Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is meeting Tuesday with his Japanese, Indian, and Australian counterparts in Tokyo – the “Quad” countries currently closely cooperating in Asia to counter China. The Trump administration recently raised the idea of expanding the loose coalition into the core of a new “Asian NATO” to better face the increasingly belligerent Chinese dragon.
According to the Washington Times, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun suggested at a U.S.-Indian strategic dialogue on August 31 that the Quad could be the beginning of a NATO-style alliance in Asia.
“It’s something that I think in the second term of the Trump administration or, were the president not to win, the first term of the next president, it could be something that would be very much worthwhile to be explored,” said Biegun.
During the Cold War with the Soviet Union the U.S. helped create numerous alliances to encircle and contain the USSR. One of those was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Europe – also known as the Transatlantic Alliance – which continues successfully to this day.
Another was the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) created to block further communist gains in Southeast Asia.
SEATO would be closer parallel to any current efforts against China, but it is generally considered a failure because internal conflicts hampered the use of any SEATO military forces before it was disbanded in 1977. NATO is therefore the better role model.
The Quad nations, under U.S. leadership, have recently increased joint military exercises in the face of Chinese hostility and expansion, but some argue that talk of an Asian NATO is still premature. All of the Asian members of the Quad have historically been wary of confronting China too directly out of fear of economic and other reprisals.
Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Japan, notes, according to the Washington Times, that, “A shared threat perception of China does not mean shared views on what to do and if it’s possible to build the Quad into something along the lines of NATO.”
However, as the Times reports, “The Trump administration is keen to seize upon regional unease over China’s construction of military bases on artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea, as well as Beijing’s growing use of ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy and its crackdown on domestic dissent in places such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang.”
And the administration’s efforts may be paying off. Australia has taken a particularly strong position against China and is working very closely with America. Japan has significantly boosted defense spending and military cooperation with the United States, and India – generally skeptical of military alliances, has done the same.
Japan’s hosting the ministerial meeting today, just days after the new Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, took office, “is seen as a sign that Tokyo may be warming to the idea,” noted the Times.
New Delhi’s thinking may also be changing due to the bloody border clashes with Chinese military in the Himalayas.
Daniel S. Markey, a former State Department official now at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said to the Times that the border conflict and crackdown on Hong Kong “may be shifting attitudes in India” and that “makes the American job of convincing Indians that China is a threat easier.”
Perhaps a much-needed Asian NATO is not as premature as some believe.