Does an "Asian NATO" serve US interests?

Prime Minister Abe has made his speech in New Delhi, visited the descendants of Subhas Chandra Bose and Radhabinod Pal (the judge who criticized the Tokyo tribunal from before it began, making him a favorite of Japan’s right), and is now off to Malaysia on the last leg of his Asian tour.

But what of the consequences of his flighty rhetoric at the Indian Parliament, in which he spoke “on behalf of the citizens of another democracy that is equally representing Asia” and called for an Indo-Japan “Strategic Global Partnership” that will be embedded in “an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States of America and Australia. Open and transparent, this network will allow people, goods, capital, and knowledge to flow freely.” The partnership will also, of course, “carry out the pursuit of freedom and prosperity in the region” and will serve as a basis for both to defend “vital interests in the security of sea lanes.”

Both Asahi and Yomiuri editorialize on Mr. Abe’s address today. Yomiuri, of course, is full of praise for the young prime minister and the multi-faceted agreements reached in discussions with Prime Minister Singh, encapsulated in the massive joint statement they released. Asahi, however, refuses to take the prime minister’s rhetoric at face value, suggesting that for all the glories of the “confluence of the two seas” the partnership might not be nearly the confluence of national interests that the prime minister thinks.

Asahi also pauses to consider what impact the deepening ties between India, Japan, Australia, and the US — set to deepen further with a US-Japan-Australia security summit scheduled for September 8th in Sydney — will have on each country’s relations with China. Prime Minister Abe and Foreign Minister Aso have been enthusiastic supporters of deeper relations among the region’s democracy, perhaps more enthusiastic than any of their counterparts. But Asahi has the prime minister’s number: “From the first, Prime Minister Abe’s values diplomacy has been tinged with the color of encirclement of China.”

This is my concern.

It has become increasingly popular to look at East Asia as the equivalent of Europe in the decades leading up to World War I, characterized by increasingly prosperous, nationalistic states channeling more of their wealth into their militaries, with numerous potential conflict points. (Former Australian prime minister Paul Keating has essentially just made this argument to demand that next month’s Australia APEC summit address the Northeast Asian arms race.) But the World War I analogy is too facile. Of course there are similarities, not least in the form of China, in which the PLA, like the Imperial German Army in Wilhelmine Germany, has an unknown but in all likelihood outsized and unconstrained role in national policy making. But that similarity should give pause to supporters of a community of Asian democracies that has a significant security component. As in prewar Europe, military cooperation that appears to encircle China will bolster the more hawkish elements of the PLA, potentially leading Chinese foreign policy down a dangerously confrontational path. The US, Australia, and Japan must do everything in their power to avoid giving the impression of forming a coalition to contain China.

The reality is that wise and prudent leadership in the region, not least by the US, can greatly diminish the potential for conflict in the region. For all the concerns raised by the ongoing Asian arms race — it’s by no means just China and Japan — the region’s flashpoints, most significantly the Taiwan Straits and the Korean Peninsula, are manageable, and may even resolve themselves over the long term. But all powers must recognize the role the US has played in the post-cold war era in dampening security tensions throughout the region, in spite of growing arms expenditures. With the end of the cold war the US transitioned relatively smoothly from focusing on containment to focusing on its role as a security provider for the whole region. While many have suspected that the US Military’s post-cold war Asian presence was based on the idea of China has a replacement for the Soviet Union, the PLA is to this day a poor substitute for the Red Army — and China’s heady embrace of capitalism and pronounced aspirations to become a responsible great power suggest that the (tacit or overt) containment of China would be a futile mission.

But now it seems that Mr. Abe would rather the US “choose sides” in Asia, converting the US military presence from the ultimate guarantor of peace and stability to the core of an Asian NATO that will fight for freedom and democracy in Asia. (Of course, he has sympathizers in Washington and Canberra.)

The US must above all be on the side of stability, and its alliances are useful only insofar as they stabilize the region.

Admittedly, part of the problem is that technological change has had political consequences. With the US Military’s growing sophistication, even NATO allies have had a hard time fighting alongside the US. Imagine the US trying to achieve interoperability on the fly with ad-hoc allies (like India) in the event of the worst-case scenarios coming to pass in East Asia — for which the US would be irresponsible not to prepare. But it’s a thin line between conducting exercises to enhance military-to-military cooperation and assembling what looks an awful lot like a coalition to contain China, as USPACOM is discovering in the run-up to its planned exercises with Indian Navy. I give Admiral Keating credit for trying to dispel the impression of a balancing coalition, but his efforts need more backing from Washington.

The US must step back and consider its Asian vocation. What role should the US play in the region over the coming decades? Is a militarized community of Asian democracies in the interests of the US? Or should the US be ramping up its efforts as a dispassionate offshore balancer that abjures from causes and crusades and makes the maintenance of a stable security environment its profession?

One thought on “Does an "Asian NATO" serve US interests?

  1. Anonymous

    The answer to the question in your title is…. \”No, I don\’t think so.\”NATO originally and specifically tied together the legacy of the Royal Navy (navies of the US, UK, Canada) along with the few European navies that had real capability (the Dutch and the Spanish), and access to Norway\’s territory, in order to prevent the USSR from using the North Atlantic successfully. In other words, it was a military solution to a real military problem. (Yes, NATO over the years grew and took on other roles, but its number one purpose still remained to block Russian military capability via the Atlantic.)I can see no real parallel today to East Asia or SE Asia. Indeed, any such treaty in the region (as proposed by Abe) would only be reasonable if a similar strategy was applied in order to keep China from using the waters off East Asia.There simply would be no other purpose for such a treaty. There already exists in place agreements to deal with piracy and military problems to the shipping lanes in the region.I wonder if Abe or anyone around him realizes how his proposals truly look to someone on the outside?It is hard for me to imagine it being the US\’ best interest to add to the polarity in the region. Not that Chinese nationalism won\’t be a problem in the future, but given the sway Free-traders have in American politics it will take some pretty egregious moves by China to make the US take a tougher stand militarily against China.There is simply no way around the problem of Japan… which is, Japan (whether the general populace or the leadership) doesn\’t really know what it wants to be in the 21st century. It appears the best it can come up with is \’We don\’t want to be China.\’ Speaking as an American who rather likes Japan (and many things Japanese), that goal (of Japan not being China) simply has no relevance to the US.

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