Is an Asian NATO Possible?
Image Credit: State Department Photo

Is an Asian NATO Possible?


In the new concluding chapter to his classic The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, John Mearsheimer argues: “There is already substantial evidence that countries like India, Japan, and Russia, as well as smaller powers like Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam, are worried about China’s ascendancy and are looking for ways to contain it. In the end, they will join an American-led balancing coalition to check China’s rise, much the way Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and eventually China, joined forces with the United States during the Cold War to contain the Soviet Union.”

This is at odds with most analyses which postulate that Asia is not ripe for a NATO style containment block against China. For instance, in summing up the conventional wisdom on the subject, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Stewart Patrick opined last summer that: “Despite its strategic ‘rebalancing’ toward Asia, the United States is unlikely to sponsor a collective defense organization for the Asia-Pacific, for at least three reasons: insufficient solidarity among diverse regional partners, fear of alienating China, and the perceived advantages of bilateral and ad-hoc security arrangements.”

When placed in their historical perspective, these reasons seem insufficient to me. Let’s review them each in turn.

First, one of the main reasons many argue that a NATO-like organization could never work in Asia is because “the countries of the region retain diverse interests and regional priorities and (in the case of ROK-Japanese relations) insufficient levels of trust to band together.” The implication is that in the early Cold War Western Europeans had similar interests and high levels of trust, which allowed them to form the NATO alliance.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Although there is a considerable level of distrust between Japan and South Korea today, as well as between nations like Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, this pales in comparison to the level of distrust France had for Germany, the U.K., and the United States in the early Cold War. Indeed, Germany had invaded France twice in the preceding decades and Paris was far more worried about a security threat emanating from West Germany than from the Soviet Union. That is why France adamantly opposed allowing West Germany to rearm and, when it failed to prevent this outcome, it built nuclear weapons.

France was also highly distrustful of the United Kingdom and the United States, albeit in different ways. Unlike with West Germany, France did not feel its security was directly threatened by the Anglo-American powers but Paris did not trust them to come to its aid in the event it was attacked. At the same time, it feared becoming entrapped by the budding U.S.-Soviet conflict.

Most—though not all—of this distrust was gradually overcome in time because of strong U.S. and British leadership as well as because of the threat posed by the Soviet Union. In this regard, it’s worth noting that Moscow’s threat to Western Europe following WWII was much greater than the military threat China poses to Eastern Asia now. Should the latter threat grow over the years, the squabbles between its neighbors are likely to fade over time.

Another supposed obstacle to a NATO-like organization in Asia is “the perceived advantages of bilateral and ad-hoc security arrangements.” As Patrick elaborates on the subject: “the United States is increasingly attracted to cooperation within flexible coalitions that can coalesce temporarily, as mechanisms for addressing regional as well as global security challenges.”

This again needs to be placed in its historical context. Following WWII, the U.S. rapidly demobilized its forces and began withdrawing them from Europe. It fought tooth and nail against being involved in a collective security organization like NATO as one might expect a regional hegemon to do. As such, the U.S. initially pursued bilateral and ad-hoc security arrangements. For example, some members of Congress proposed unilaterally extending the Monroe Doctrine to cover Western Europe, rather than sign a collective security treaty.

Most notably, however, the U.S. pushed the Western European nations to form a tighter collective security organization from which Washington would be excluded. The hope was that these states would be able to defend Western Europe from the Soviet threat without the assistance of the United States. Thus, in March 1948 the major Western European powers signed the Treaty of Brussels, which later that year they used to create the Western Union Defense Organization.

It was only when this proved insufficient, and the Soviet threat seemed to be growing (as evidenced by the Berlin blockade), that the U.S. reluctantly agreed to form NATO. Even so, the collective self-defense article in the NATO treaty is far less binding than the one in the Treaty of Brussels. Whereas Article IV of the Treaty of Brussels compelled the other states to respond to an attack on one of its members with military force, Article V of the NATO treaty merely compels members to take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.”

Therefore, if a NATO member is attacked its allies are only obliged to provide some kind of assistance to it. This was hardly an oversight by the negotiators of the NATO Treaty, who spent the bulk of their time trying to find the best wording for Article V. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson—who was the lead U.S. negotiator following Harry Truman’s reelection in 1948—explained it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Article V “does not mean that the United States would automatically be at war if one of the other signatory nations were the victim of an armed attack. Under our Constitution, the Congress alone has the power to declare war.”

Unconvinced, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations at the time, Tom Connally, followed up by asking Acheson: “[I]t is up to each country to determine for itself, is it not, what action it deems necessary to restore the security of the Atlantic Pact area?” to which Acheson responded: “There is no question about that, Senator. That is true.” Furthermore, while NATO came into being in 1949—the same year Mao conquered China and the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon—it did not really become a potent military force until the Korean War. That’s because the U.S. and Western Europe viewed Kim Il-sung’s invasion of South Korea as a trial run for a Soviet invasion of the rest of the European continent.

In short, the U.S. preferring to rely on ad-hoc security arrangements is not surprising. However, this should not be taken to mean that it won’t reluctantly be pulled into a more formal region-wide security alliance should the threat posed by China grow.

The final obstacle Patrick and others see to a NATO-like organization in Asia is America and regional states’ fears of alienating China. This is probably the biggest obstacle to a collective security agreement in Asia because, unlike in post-WWII Europe, China has strong economic ties with most its neighbors. For most of these neighbors, this is not a case of interdependency with China—rather, China’s neighbors remain far more dependent on Beijing economically than vice-versa.

Still, this alone is unlikely to be enough to prevent the formation of a stronger collective security agreement. To begin with, when states’ economic and security interests are at complete odds, security interests usually win out if the state is under a large enough threat. This is true because a state must survive before it can prosper. Furthermore, if enough of China’s neighbors enter into a collective security arrangement together, China cannot go after them all economically without greatly hurting itself. While any one of the states may be more reliant on China economically than China is on any single neighbor, China is likely to be just as reliant on all of them as any single one of them is on China. (This is the same dynamic as in the security realm. While no single Asian state will be as powerful as China militarily, an alliance of a bunch of the major Asian states is likely to remain more powerful than China.)

Overcoming the fear of alienating China, then, is likely to be dependent on how large a threat China poses to the region. As noted above, China is not currently as menacing as the Soviet Union was to Europe in the late 1940s. Furthermore, it took a number of strong catalysts from the Soviet Union and its allies (Berlin, nuclear weapon testing, Communists winning in China and the Korean War) to compel the U.S. and its Atlantic allies to form a collective security arrangement. The same is likely to prove true in Asia. While no immediate Asian NATO is likely to be forthcoming, this could change very quickly if China takes a brazen action such as invading Taiwan or the Senkaku Islands.

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