Last week I wrote a piece arguing that a strong balancing coalition against China would be more likely to deter Chinese aggression than provoke it. In that article, I briefly mentioned that to avoid antagonizing Beijing, the U.S. and its allies could form a military coalition around the mission of upholding certain principles like freedom of navigation, rather than containing a certain state like China. Since this idea was only marginally related to the main thrust of that article, I only mentioned it in passing. However, I feel the point has enough merit to consider in greater detail.
Building a military coalition or alliance around a principle like freedom of navigation would be sensible for the U.S. and its allies in a number of ways. First, support for principles like freedom of navigation and opposition to using naval force or coercion to settle territorial disputes is broadly popular in the region. Indeed, I cannot think of any state that would publicly express opposition to either of these principles. China, of course, has warned the U.S. against using maritime security as an excuse to provoke it, but it has usually in the same breath affirmed its support for freedom of navigation. At most there are disagreements over how these principles should be enforced, and by whom, not over whether they are worth upholding or not.
Second, as suggested above, by building a military coalition around a widely popular principle, the states involved would avoid specifically targeting or singling out one state like China. The coalition would only target Beijing or another country if it were trying to undermine the principles the coalition was formed to uphold. But since these principles are widely popular, few would quarrel with targeting a certain state in order to prevent it from undermining these principles.
Furthermore, it would be difficult for China to claim the coalition was geared toward containing it without suggesting that its ambitions include undermining these principles. On the other hand, building the coalition around principles would hold the possibility of having new members—including China—join it they met the necessary conditions (discussed below).
Third, although upholding freedom of navigation is narrowly defined in some respects, it also is general enough to allow the coalition to engage in a diverse amount of activities. Regular military exercises would be necessary to improve interoperability in patrolling regional waterways. At the same time, even cooperation in missile defense would make sense given the potential for anti-ship missiles to wreak havoc on commercial shipping. The requirements to meet the coalition’s mandate would also necessitate the sharing of intelligence. The coalition’s ability to fufill its mission would be enhanced by interoperable systems, potentially leading to greater arms sales or joint production contracts between coalition members.
Were the principles in the coalition’s mandate to include preventing states from using force or coercion to change the territorial status-quo, the amount of military activities that could be engaged in would be even more expansive.
Fourth, the U.S. also has a ready-made framework from which to construct such a military coalition—namely, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP, of course, is a free trade agreement that aims to expand trade between littoral nations on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Much of the trade that would result from the TPP would be carried by sea—including across the largest body of water in the world— and this is only possible if commercial vessels can be confident in their safe and free passage. Thus, a Trans-Pacific Naval Partnership (TPNP) would be a logical corollary to the TPP itself.
A number of specifics would of course have to be hammered out before the TPNP would be formed. Brevity is not an asset in international treaty writing, so I will only scratch the surface of these in this article.
The first consideration would be whether only TPP states could join the TPNP. Such a restriction could limit the regional scope of the TPNP, given that many important regional parties are not part of the TPP negotiations. On the other hand, TPP nations still pack a powerful punch with nations like the U.S., Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Singapore, Canada, Mexico and Vietnam. The TPNP could also cooperate to varying degrees with non-member states. Moreover, from a U.S. perspective, it might be beneficial to extend TPNP membership only to TPP parties in order to induce more states to sign onto the TPP.
Another consideration would be whether TPNP parties would need to meet other requirements besides TPP membership in order to join. It would seem sensible to have high standards in certain areas much like the TPP does with trade. One such area, of course, would be a certain level of transparency in nations’ capabilities. Member nations would want to prevent states from using their TPNP status to gain a greater appreciation of potential adversaries’ capabilities, while withholding similar information about their own fleets. A certain level of commitment in participating and contributing to TPNP military and political activities would also be desirable.
Perhaps the most important issue to be worked out would be what membership in the TPNP would entail. It is likely too much to expect something comparable to NATO’s Article Five collective self-defense clause, especially initially. In the beginning, the TPNP would likely be centered on regular naval exercises to improve interoperability among the different navies and air forces. This could quickly be extended to educational exchanges and training programs.
In order to induce nations to join, as well as improve interoperability, the U.S. and other nations could also offer TPNP nations favorable terms on arms sales and joint production projects. A mid-term goal could be a naval headquarters with a small bureaucracy, while a longer term goal could be to collectively build some TPNP naval bases in the region to host TPNP naval assets. Multilateral naval bases would presumably generate less opposition from domestic constituents within the host nations compared to foreign bases maintained by only one foreign nation.