The Cold War Hangover and Why There’s No Asian NATO

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While some wonder if a NATO-like body could work in the Asia-Pacific, security policymakers need to consider how the region has been shaped by its latest effort to form one, writes Sue Thompson.

The recent North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Madrid saw the guest list include the so-called ‘Asia-Pacific Four’ – Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan. This sparked speculation, especially in the Chinese media, about the possibility of a NATO-like organization for Asia.

Is it really possible?

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

When NATO was founded in April 1949 in response to the onset of the Cold War in Europe, calls were made for a “Pacific Pact” along the same lines. Many Asia-Pacific countries wanted to develop a common approach to communist adversaries, but views differed on how to achieve this.

Elpidio Quirino, then President of the Philippines, proposed a security pact for all non-Communist countries in Asia and the Pacific, with the United States playing a leading role.

The Australians had also campaigned for a Pacific pact including the United States and the United Kingdom. New Zealand wanted a Pacific counterpart to NATO which would initially include the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, the Netherlands and France.

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

South Korean President Syngman Rhee also backed one, failing to prevent the departure of US troops from South Korea and securing a military alliance between the US and South Korea.

However, the United States was focusing on Europe. According to archival documents, American decision-makers believed that formal negotiations on security in Asia would draw the Americans into direct and undesirable military engagements. Instead, the United States has sought to encourage cooperation among regional nations.

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

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

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

However, attempts by the United States to stay in the background of Asian affairs were tested when the Chinese Communists took power on October 1, 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 new attempts emerged during the 1954 negotiations to settle the First Indochina War. The Americans instead proposed a collective security agreement for Southeast Asia.

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

Indonesia and Burma were wary of an organization that could be called “imperialist” in their own countries and feared being drawn into the Cold War. They wanted to follow a non-aligned path and together with India and Sri Lanka they would become founding members of the non-aligned movement.

Malaysia, Singapore and the northern territories of Borneo were still British colonies and therefore could not join on their own.

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

However, it was clear from the outset that the United States would not be integrated into a NATO-type organization, nor did it see its new security pact as an automatic open forum for military planning.

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

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

Moreover, the Philippines and Thailand believed that closer consultations had taken place between the four English-speaking members and were unhappy to be excluded.

Indeed, declassified documents show that the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand were involved in unofficial discussions. The idea of ​​cooperative four-power defense planning first arose during the negotiations to establish SEATO.

Then in 1958, Australia again raised the idea. The United States did not object so long as such talks did not compromise SEATO, and any “out-of-school” talks between the four powers should be held secretly.

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

The Americans were unenthusiastic, especially if it encouraged the British to neglect the area militarily. They were also suspicious of any formal body classed as a “white men’s club”, so they decided not to reject “low-key” four-way talks, but opposed joint planning and joint commands.

The four nations have decided to continue to coordinate future policy as an informal four-party bloc.

JSEATO’s military arm was disbanded in 1973. Thailand and the Philippines agreed after Australia and New Zealand pressured Washington to downgrade the alliance as a price for their continued membership. SEATO essentially became a civilian aid organization until it folded completely in 1977.

Despite concerns about communist influence in Asia, nations were unable to find enough common ground to band together for a NATO-like collective security organization during the Cold War. This diversity is likely to hamper any new attempts in the future.

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