By Vincenzo Caporale
In late April, it was reported that Admiral John Aquilino of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “was a pretty good model for Indo-Pacific nations that value freedom.”
This declaration at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi was in response to Chinese fears that the goal of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy is to develop a NATO equivalent in the region. Admiral Aquilino did not make this comment in a vacuum, but rather in the context of the ongoing great power competition between the United States and China.
These circumstances are like the geopolitical context that bred NATO. Like the Soviet Union, China is a peer competitor with the United States that has an alternative vision for the international system. The Indo-Pacific (especially Southeast Asia), like Europe, is the main battleground for these competing superpowers. Nevertheless, NATO is not a good model for the Indo-Pacific, particularly in Southeast Asia.
NATO Worked, But SEATO Didn’t
Given NATO’s success throughout the Cold War, it is easy to understand the rationale behind the admiral’s comment. NATO’s effectiveness is evidenced by its durability. Despite the profound disagreements between member states, it has survived for over seventy years and is even experiencing a resurgence in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Its success is also indicated by the leadership it displayed when confronted with rising security threats, such as the deployment of Soviet SS-20 missiles within striking distance of Western Europe in 1979. The alliance deployed new nuclear and cruise missiles that forced the Soviet Union into successful arm control negotiations.
Yet, despite this evident success, replicating NATO in the Indo-Pacific and especially in Southeast Asia would fail. The United States’ previous attempt at an Asian version of NATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), during the Cold War serves as an illustrative analog.
In 1954, the United States and its allies in Asia met in Manila to establish SEATO through the “Manilla Pact,” applying the NATO model to Asia to act as a bulwark against communism.
However, the alliance was bound to fail. The only Southeast Asian countries that signed onto the alliance were the Philippines and Thailand—staunch U.S allies. The remaining members were from Western Europe (France and the United Kingdom), Asia (Pakistan) and Oceania (New Zealand and Australia).
These countries’ contribution to mutual defense was limited, given that most of the members were either too underdeveloped or preoccupied with Europe to seriously commit to robust mutual protection. The absence of central command and an “Article Five Clause”—the section in the NATO Constitution that lays out collective defense obligations—reflected this lack of sincere joint defense.
Unsurprisingly, the alliance was dissolved just two decades later with little success to claim.
No “Us vs. Them” Desire in Asia
Of course, this was nearly sixty years ago. The geopolitical environment in the Indo-Pacific is vastly different now. Still, the primary reason that SEATO failed is still why its equivalent would not succeed today.
As Louis Gentilucci writes, “It was [a] failure to distinguish the needs of Southeast Asia from the needs of Europe that would destroy SEATO.”
In other words, Southeast Asia’s needs were distinct from Europe’s needs. NATO was a solution to Europe’s needs, but not a one-size-fits-all solution that applied to Southeast Asia. Most telling, Gentilucci argues that the alliance required a Cold War “us versus them” mentality that was absent in the region.
Today, the same applies: Southeast Asia has no current appetite for an “us vs. them” mentality.
Consider the findings of the 2022 State of Southeast Asia survey of the region’s top academics, government officials and business leaders. Researchers asked how the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should respond “[if] ASEAN is caught in the crossfire as Beijing and Washington compete for influence and leadership in Southeast Asia.”
Only 11.1% of respondents believed that remaining neutral is impractical. In comparison, 72.7% believe the best response would be for ASEAN to either enhance its resilience or stay neutral.
Meanwhile, pushing for a massive security alliance would confirm the frustrations that many in the region have with the United States and its Indo-Pacific policy. The region views the United States’ interest as overly focused on security and not enough on Southeast Asia’s primary interests of economic engagement and development.
As the former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani stresses, “at the end of the day, [trade is] the most important statistic to watch.” It’s “not how many submarines you have in the region,” added Mahbubabi, “it’s how much trade you do with the region.”
More than any other area, China has leapfrogged the United States in trade with Southeast Asia. In 2020, Chinese trade with Southeast Asia totaled $685.28 billion. American trade to the same market equaled $362.2 billion.
This decline in United States trade with Southeast Asia is reinforced by the American decision to exit and not join the two largest trade pacts in Asia—the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
America Should Focus on Winning Friends Through Development
Nonetheless, the United States and Southeast Asia have aligned strategic interests regarding China. Both parties share anxieties about China’s growth and intentions.
In the previously mentioned State of Southeast Asia survey, when researchers asked respondents about circumstances that forced ASEAN to align with either China or the United States, an overwhelming 57% chose the United States. Similarly, 58% of respondents had no confidence or little confidence in China to “do the right thing to contribute to global peace, security, prosperity, and governance.”
Tapping into this distrust of China in Southeast Asia requires the United States to tailor its Indo-Pacific policy to the needs of the region’s inhabitants. Prioritizing those needs means that Washington’s focus needs to be on development, not a massive security alliance that forces the countries to choose between China and the United States.
To its credit, the Biden administration has attempted to expand beyond the “us vs. them” mindset to engage the region. It has been instrumental in the area’s fight against COVID-19 through its vaccine donations and supportive of infrastructure development with the Build Back Better World initiative.
The Mekong-U.S. Partnership has promoted cooperation on issues related to the Mekong Delta and President Biden is hosting a special ASEAN-U.S. summit later this month. His administration even lists expanding economic engagement in the region as one of the five pillars of its Indo-Pacific policy.
Yet, comments like the one by Admiral Aquilino undercut the confidence built by these other measures. If the United States wants to increase its engagement in Southeast Asia as a balance against China, it must pursue policies that address both its own and the region’s needs.
Southeast Asia wants to manage China’s growth, not be pressured into a situation where it must choose sides. At the same time, it wants to limit China’s leverage over the region by hedging against Chinese aggression through an American-backed security architecture.
The United States can achieve its goals by maintaining a military presence and developing bilateral security relationships that don’t require Southeast Asia to pick sides (as establishing a NATO equivalent would require). These relationships should service Southeast Asia’s needs by focusing on pandemic resistance, economic engagement, investment and development.
Put simply, NATO is the wrong idea for the Indo-Pacific. The sooner American policymakers drop any pretense of creating such an organization, the sooner American policy in the region will become more effective.
Vincenzo Caporale is the Review’s newest contributor. A graduate of the University of California Berkeley and the University of Cambridge, Vincenzo has previously written for The Borgen Project and The National Interest.