An “Asian NATO”: Chances and perspectives

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has reinvigorated NATO. Can the Chinese pressure on its neighbours, especially Taiwan, create an Asian equivalent of NATO?

Instytut Boyma 15.12.2023

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has reinvigorated NATO. Can the Chinese pressure on its neighbours, especially Taiwan, create an Asian equivalent of NATO?

Heightened tension between authoritarian powers and the democratic world creates favourable conditions to reinvent the security infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific. Responding to the expansion of an aggressive power by forging an alliance, treaty organisation or just a coherent balancing coalition is considered in Europe a natural reaction. The lack of such a framework  in Eastern Asia is surprising for Europeans. Before analysing the possibility of an “Asian NATO”, it should be explained why such a bloc has not yet been created.

The most straightforward answer is: a weak tradition of multilateral frameworks in Asia. Nevertheless, the roots of the modern Indo-Pacific Order lie in the 1951 San Francisco Treaty. In an article for the Foreign Affairs, the than secretary of state John Foster Dulles explained the reasons why Washington did not attempt to create a NATO equivalent for East Asia and instead chose the hub-and-spokes system –  a set of bilateral ties centred around Washington.

First, just a few years after the war, it was tough to persuade regional states to make an alliance with Japan. The assumption presented by Dulles was that allies preferred to see Japan “kept down” by the US. Furthermore, East Asia was considered too big to create a coherent regional pact. The Washington and Pentagon decision-makers feared a force over-extension and engagement in local conflicts. At the beginning of the ’50s, it seemed that France and Great Britain were able to control the situation in their colonies in Indochina and Malaya and needed just limited support from the US.

Decolonisation was then an important factor in Asian politics. Fresh resentments were one of the biggest problems in the US Asia policy of the late ’40s and ’50s. The US was principally anticolonial, yet, in the name of fighting communism, it supported France, Great Britain and the Netherlands in their struggle to keep colonial empires. Dulles was well aware that new states like Burma or Indonesia would be reluctant to closer security cooperation with their former colonial overlords.

Another reason not to create a regional treaty organisation was the general political situation in the region. In 1951 it was still not clear what the faith of Korea and China would be. Chiang Kai-shek still hoped to return to the mainland and defeat the Communists. Under such conditions, the US was reluctant to draw “red lines” that could provoke a full-scale war with the Eastern Bloc.

Instead, Washington chose to set limited targets of the security policy and create favourable conditions for eventual military operations. Just as today, it meant hosting bases to hold naval and air supremacy. In effect, all commitments were limited to the first island chain, or “coastal chain”, as Dulles put it. However, the treaties with Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines mention “the development of a more comprehensive system of regional security in the Pacific area”.

Why SEATO and ANZUS did not survive?

After the French defeat in Vietnam, the US made an attempt to create a regional alliance in the form of the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Established in September 1954 organisation included: the US, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and France.

SEATO proved to be a failed attempt. Due to reasons pointed out by Dulles and many more, SEATO had a very loose structure and did not establish operation mechanisms. Obligations of the member states were unclear, as well as criteria of how to define an external threat and how to answer  it.  In case of a threat, the pact members had to respond according to their own procedures. As a result, SEATO was unable to fulfil its purpose and was disbanded in 1977.

Yet another attempt to create a multilateral security framework in the Indo-Pacific was ANZUS. If any alliance is now “brain dead”, it is the pact between Australia, New Zealand and the US. Even the current status of the pact is not sure, with Wellington claiming it is not binding anymore.

The birth of Quad

The idea of a multilateral security framework for the Indo-Pacific raised in 2004 in the aftermath of the tsunami and the later rescue operations. However, it was the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, who during his speech to the Indian Parliament in 2007, for the first time expressed the concept of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Japan, India, Australia and the US. In this way the Quad was born. The general idea was to create a platform for four democratic states to work together in order to curb China’s expansion and maintain a liberal rules-based order in Asia. Abe’s idea would have passed without much echo had it not been for China. It was Beijing that made headlines with the Quad and began to spread visions of an “Asian NATO” aimed against the PRC.

This first approach to the Quad ended quickly for lack of interest. In the same year, 2007, Labour’s Kevin Rudd became Australia’s Prime Minister and set his sights on closer cooperation with China. Thus, Australia proved to be the weakest link, although interest in such cooperation was also moderate in India and the USA. In the same year, Abe lost his prime ministerial seat, and his successors did not take up the idea of four-party cooperation.

Quad 2.0

The Quad returned in 2016 and this time it received more attention. Again, Abe was the spiritus movens behind the concept. The Japanese Prime Minister began to promote the concept of the Quad as part of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).

This time, the Quad began to take a more hard security oriented features with China seen as a revisionist power in the region. With Chinese navy more numerous and modern it had begun to venture further and further from home waters. The Indian Ocean became an important area of its activity. As the PRC became more visible internationally and showed great-power ambitions, this caused understandable concern among military planners in Australia, India, Japan and the US.

The navies’ attention, however, focused not on the fight for command of the sea but on more peaceful activities. Building greater situational awareness in the maritime domain was mentioned first. It referred to a better capacity to monitor various activities, such as illegal fishing in the exclusive economic zones of other states. Attention, albeit less officially, was drawn to Chinese research vessels carrying out intelligence activities under the guise of scientific research.

Finally, improved situational awareness and coordination are seen as means of countering the activities of Chinese paramilitary units, the so-called maritime militias, also known as “little blue men”. These formations are used extensively by Beijing in the South and East China Seas, where they enable operations in the “grey zone” below the threshold of war. For this reason, naval vessels of Australia, Japan and the United States are often helpless when confronted by aggressive but formally civilian militias supported by also non-military coast guards.

With time the Quad broadened its activities beyond maritime issues. It now includes, among other things, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) missions and a growing numbers of non-military policies, like delivering COVID vaccines to ASEAN states or building resilient logistic chains. Such an approach reflects a growing area of confrontation with China. The goal is not only to keep in check China’s power but also to fight for the “hearts and minds” of people in other Indo-Pacific nations and reduce their own dependency on the Chinese economy, in areas such as rare earths, semiconductors, EV batteries, and medical supplies.

During the Biden administration, the Quad meetings have become more often and more elaborate. Nevertheless, the framework still does not have any official structure, being an informal consultative format, which gives it flexibility much needed to constrain China’s elusive influence and does not antagonise potential partners. The best example here is ASEAN, taking the framework bit suspicious due to the fear it will undermine the organisation’s centrality in Southeast Asia.

Finally, the most vocal opponent of formalisation is India. New Delhi is very committed to its strategic autonomy, which is seen as a cornerstone of independent foreign policy. Thus, ambivalence towards formal alliances and binding frameworks is perceived as a constraint on own freedom of action. Because of this approach, despite tense relations with China and ever closer military cooperation with the US, India is not a potential member of an possible Asian Alliance.

A realistic pro-American Asian Alliance?

Who can be counted in then? As obvious Japan and Australia emerge as the most obvious candidates’. Both countries are long-term US allies and increase bilateral security cooperation between themselves. The late prime minister Abe introduced a package of bills enabling Japan to participate in multilateral alliances. It was an answer to the growing tension in relations with China. However, no signals from Tokyo and Canberra suggest interest in creating any treaty organisation. Australia and Japan aim to build ever closer bilateral cooperation, strengthen their own alliances with the US and encourage NATO states, especially France, Germany and the UK, to play a more active role in the Indo-Pacific.

Other US allies and partners in the region are even less likely to contribute in the context of an “Asian NATO”. In the case of South Korea, for the foreseeable future, North Korea will remain a major threat. Seoul is well aware that without Beijing’s involvement, the North Korean problem cannot be settled or even managed. Hence the policy towards China, despite all tensions, avoids antagonising the powerful neighbour. Another problem is historical issues with Japan causing regular frictions in bilateral relations. One of the results of this situation is the staunch opposition of South Korea against any engagement of the JSDF in the Korean Peninsula, even in case of contingency.

The effect of this state of affairs is huge problems in building basic security cooperation with Japan. It has been painfully evident in the Obama administration’s attempts to bring its two key allies in East Asia closer together. After painstaking negotiations, Washington led to the conclusion of an intelligence-sharing agreement (GSOMIA) between Tokyo and Seoul. The agreement was due to be signed in June 2012, but opposition protests and a protracted debate in South Korea postponed the signing until November 2016.

The current administration of president Yoon Suk-yeol is the first to speak loud about the enhanced security cooperation with Japan. In September 2022, after six years, Seoul agreed to resume the high-level defence talks. President Yeon and his advisors consider previous policies toward China and North Korea unsuccessful. Improvement in relations with Japan and a trilateral partnership with the US is likely to bolster deterrence.

An important step has been the first trilateral summit held on August 18 at Camp David. Three documents: “Camp David Principles”, the “Spirit of Camp David” and the “Commitment to Consult among Japan, the Republic of Korea and the United States” have set a framework for future cooperation. Significantly the military cooperation seems to be a secondary issue. Although the parties agreed to held regular exercises, share intelligence data and develop missile defence, in the foreground were political and economic issues, like commitment to held regular summits with participation of foreign and defence ministers and chairmen of national security councils. Much attention has been paid to economic and technological cooperation, namely to build “China-free” supply chains in semiconductors, EV batteries and green technologies.

In the same vein was another meeting between Kishida and Yoon, this time on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in November. Both leaders declared deepening of bilateral cooperation in fields of quantum computing and hydrogen energy. However, it is still far away from any form of an “Asian NATO” and not sure if the next ROK president will continue this approach.

Nevertheless, just like Australia and Japan, the new South Korean administration is keen to enhance cooperation with NATO. An important signal from Seoul is the president’s Yoon participation in two consecutive NATO summits in 2022 and 2023.

Southeast Asian allies

The US partners and allies in Southeast Asia can be put in a single group. The Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia struggle with Chinese pressure. The key issue here, is the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. China’s claims and their subsequent pursuit in the form of economic and political coercion and building of artificial islands have put the SCS as one of the crucial geopolitical hotspots of the world. However, the dispute has virtually no effect on the regional security framework.

In theory, facing a common challenge, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia could try to build a mechanism allowing them to manage maritime disputes between them and oppose China together. But in practice nothing like that has happened so far. The claimant states are more interested in boosting security cooperation with the US, Australia, India and Japan, which aim to limit China’s expansion in the region. Even with growing cooperation within the Quad, the US allies and partners in Southeast Asia seem to avoid multilateral frameworks in security cooperation.

Nevertheless, the PRC does not pose a direct military threat to the region. Joining any anti-Chinese alliance would definitely change this. Another factor is strong economic ties with China, effectively reducing interest in actions Beijing would perceive as too hostile. As a result, even Vietnam, for years the most vocal critic of the PRC in the region, remains staunchly non-aligned.

Cautious posture does not mean a lack of support. The Philippine ambassador to the US, Jose Manuel Romualdez, declared recently that in case of the Taiwan crisis the Southeast Asian nation might allow US military access.

Taiwan off the table

What about Taiwan? The first question is if the US is going to keep the “strategic ambiguity”. If yes, inviting Taiwan to a treaty organisation is a “no go” option. If not, then there is a question if Taiwan would perceive membership as beneficial. Definitely, it would enhance the island-state’s international recognition and give formal security guarantees. On the other hand, it would antagonise China more and further raise tension in the Taiwan Strait.

Another issue is whether Beijing would treat a Taiwanese membership as a casus belli. If yes, there would be no deterrence effect, and the alliance would be counterproductive in this field. It is highly doubtful that any leader in Indo-Pacific would decide to join the pact that heightens the risk of a contingency. Given the broad network of security cooperation, any multilateral treaty can be formalised after an eventual war starts.

The case of Ukraine proves one does not necessarily need to be part of an alliance to effectively fight a hostile, neighbouring autocratic power. What one needs is strong support from the free world. Taipei seems to be well aware of this and since the Russian invasion of Ukraine concentrates on internationalising the Taiwan issue and building support in the West. Chinese actions like the recent Taiwan Strait Crisis of 2022 only helped here.

Is the Multi-Alliance beneficial at all?

A question of uttermost importance is what would be the benefits of an “Asian NATO”? In the case of the US, the answer is fairly simple. A treaty organisation would gather all allies from the Indo-Pacific, build an integrated security framework with hopefully clear members’ obligations, procedures and mechanisms, and simplify the existing network of alliances. However, as was presented, to US allies and partners the answer is not so clear.

Except for a broader and deepened security cooperation among the Quad, there is more interest in bolstering cooperation with NATO than creating any regional alliance. In face of increasing pressure from China and Russia, it is natural for democratic countries to seek closer ties with the Euro-Atlantic area. This posturing dovetails with plans to transform NATO into a global alliance, speaking with some exaggeration as the ‘armed arm’ of the Western world. Recall that in December 2020, the first meeting of foreign ministers in the NATO + IP4 format took place. This acronym refers to the four democratic countries of the Indo-Pacific region: Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. Since then, regular meetings of the North Atlantic Council with IP4 have also begun. Moreover, in May 2022, the first meeting between the NATO Military Committee and the four Indo-Pacific partners took place.

Should we therefore expect Japan and South Korea to join NATO someday? Not necessarily. Most European allies are not keen to engage directly in far Asia and risk a full throttle confrontation with China, nor have the potential for doing this. It does not, of course, imply a reluctance to strengthen cooperation with countries in the region. Washington seems well aware of this and is creating new formats like AUKUS or coalitions of the willing, supporting France’s involvement in the Pacific. Japan and Australia are also pushing Germany to engage more in the region.

On the other hand, Tokyo and Seoul are also not revealing membership ambitions. Greater cooperation with NATO, but also with individual states from Europe, simply increases the number of options available and strengthens their own position on the international stage. Furthermore, given the magnitude of challenges and threats posed by the PRC, a local treaty organisation does not present enough potential. Thus, enhanced cooperation with the actually most powerful alliance presents a much better option.

China has, of course, criticised the strengthening of cooperation with NATO by the Indo-Pacific countries while warning against the expansion of the alliance in Asia or the creation of a similar pact in the region. However, such posturing has more to do with attempts to impose its narrative, domestic propaganda and projection of Beijing’s fears than with reality.

It seems that since the ‘50s, little has changed. The creation of a regional treaty organisation still meets numerous obstacles, and bilateral arrangements with Washington continue to be perceived as a sufficient guarantee of security, with cooperation with NATO and its individual members acting as an add-on, multiplying the benefits. Of course, this situation may change in the future. Such a trigger could be direct Chinese aggression against one of its neighbours. Just like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a war would totally alter all security calculations.

Paweł Behrendt

Analyst on Security and East Asia (China and Japan). PhD candidate at the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Vienna. Major areas of interest include: foreign and defence policy of Japan and China, international relations and security in East Asia, conflicts in Asia. Author of books "Chińczycy grają w go" and "Korzenie niemieckich sukcesów w Azji”, as well as several dozens of articles on history and security issues in Asia published in Poland and abroad.

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