Foreign Military Sales would help develop the capability and capacity of partners and allies, fundamentally changing the China problem and providing the US military a relative advantage over its rising foe.



Brennan Deveraux

Brennan Deveraux is a major in the US Army currently serving at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. He is an Army strategist and an Art of War Scholar specializing in rocket artillery and missile warfare. Deveraux has three defense-related master’s degrees and his most recent published works include Lessons Learned and Unlearned: The Drivers of US Indirect Fire Innovation (Army University Press, 2024) and Whose Role Is It Anyway: The Inter-Service Race to Develop Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (Army University Press, 2023).




  1. US Department of Defense (DoD), 2022 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: DoD, 2022), 2. Return to text.
  2. Christopher Hurd, “USARPAC: Landpower Essential in Defending Indo-Pacific,” Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (website), October 20, 2023, https://www.dvidshub.net/news/456382/usarpac-landpower-essential-defending-indo-pacific; and “Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center Rotation Begins in Hawaii,” US Army (website), November 2, 2022, https://www.army.mil/article/261685/joint_pacific_multinational_readiness_center_rotation_begins_in_hawaii. Return to text.
  3. Joseph R. Biden, address to the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly, quoted in White House, National Security Strategy (Washington, DC: White House, 2022), 23. Return to text.
  4. “FMS 2023: Retooling Foreign Military Sales for an Age of Strategic Competition,” US Department of State(website), May 18, 2023, https://www.state.gov/fms-2023-retooling-foreign-military-sales-for-an-age-of-strategic-competition/; and “Department of Defense Unveils Comprehensive Recommendations to Strengthen Foreign Military Sales,” DoD (website), June 13, 2023, https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3425963/department-of-defense-unveils-comprehensive-recommendations-to-strengthen-forei/. Return to text.
  5. Loren Thompson, “As Foreign Demand for US Weapons Surges, Biden Adm. Moves to Expedite Sales,” Forbes (website), October 6, 2023, https://www.forbes.com/sites/lorenthompson/2023/10/06/as-foreign-demand-for-us-weapons-surges-biden-adm-moves-to-expedite-sales/. Return to text.
  6. “FMS 2023”; and Wesley Hallman, “Value of Foreign Military Sales Exceeds Profits,” National Defense Magazine (website), September 25, 2020, https://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2020/9/25/value-of-foreign-military-sales-exceeds-profits. Return to text.
  7. Maiya Clark, “The US Defense Industrial Base: Past Strength, Current Challenges, and Needed Change,” Heritage Foundation (website), January 24, 2024, https://www.heritage.org/military-strength/topical-essays/the-us-defense-industrial-base-past-strength. Return to text.
  8. “Defense Unveils.” Return to text.
  9. Douglas A. Ollivant, “Getting Serious about Security Cooperation,” War on the Rocks (website), August 14, 2023, https://warontherocks.com/2023/08/getting-serious-about-security-cooperation/. Return to text.
  10. “FMS 2023.” Return to text.
  11. Charles Dunne et al., Election 2020: Challenges & Opportunities for US Policy in the Middle East (Washington, DC: Middle East Institute, 2020), 4. Return to text.
  12. Hallman, “Sales Exceeds Profits.” Return to text.
  13. Jordan Cohen and Jon Hoffman, “Many Arms and Little Influence in the Middle East,” War on the Rocks (website), August 11, 2023, https://warontherocks.com/2023/08/many-arms-and-little-influence-in-the-middle-east/. Return to text.
  14. DoD, National Defense Strategy, 2. Return to text.
  15. Jim Garamone, “Tailoring US Outreach to Indo-Pacific Allies, Partners,” DoD (website), June 15, 2023, https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/3430129/tailoring-us-outreach-to-indo-pacific-allies-partners/. Return to text.
  16. Charmaine Jacob, “Leaders in Southeast Asia Say They Want to Be Friends with Both the US and China,” CNBC (website), September 15, 2023, https://www.cnbc.com/2023/09/15/singapore-malaysia-leaders-want-to-be-friends-with-the-us-and-china.html. Return to text.
  17. Mark F. Cancian, Matthew Cancian, and Eric Heginbotham, The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2023), 59. Return to text.
  18. Cancian, Cancian, and Heginbotham, First Battle, 60. Return to text.
  19. Elbridge Colby and Walter Slocombe, “The State of (Deterrence by) Denial,” War on the Rocks (website), March 22, 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/03/the-state-of-deterrence-by-denial/. Return to text.
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  21. Brian Kim, “South Korea to Buy More Patriot Missiles, Upgrade Launchers,” Defense News (website), June 6, 2022, https://www.defensenews.com/global/asia-pacific/2022/06/06/south-korea-to-buy-more-patriot-missiles-upgrade-launchers/; and John Keller, “Marine Corps Asks Raytheon to Start Building NMESIS Anti-Ship Missiles for Shore Defense on Invasion Beaches,” Military Aerospace (website), January 10, 2024, https://www.militaryaerospace.com/sensors/article/14303476/raytheon-technologies-corp-anti-ship-missiles-shore-defense. Return to text.
  22. Aaron-Matthew Lariosa, “Philippines Holds Joint Patrols with Australia in the South China Sea,” USNI News (blog), November 28, 2023, https://news.usni.org/2023/11/28/philippines-holds-joint-patrols-with-australia-in-the-south-china-sea. Return to text.
  23. Cancian, Cancian, and Heginbotham, First Battle, 60. Return to text.
  24. Cancian, Cancian, and Heginbotham, First Battle, 60. Return to text.
  25. Hurd, “USARPAC.” Return to text.
  26. DSCA, “Thailand – Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicles,” news release transmittal no. 19-33, July 26, 2019, https://www.dsca.mil/press-media/major-arms-sales/thailand-stryker-infantry-carrier-vehicles; DSCA, “Philippines – Apache AH-64E Attack Helicopters and Related Equipment and Support,” news release transmittal no. 20-05, April 30, 2020, https://www.dsca.mil/press-media/major-arms-sales/philippines-apache-ah-64e-attack-helicopters-and-related-equipment-and; and DSCA, “India – Integrated Air Defense Weapon System (IADWS) and Related Equipment and Support,” news release transmittal no. 20-05, February 10, 2020, https://www.dsca.mil/press-media/major-arms-sales/india-integrated-air-defense-weapon-system-iadws-and-related-equipmentReturn to text.

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