Earlier this month, I discussed the possibility that Asian nations might form a collective security mechanism if the threat from China continues to grow. As I noted then, and has been confirmed since, most observers believe that a NATO-like organization isn’t possible in Asia due to existing divisions within the region and a general desire not to alienate China, who is the top trading partner for much of the region.
While I concurred that a collective security mechanism is not in the cards for Asia at present, I argued in the original piece that it can’t be ruled out in the long-term. What I failed to mention previously is that in some ways China should welcome an Asian NATO.
One of the reasons that I believe a NATO-like security alliance could eventually take root in Asia is that the general conditions that led to NATO’s formation are falling into place in the Pacific. NATO’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, famously described the new organization’s purpose as “to keep the Russians out [of Western Europe], the Americans in, and the Germans down.” An Asian NATO’s purpose would be “to keep the Chinese out, the Americans in, and the Japanese down.”
If China’s economic rise continues, and its military capabilities grow accordingly, there will be increasing apprehension on the part of China’s neighbors to keep it out of their territories and internal affairs. Indeed, in just the last few years we have seen growing concern as China has become more capable of enforcing its expansive claims to the South and East China Seas. We have also seen Beijing’s willingness to meddle in other countries’ internal affairs on issues of great importance to it, such as the fate of Tibetans in South Asia.
Given China’s massive size relative to its neighbors in Eastern Asia, the best chance for the latter to keep the former out is by keeping America involved in the region. The United States is truly blessed by being surrounded on both sides by two massive moats. Although this complicates America’s ability to project power in Asia and Europe, it also gives it the option of retreating behind its borders. Just as European nations didn’t have this option when faced with the Soviet threat, Asian nations today don’t have that option with China today.
As such, Europe then and Asia now need the U.S. more than vice-versa. This asymmetric dependency made Europe permanently concerned that the U.S. would withdraw behind its borders, leaving it defenseless in the face of the Soviet juggernaut. At the same time, Brussels was periodically concerned that America’s commitments in other parts of the world would leave it insufficiently invested in Europe.
These same dynamics are now playing out in Asia, and have grown particularly intense in recent weeks. As Asia and China have continued to rise in recent decades, the region has been perplexed by American foreign policy’s continued obsession with Europe and the Middle East. This created concern among some, and hope among others, that the U.S. wouldn’t join the Asia Century. The much criticized rollout of the Asia Pivot was in no small part geared towards ending this doubt in the region.
Nonetheless, the region has watched the U.S. continue to be tied down by unforeseen events occurring in the Arab world and Eastern Europe. Moreover, U.S. allies in Asia have been concerned that America’s seeming lack of resolve in Syria and Ukraine is a good indicator of the level of resolve they can expect from the U.S. on China. Although the Obama administration has been quick to try to counter this narrative, there would be no better antidote to it than a more formal, multilateral security arrangement.
Nonetheless, China is not in favor of being kept out of the South and East China Seas, nor is it a fan of America being kept involved the disputes. It is the third goal of NATO according to Lord Ismay—namely, to keep Germany down—which China might welcome.
Although sometimes forgotten today, one of the main reasons the U.S. agreed to form NATO was because it realized that rearming West Germany would be crucial to limiting the burden Washington would have to shoulder in defending Western Europe. At the same time, there was little appetite among European powers for the rearmament of a country that had precipitated two massive conflicts in three decades. Thus, the crux of the issue was how one could rearm West Germany so it could share in the collective self-defense of Western Europe, without allowing it to return to its militaristic past. NATO and its integrated command structure was the solution the wise men of the early Cold War years devised.
The U.S. did not face a similar dilemma in Asia during the Cold War for the simple reason that the Soviet Union and Maoist China’s ability to dominate Eastern Asia was not comparable to Moscow’s ability to overrun Western Europe. Thus, the U.S. did not need a rearmed Japan to help it defend Eastern Asia to the same degree that it needed West Germany to help defend Europe.
China’s extraordinary growth is now changing this situation. If China can avoid a prolonged economic slowdown, Japan will almost certainly have to take a role in Asia’s defense that is comparable if not larger than the role of West Germany in Cold War Europe. In recognition of this and the deterioration of its security environment, Japan is already starting to strengthen its military capabilities and remove some of the restrictions in its post-WWII constitution. Most notably, Shinzo Abe is seeking to get domestic approval for Japan’s right to engage in collective self-defense.
The U.S. has rightly welcomed this move by the Abe administration. On the other hand, it has greatly unnerved China, who has repeatedly claimed that Tokyo is becoming remilitarized. South Korea, which is roughly comparable to France in post-WWII Europe, has expressed similar concerns about Japan. More generally, on a number of occasions China has also warned that U.S. bilateral commitments to regional allies like Japan and the Philippines are emboldening those states in their dealings towards China.
I remain skeptical of China’s concerns. Although Chinese leaders’ warnings about a remilitarized Japan are probably not entirely insincere, I believe that China is exploiting historical concerns about Tokyo to distract from its own clear efforts to gradually change the regional status quo.
China would adamantly deny this charge, and perhaps rightly so. Fortunately, a collective security arrangement in Asia would give China a chance to prove that its concerns are genuine. An integrated multilateral security arrangement would be the best defense against a remilitarized Japan just as it socialized Germany in Europe. Moreover, compared to the current U.S.-led hub-and-spokes alliance system in Asia, a multilateral security arrangement would better hedge against Japan or the Philippines being unduly emboldened in their dealings with China.
Thus, if China truly believes that a remilitarized Japan is the greatest threat to regional peace, it should welcome an Asian NATO with open arms.