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The Long History of the ‘NATO for Asia’ Idea

The proposal has been circulating since the early Cold War. Is the time finally right?

Ellen Bork

On August 31, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun floated the idea that the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, informally known as the Quad, might one day form the core of a larger Indo-Pacific organization of democracies. Biegun spoke tentatively, neither committing to nor ruling out the idea. The Indo-Pacific area lacks “strong multilateral structures” with the “fortitude” of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the European Union, he said, and “a new institution that reflects our shared interests and values in the Indo-Pacific” would be a “great accomplishment.” Joining such an effort would be an “easy” decision “from an American perspective.” While Biegun brushed back “loose talk about an Indo-Pacific NATO,” he at least embraced the NATO approach of starting small, then doubling in size. “As long as we keep the purpose right,” Biegun concluded, the idea is at least “worth exploring,” though it would happen only “if the other countries are as committed as the United States.”

It remains to be seen whether the idea of a multilateral alliance of democracies for Asia has a future, but it certainly has a past. In the 1950s, the United States rejected a multilateral strategic approach to security in the Indo-Pacific in favor of a web of bilateral alliances with allies and partners. This “hub and spokes” model was the product of strategic conditions that no longer exist. In fact, they have been superseded by new challenges that make a compelling case for a multilateral organization today.

Beginnings: Asia as Distraction

After World War II, U.S. leaders establishing NATO in response to the Soviet threat in Europe sought to avoid similar security commitments in Asia. Despite the Truman doctrine’s rhetoric about helping free people everywhere, President Harry Truman himself and many of his advisers, writes Victor D. Cha, viewed Asia with “deep ambivalence” or as a matter of “strategic irrelevance.” The Asian landmass had been written off. The question of “who lost China” was the subject of intense domestic debate, but that debate did not inspire efforts to reverse the situation.

A number of leading American statesmen assumed that South Korea and Taiwan would, like China, be lost to communism. Worse still, in the view of these officials, the United States could, if enmeshed in a NATO-type alliance in the region, be dragged into conflicts by Asian allies acting in pursuit of their own agendas. Cha, in Power Play, an account of the formation of America’s alliances in Asia, argues that American leaders designed a system of bilateral alliances precisely to exert leverage over allied leaders whom Washington believed harbored adventurist ambitions—like South Korean strongman Syngman Rhee, with his appetite for reopening the Korean conflict, or Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek, who harbored delusional hopes of retaking the Chinese mainland. U.S. leaders, writes Cha, also hoped that a bilateral relationship would bind Japan to the United States and fend off Soviet designs there. When these and other Asian leaders energetically and publicly pressed the Truman administration to create something like NATO in Asia, they were rebuffed.

Overtaken by History

Soon, though, with communism spreading into Southeast Asia, Washington did in 1954 create a multilateral organization, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). There too, as Michael J. Green writes in By More Than Providence, U.S. officials wished to avoid entrapment. They therefore created a “hollow” organization constrained by “red lines against aggression [that] were deliberately vague” and “collective security commitments and planning [that] were deliberately limited.”

Decades later, as the Cold War was ending, America’s strategic outlook changed dramatically, both globally and in the Indo-Pacific. In Asia, as democracy movements surged, Washington withdrew support from anti-communist dictators in the Philippines in 1986 and in South Korea in 1987. In Taiwan, at least in part to retain American support, Chiang Ching-kuo—the son and successor of Chiang Kai-shek—lifted martial law in 1987. This opening, with other reforms, led to democratic elections for the legislature in the early 1990s and direct democratic election of the president in 1996. In 1998, Suharto’s fall from power in Indonesia paved the way for democracy there.

So by the turn of the century, the main rationales for the bilateral hub-and-spokes model—the Soviet threat and wayward autocratic allies—no longer existed. Still, though democracy was an increasingly important component of Washington’s approach to the region, moving toward an alliance—or any coordinated body of democracies—was incompatible with another legacy of the Cold War. The rationale for Nixon’s diplomatic opening to China was originally to bolster America’s position in dealing with the Soviet Union. But as Aaron Friedberg writes in A Contest for Supremacy, the “elegant triangle” that Henry Kissinger had envisioned among the three countries soon

collapsed into a much simpler, two-sided form. . . . [T]he United States and China were drawn closer together. During the final phase of the Cold War, from the unraveling of the brief superpower detente that began in the mid-1970s, to the Soviet Union’s terminal crisis in the late 1980s, Washington and Beijing entered into what can perhaps best be described as a strategic alignment.

In other words, the approach to China was soon outdated. American policymakers imagined that the PRC’s economic opening, and the West’s engagement, trade, and even the Internet would lead to decisive change. Even after the CCP crushed the democracy movement in 1989, American officials from both political parties searched for a rationale for maintaining strong ties with the PRC, with the result that Washington would continue to minimize the PRC’s Marxist-Leninist ideology and tactics until recently.

Expectations Upended

In other words, Chinese communist leaders did not play the role they were assigned in America’s wishful narrative. The PRC, instead of becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the liberal democratic order, has harnessed the economic and military power it has amassed through stable relations with Washington to challenge that U.S.-led order.

Although the PRC’s challenge is global, it is driven by a quest to recover its imperial reach and grandeur within its own region. Since at least 2012, the CCP has increased its attention to its periphery, seeking, writes Jeffrey Reeves, a “China-centric regional network structure” whose goal is to lead peripheral states to “define their interests in line with Chinese interests, not in line with their neighboring states’ or sub-regional multilateral institutions’ interests.”

China’s focus on its periphery has an ideological component, somewhat vague in its articulation but unmistakably anti-democratic in its effect. The PRC long ago stopped exporting Marxist-Leninist revolution. Nor did Beijing play a role in the “Asian values” debate of the 1990s, in which autocrats like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia argued that Asians were culturally inclined to trade political and civil liberties in exchange for economic prosperity. PRC officials are now picking up this debate where it left off—and from a position of considerable military and economic strength. As Chinese leader Xi Jinping put it in 2017, China “offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence”—independence, that is, from censure by democracies. But the offer of aid and investment comes, like a Mafia don’s offer, with a hint of menace, frequently made to countries with weak and autocratic rulers or corruptible elites.

What Is to Be Done?

This is what the United States and its fellow Indo-Pacific democracies face. As for what they should do, the case for a multilateral organization of democracies could collapse if viewed through the prism of 20th-century Europe. Still, analogies to the Cold War are useful: They remind us of what is involved in a long military, economic, and ideological contest. It is important to draw distinctions, but those who deny an ideological continuity from Lenin, Marx, and Stalin to today’s CCP leaders are mistaken.

Similarly, NATO is such a well-known entity that naysayers may dismiss the idea of something similar for the Indo-Pacific before discussion has even begun. NATO is an important touchstone for any effort to consider options for the Indo-Pacific because it has shaped Americans’ perceptions of their country’s role in the world and the strengths, obligations, and value of alliances. According to Gary J. Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute, “People focus on the collective security commitment”—the principle, spelled out in Article 5 of the NATO treaty, by which the member states agree that an attack against one of them is an attack against all—but “what is unique” about NATO is its set of “political and military governing structures, the continuous planning and integrated commands.” These features, Schmitt told me, are not necessary to get started on another alliance of democracies. “What is necessary, however, is building the habits of working together to generate a level of trust that’s broader than just ties with the United States.”

While the contours of such an organization may remain flexible for now, there must be, before the effort goes much further, a binding a commitment to its principles and the qualifications for membership. Asia is replete with acronymic talk shops. Non-democracies, such as communist Vietnam, have ample opportunities to engage with other countries and to address their legitimate interests, like sovereignty. But countries like Vietnam would not be credible defenders of civil and political rights, the rule of law, or anti-corruption and transparency norms. Including a communist dictatorship in the new organization would undermine both the purpose of the grouping and the democracy movements that the United States and its allies should champion. The same would be true of including Thailand, long an American security ally but, since 2014, ruled by a former general, Prayuth Chan-ocha, who toppled a democratically elected government.

In a worst-case scenario, an organization that allowed non-democracies to be members would repeat the experience of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN’s lack of democratic standards and lowest-common-denominator, consensus-driven approach has left it wide open to Beijing’s influence. Even though China is not a member, its proxy, Cambodia—led by Hun Sen, one of the longest-ruling autocrats in the world—blocked an ASEAN push to censure the PRC in 2016 for its activities in the South China Sea. Even more important, diluting an alliance’s democratic character would enable the CCP to cast the group as “anti-China” rather than supportive of universal values.

For the same reason, any multilateral organization of democracies in the region must include Taiwan, the chief target of the PRC’s military build-up and coercive strategies. Rather than a burden, as it is often portrayed by proponents of warm ties with Beijing, Taiwan has emerged as an asset through its handling of COVID-19 and its resistance to PRC disinformation and other pressure campaigns. The Trump administration has loosened constraints on official interactions with Taiwan and considers Taipei among its “natural partners” in the effort to “uphold a free and open international order.”

India, by contrast, poses a problem. The largest democracy in the world, it is a linchpin in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, with access to strategically important sea lanes and a lengthy, disputed border with the PRC. Over the summer, both sides suffered losses in the deadliest violence across that border since the Sino-Indian war of 1962. However, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has recently seen increasing disregard for religious minorities, the deterioration of press and academic freedoms, and the suppression of protests. In the latest annual report from Freedom House, India received “the largest score decline among the world’s largest 25 democracies.” Freedom House’s Arch Puddington worries that Modi’s behavior fits the pattern of leaders with autocratic ambitions “who won power through the ballot and then transformed their democracy into an illiberal state or worse—Orbán, Erdoğan, or even Chávez.” Such leaders, Puddington told me, “move strategically and cautiously in their first years but become more ambitious and opportunistic as they accumulate power. They become especially aggressive once they believe that opposition has grown enfeebled and presents no serious challenge. This is precisely what is happening in India now.”

Joining Together to Slow Democratic Backsliding

American credibility matters most of all. No administration has done more to address longstanding flaws in U.S. China policy than the Trump administration. Central to its approach has been the focus on the PRC’s political system—its enduring Marxism-Leninism at home, the global challenge it is mounting against democracy abroad, and making an often overlooked distinction between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people. Yet President Trump himself expresses admiration, even “love,” for dictators; approves of the mass detention of Uighurs (even as his administration has imposed sanctions on China because of it); and undermines rather than builds confidence in American democracy, refusing to say what usually goes without saying: that he will respect the results of the November 3 election.

On the matter of democratic multilateralism, Trump has also been unprincipled, suggesting reconstituting the G-7 as a G-11—bringing back Russia, which was expelled from the G-7 after the invasion of Crimea, and adding Australia, India, and South Korea. Not surprisingly, that idea has failed to gain traction among America’s allies, but another, the D-10, pitched by Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, has. This proposed alliance of democracies is premised on the need for alternatives to PRC dominance in supply chains and telecommunications infrastructure. The D-10 “shows promise and real momentum towards a democratic grouping that can tackle a variety of challenges, including those posed by an increasingly powerful China,” David O. Shullman told me. Shullman, a senior adviser at the International Republican Institute, argues that a D-10—or other grouping with a wide membership that includes Europe—could tackle a broader agenda of issues than an Indo-Pacific alliance, which, explicitly or not, would be seen as organized to counter China. Expanding the group would make it more likely that countries skittish about openly countering China would join.

There is no shortage of options or of support for democratic multilateralism. If elected in November, former Vice President Joe Biden has committed to convening a Summit for Democracy, “to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda”—primarily “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.”

Biden’s concept is worthwhile, albeit very broad. At some point, however, the issue comes down to the willingness of democracies to counter the PRC and its ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. Most observers no longer doubt that the Quad, despite having stalled for a time, will last, even as there are changes at the political top in the four participating countries. The Japanese prime minister who was a leading architect of the Quad more than a dozen years ago, Shinzo Abe, stepped down last month, but the Quad foreign ministers met in Japan on October 6. The fact that the personalities matter less than a country’s political system is precisely the point—and a stark contrast to the PRC, where Xi Jinping has cleared away even the customary limit on presidential terms. (Neither his position as general secretary of the CCP nor his command of the military is term-limited.)  While in Tokyo for the meeting, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke of institutionalizing the Quad and expanding it “at the appropriate time.”

Alliances develop habits and behaviors, shaping the way states interact and reflecting the values upon which they are founded. With democracy comes change, as the people exert their political will. But even while democratic leaders come and go, as one senior State Department official told me after requesting anonymity, “they all face the same continuity, the immutable reality”—that “China hasn’t changed since 1949 in a very fundamental way.”

Ellen Bork, an American Purpose contributing editor, writes about American foreign policy with a focus on the Indo-Pacific, democracy, and human rights.