International relations | Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

25 August 2022

As some consider whether a NATO-style body could work in the Asia Pacific, security policymakers must look to how the region was shaped by its last effort to form one, Sue Thompson writes.

The recent summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Madrid saw the invitation list include the so-called ‘Asia-Pacific Four’ – Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan. This triggered speculation, especially in Chinese media, about whether a NATO-style organisation for Asia might eventuate.

Is this actually possible?

Well, regional security alliances of this kind in the region have been attempted before. They were largely unsuccessful.

When NATO was founded in April 1949 in response to the emerging Cold War in Europe, there were calls for a ‘Pacific Pact’ along the same lines. Many Asia-Pacific nations were keen to develop a common approach towards communist adversaries, but views differed on how to achieve this.

Then-President of the Philippines Elpidio Quirino posed an idea for a security pact for all non-communist Asian and Pacific countries, with the United States taking a leading role.

The Australians had also been campaigning for a Pacific Pact that included the United States and the United Kingdom. New Zealand wanted a Pacific counterpart to NATO that would initially include the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, the Netherlands, and France.

The Chinese Nationalists, who were embroiled in a civil war with the Chinese Communists, also pushed for the creation of a security alliance of the non-communist nations of the Asia and the Pacific that included the United States.

South Korean President Syngman Rhee supported one too, having failed to prevent the departure of American troops from South Korea, and to secure a United States-South Korea military alliance.

However, the United States’ focus was on Europe. According to archival documents, American decision-makers believed formal security negotiations in Asia would draw the Americans into direct, undesirable military commitments. Instead, the United States sought to encourage cooperation amongst regional nations.

In response, Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek (also known as Jiang Jieshi) proposed possible collaboration between China, the Philippines and other Asian nations.

More on this: Why ASEAN’s centrality matters

The Philippines and South Korea were the only ones to embrace the proposal. Other nations took a cautious approach to any security arrangement that supported the Chinese Nationalists.

In South and Southeast Asia, Indian President Jawaharlal Nehru believed in Asian unity for economic advancement, but not as an alliance against any country or power. Meanwhile, Indonesia supported closer regional cooperation, but also wished to stay away from a formal military bloc. This was also the case for Thailand and Burma – which is now Myanmar.

However, the United States’ attempts to remain in the background of Asian affairs were tested when the Chinese Communists swept to power on 1 October 1949 and the Korean War broke out in June 1950.

The country then signed a trilateral security treaty with Australia and New Zealand, and bilateral alliances with Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan.

An ‘Asian NATO’ seemed put to bed, until fresh attempts emerged during the 1954 negotiations to settle the First Indochina War. The Americans instead proposed a collective security arrangement for Southeast Asia.

The British wanted a wider Asian membership, but the Americans were keen to wrap up the process before there was a final settlement to the conflict and did not want to be drawn into a prolonged process of trying to secure members.

Indonesia and Burma were suspicious of an organisation that might be tagged as ‘imperialist’ within their own countries and were wary of being drawn into the Cold War. They wanted to pursue a non-aligned path, and along with India and Sri Lanka, they would become founding members of the non-aligned movement.

Malaya, Singapore, and the territories of North Borneo were still British colonies, so were not able to join in their own right.

The Philippines and Thailand, however, were keen, hoping an alliance would enable them more access to American military aid. Thailand was concerned about security along their borders with Laos and Cambodia and possible North Vietnamese activity there.

However, it was clear from the start that the United States wouldn’t be brought into a NATO-style organisation, nor did they see their new security pact as a forum for automatic openness on military planning.

More on this: Why America’s Indo-Pacific strategy is flawed

The result was the formation in Manila on 8 September 1954 of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, or Manila Pact. The Treaty’s signatories were the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Pakistan, and the Philippines. This paved the way for the establishment on 19 February 1955 of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO).

From the very start, SEATO was a compromise. It was hastily constructed and only two members were geographically part of Southeast Asia. It had no unified command and no standing army, and it managed to make only limited military commitments.

Additionally, the Philippines and Thailand believed that closer consultations took place between the four English-speaking members, and they were unhappy about being excluded.

Indeed, declassified records show that the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand were involved in unofficial discussions. The idea of four-power cooperative defence planning had first arisen during the negotiations to establish SEATO.

Then in 1958, Australia raised the idea again. The United States did not object as long as such discussions would not undermine SEATO, and any ‘extra-curricular’ discussions among the four powers should be held secretly.

The continuation of these informal discussions led to a British proposal in 1966 to formalise the arrangement. The United Kingdom was considering closing their military base in Singapore and were looking for a more effective collective defence arrangement than SEATO.

The Americans were not keen, especially if it encouraged the British to neglect the region militarily. They were also wary of any formal body being classified as a ‘white man’s club’, so decided not to reject ‘discreet’ four-power discussions but opposed joint planning and joint commands.

The four nations decided to continue coordinating future policy as an informal quadripartite bloc.

The military arm of SEATO was disbanded in 1973. Thailand and the Philippines agreed after Australia and New Zealand pressured Washington to downgrade the alliance as a price of their continued membership. SEATO essentially became a civil-aid organisation until it folded completely in 1977.

Despite concerns about communist influence in Asia, nations were not able to find enough common ground to band together for a NATO-style collective security organisation during the Cold War. This diversity is likely to hamper any further attempts in the future.

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