Ryan King. History tells us that an ‘Asian Nato’ is destined to fail

Mar 13, 2022
The Quad leaders
The current Quad members of the USA, Japan, Australia, and India have very little in common. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The unique situation in which NATO was formed, and the failure to build similar alliances in Asia, suggest that the expansion of the Quad and AUKUS into a formal military alliance is both unlikely to happen and ill-advised.

In recent weeks, the attention of politicians and the media has shifted away from the Asia Pacific to its usual stomping ground: Europe. The war between Russia and Ukraine seems to have given NATO a renewed vigor and purpose, and at least in the interim, has led to a toning-down of the anti-Chinese rhetoric that has been ever-present in discussions around American foreign policy and the future of NATO. This is, in my opinion, a good shift.

Prior to the sudden and largely unexpected war in Eastern Europe, many column inches had been written about the Rise of China and the need for an ‘Asian NATO’ to counteract it. Over the last year, we have seen increased meetings between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – increasingly referred to as ‘the Quad’. This strategic discussion between four nations whose foreign policies are increasingly obsessed with countering China’s remarkable rise, have been supplemented by AUKUS – a military agreement between Australia, the UK, and the US – guaranteeing a supply of sophisticated arms and equipment to the antipodes.

Coupled with the calls for an ‘Asian NATO’, one might be forgiven for thinking the logical next step would be a merger of the Quad and AUKUS, with the addition of a few other US-friendly states such as South Korea and the Philippines, into a grand coalition to face down China – let’s call it QuadPlus. However, historians recall that, to some extent, we have been down this road before, albeit in a different context. Building collective security arrangements outside of Europe has been extremely difficult for the United States, and doing so in Northeast Asia in particular has been near impossible. Realizing why this time is unlikely to be any different depends upon two key pillars: an understanding of why NATO specifically was successful, and a grasp of why other similar arrangement failed. So let’s take a look.

Facing the Soviet Threat

In the early 1950s, with the Cold War well underway, the foreign policy of the United States, especially following the Truman Doctrine, was focused on ‘containment’ of the USSR. A big part of this containment strategy was to build a series of military alliances based on the concept of ‘collective security’, i.e. that an attack on one member state would be considered an attack on all. In earnest, the US began constructing what a modern American commentator might refer to as a ‘Chain of Freedom’. This Chain would be made up of four multilateral security alliances – NATO (in Europe), CENTO (in the Middle East), SEATO (in Southeast Asia), and NEATO (in Northeast Asia), with overlapping members connecting them together, as follows:

  • Turkey in NATO and CENTO
  • Pakistan in CENTO and SEATO
  • Philippines in SEATO and NEATO

These alliances were intended to be supported from the rear by the five nations of the Anglosphere – the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (to this end, we can consider ANZUS to be a part of this system), and in some versions of the concept: France. In theory, this would create the ultimate containment barrier with a Soviet advance anywhere inadvertently setting off a chain reaction of multilateral responses.

But it didn’t work.

NATO: A Success Story

While NATO remains in existence to this day, SEATO was disbanded in 1977 (this organization has no relation to the present-day ASEAN), CENTO broke up in 1979 after years of limping along on life support, and NEATO was never even established. So what happened? And how can this inform our predictions about the success of recent attempts to establish such an alliance against China?

First, let us look at the only successful case – NATO. This alliance was formed by a group of countries that came from a similar socio-political background, most of which were dealing with their diminished world position following the collapse of their empires. This huge sea change, coupled with their shared recent experience of devastating warfare and perception of a common threat on their far eastern periphery, left them in dire need of American military and economic aid. It should not be a surprise that NATO worked out as well as it did. Indeed, as we have seen in recent weeks, the sudden reemergence of the Russian threat has brought NATO together in a way not seen in decades, proving that it can operate in a highly functional manner – once it has a clear threat-focus.

By contrast, none of this is true in the Indo-Pacific. The current Quad members of the USA, Japan, Australia, and India have very little in common, except a vague, manufactured concept of ‘China is scary’. While they are all in theory ‘democracies’, it’s hard to consider India to be anywhere near the other three in terms of rule of law or political stability, especially as the current Indian administration appears determined to steamroller the opposition by any means necessary, Their economies are vastly different, with Australia continuing to be dependent on the export of raw materials to its neighbors, while India is going through its own industrial revolution. Furthermore, could we really expect India, with its close ties to Russia, to be brought firmly into an alliance aimed at China, considering that Sino-Russian ties remain strong?

The members of AUKUS may share a common heritage, but do not, in any sense, have any shared interests on the other side of the world. The UK, in particular, is currently undergoing its own sea change in foreign policy. Having recently quit the European Union at a time when the latter is attempting to construct its own shared military brigades, it has been immediately dragged back into European affairs with the Ukraine crisis. All the while, London is trying to walk a tightrope between following Washington’s hostile line on Beijing, while also courting China as a major economic partner in a post-Brexit world. In short, British foreign policy is a mess, and this is no time to be making irreversible commitments in the Asia Pacific which it can neither justify nor afford.

The Other NATOs: A Litany of Failure

So how about the failed NATO-copies that are so often overlooked? Both CENTO in the Middle East, and SEATO in Southeast Asia were formed with much less care or planning than their West European counterpart. Neither of these organizations featured a combined military command similar to that of NATO, and both were seen (including by their own members) as thinly-veiled excuses to keep the former imperial masters of those regions militarily-present, in control, and relevant. In the especially ridiculous case of SEATO, only two of the eight members were actually located in Southeast Asia (the SEATO members were the USA, the UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Thailand, and the Philippines ). Furthermore, both of the two alliances experienced catastrophic defeats early on, with the USSR ‘leapfrogging’ CENTO and establishing relationships on the other side of the Chain (especially in Egypt), and America’s military defeat in Vietnam undermining the raison d’être of SEATO.

Any attempt to build a QuadPlus will surely face these same issues. It seems unlikely that the military big spenders will spill treasure to build military bases in the region in order to defend other members. Any such arrangement will reek of an attempt by declining powers such as the US and the UK to remain relevant in a part of the world that is thousands of miles away. In any case, containment – if that was ever a good motivation – has already failed. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has already spread far past any potential red line a QuadPlus might attempt to draw on a map. Furthermore, China’s BRI has been received incredibly well by many countries that it has stretched to – another reason that drawing other members into a QuadPlus will be remarkably difficult.

Northeast Asia: Graveyard of Alliances

Finally, we should consider the one that got away – NEATO. This proposed alliance would have tied together America’s bilateral security arrangements with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and the Republic of China on Taiwan, into a single organization. These details are vital for understanding its failure to launch.

Firstly, the two key Asian members – Japan and South Korea – suffer from deep and unresolved trust issues, mostly dating back to Japanese colonization and mistreatment of the peninsula from 1905 until the end of the Second World War, leaving them unwilling to work together in a formal capacity. Furthermore, both of them had deep historical links to China, and didn’t see it with the same threatening eyes as the Americans did. Neither of them wished to alienate a potential economic partner, something that joining a deliberately provocative alliance (especially with the inclusion of Taiwan) would have done.

Even the Americans began to get cold feet during the discussions. By the mid-1960s, the Sino-Soviet Split was well underway, and Washington had begun to contemplate the idea that China could be brought, if not into the Western camp, at least out of the Soviet camp. Forming an alliance that included both China’s most recent bitter enemy (Japan) and a rival to its legitimacy (Taiwan) would have undermined any future ‘detente’. Indeed, with hindsight, we can speculate that Nixon’s famous 1972 visit to China would have been all but impossible, were the US to have been heading a NEATO alliance that would have been perceived in Beijing at that time as being extremely hostile.

Ultimately, formation of NEATO could only have succeeded were the United States willing to apply pressure to potential members to sign up. American faltering and second-guessing allowed NEATO to slip away and never escape the planning phase. A few years later, a proposal for a Western Pacific Treaty Organization (WEPTO) went the same way. Instead, the US doubled-down on its ‘hub-and-spoke’ system, in which it tied its Asian allies firmly to itself, but not to each other. This system has continued to this day, and can be illustrated by Washington’s highly-valued designation of ‘Major Non-NATO Ally’ which it hands to countries that it seeks close security relationships with, and wishes to supply with high-level weaponry and support. Indeed, we may consider that the current US alliance system is built upon two pillars – NATO and the MNNAs.  This system appears stable, and it is unclear why the Americans would wish to mess with it.

QuadPlus: A Media Fiction

Looking over this history, it should be clear why a QuadPlus project is doomed to fail. NATO was formed under very specific circumstances, which we cannot find in today’s Indo-Pacific, no matter what the warmongering media might claim. It was, and is, made up of countries who are at a similar enough political, economic, social, and cultural level to work well together, which is not true amongst the disparate countries of the Quad. Finally, if the current Russia-Ukraine situation develops into a military or diplomatic stalemate, we may see NATO reinvigorated and filled with a new sense of mission and purpose. This will make it difficult for the US or the UK to divert resources to the other side of the world, or bring in any other European allies.

Many of the conditions that prevented NEATO from forming during the Cold War remain today. Relations between countries in the region (Japan and South Korea for example) remain strained as the legacy of World War Two has not yet subsided. Both nations have deep and complicated economic ties with China and have no wish to jeopardize them. This is also true of other countries beyond Northeast Asia, especially those that have benefited from the Belt and Road Initiative. Furthermore, any anti-Chinese alliance would seem odd were it not to include Taiwan, yet including them would risk triggering the very war that the alliance would presumably be set up to stop.

Faced with these realties, nations across the Indo-Pacific have to ask themselves: do we want to side with countries that have no stake in the region, against a key economic partner, and find ourselves on the wrong side of history? Do we want to spend trillions of dollars (in total) on military equipment to face a non-existent threat alongside unreliable allies? Money that  could surely be better used for domestic economic and social development? Anyone with a good handle on history, has to conclude that the answer to this, is no. And it’s time that the media did too.


Ryan King has worked in a number of countries across Asia in the education, technology, and entertainment fields, including as a professor of Asia-Pacific regional cooperation at Fudan University, China. His academic training has focused on the international relations of the Northeast Asia region.

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