Does the Indo-Pacific Need an Alliance Like NATO?

 In Indo-Pacific, Canada, FVEY, P5

On August 31, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun told an Indian audi­ence that the “Indo-Pacific region is actu­al­ly lack­ing in strong mul­ti­lat­er­al struc­tures.  They don’t have any­thing of the for­ti­tude of NATO or the European Union.  … there is cer­tain­ly an invi­ta­tion there at some point to for­mal­ize a struc­ture like this.” This state­ment raises an impor­tant ques­tion: should the United States try to create an orga­ni­za­tion like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Indo-Pacific? In a word, no.

NATO is a mul­ti­lat­er­al mil­i­tary alliance between the United States, Canada, and twenty-five European coun­tries. The call for sim­i­lar mul­ti­lat­er­al coop­er­a­tion among dif­fer­ent states in the Indo-Pacific is moti­vat­ed by a desire to respond to China’s provo­ca­tions and secure the region’s democ­ra­cies. As first steps to this end, the United States, Australia, India, and Japan have recent­ly revived infor­mal coop­er­a­tion through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the “Quad.” While policy coor­di­na­tion and mil­i­tary exer­cis­es among mem­bers of the Quad are help­ful and should con­tin­ue, pur­su­ing an alliance like NATO is unwise.

There are three rea­sons to avoid emu­lat­ing NATO in the Indo-Pacific. First, the poten­tial mem­bers lack the shared inter­ests that an alliance needs to suc­ceed. Although mem­bers of the Quad, and many East Asian coun­tries, are at odds with Chinese ter­ri­to­r­i­al claims, they have very dif­fer­ent and spe­cif­ic con­cerns. For exam­ple, India faces dis­putes on its Himalayan fron­tier, while Japan is con­cerned with con­flict over the Senkaku islands. An alliance like NATO might oblig­ate Japan to fight if war broke out in the Himalayas, or India to go to war over a mar­itime dis­pute in the South China Sea. Attempting to create an alliance is thus a recipe for failed nego­ti­a­tions or alliance treaty vio­la­tions. The mem­bers of a hypo­thet­i­cal Indo-Pacific alliance orga­ni­za­tion do have a common con­cern over China’s power plays in the region, but the sce­nar­ios for mutual ben­e­fit are too varied.

Second, a formal alliance, even between core mem­bers of the Quad, risks pro­vok­ing China. A recent study by University of Michigan polit­i­cal sci­en­tist James Morrow found that form­ing a defen­sive alliance could pro­voke con­flict when mem­bers have a his­to­ry of con­flict with the third party the alliance hopes to deter. This is exact­ly the sit­u­a­tion in the Indo-Pacific region. A new alliance risks inflam­ing exist­ing ten­sions, rather than pro­tect­ing its mem­bers.

Finally, emu­lat­ing NATO is unnec­es­sary for the United States to pro­mote secu­ri­ty and pros­per­i­ty in the Indo-Pacific. The United States already has alliances with Japan and Australia, in addi­tion to defense pacts with the Philippines and South Korea. Upholding and strength­en­ing these bilat­er­al com­mit­ments elim­i­nates any need to take on expen­sive new alliance com­mit­ments.

There is also an easier way to pro­mote mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism in the Indo-Pacific. The United States already built a mean­ing­ful mul­ti­lat­er­al struc­ture in East Asia through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), only for President Trump to aban­don it. Biegun argued that this trade agree­ment “fell under the weight of exces­sive ambi­tion.” If that is true, advo­cates of an Indo-Pacific alliance orga­ni­za­tion should reassess the invi­ta­tion to create strong mul­ti­lat­er­al struc­tures like NATO. Forming a mil­i­tary alliance like NATO is per­haps more ambi­tious and con­se­quen­tial than the TPP. If the United States really wants to pro­mote mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism, rejoin­ing the TPP is a good place to start.

Does this dis­cus­sion over­state U.S. ambi­tions? After all, Biegun also noted that he “would be care­ful not to be too ambi­tious.  … remem­ber, even NATO start­ed with rel­a­tive­ly modest expec­ta­tions.” Unfortunately, this under­sells the ori­gins of NATO. Although NATO only had twelve mem­bers, com­pared to twenty-seven today, the allies were com­mit­ted to and planned togeth­er for war with the Soviet Union from the begin­ning. If the United States wants deeper coop­er­a­tion among democ­ra­cies in the Indo-Pacific region, but not a mul­ti­lat­er­al alliance treaty, then ref­er­enc­ing NATO is mis­lead­ing and irre­spon­si­ble.

To con­clude, the lack of “strong mul­ti­lat­er­al struc­tures” in East Asia is not an invi­ta­tion to create them. An Indo-Pacific NATO is more likely to col­lapse or pro­voke China than pro­mote secu­ri­ty and pros­per­i­ty in the region. Instead of push­ing for a pale imi­ta­tion of NATO, the United States should focus on uphold­ing and strength­en­ing exist­ing alliance com­mit­ments and build­ing coop­er­a­tion in other areas. 

Joshua Alley is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Virginia’s Democratic Statecraft Lab. He holds a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University and a B.A. from Gettysburg College.

Image: Reuters.

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