HAN LUYING/FOR CHINA DAILY
Many column inches have been written of late about the inevitability of an "Asian NATO "being constructed to "counteract" the rise of China. The continued meetings of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad, and the military agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States have reinforced this perception, especially in the Western media. But this talk, and much of the underlying logic, is focused on two key pillars of misunderstanding: an ignorance of why the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been so successful, and an unwillingness to look at the failure of similar organizations worldwide, especially in Asia.
In the early 1950s, with the Cold War well underway, the foreign policy of the US was focused on containment of the Soviet Union, and it began constructing what a modern US commentator might refer to as a "Chain of Freedom". This chain was to 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. These alliances would be linked together by the overlapping membership of border states in two alliances at once, and would be supported from the rear by the five nations of the Anglosphere--the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. 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.
While NATO still exists, SEATO was disbanded in 1977, 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 predictions about the success of recent attempts to establish such an alliance against China, which, for the sake of needing a name, I shall call Quad plus.
First, let us look at the only successful alliance. NATO was formed by a group of countries that came from a similar sociopolitical background, most of which were dealing with their diminished world position following the collapse of their empires. This huge sea change, coupled with their recent shared experience of devastating warfare and perception of a common threat on their far eastern periphery, left them in dire need of US military and economic aid. It should not be a surprise that NATO worked out as well as it did.
By contrast, none of this is true in the Indo-Pacific. The current Quad members of the US, Japan, Australia, and India have very little in common, except a vague, manufactured concept of "China is scary". The members of AUKUS may share a common heritage, but they do not, in any sense, have any shared interests on the other side of the world.
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 (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 in Southeast Asia. Furthermore, both of the two alliances experienced catastrophic defeats early on, with the Soviet Union leapfrogging CENTO and establishing relationships on the other side of the chain, and the defeat of US military in Vietnam undermining SEATO.
Any attempt to build a Quad plus will surely face these same issues. It seems unlikely that the big military spenders will spill treasure to build military bases in the region to "defend" the interests of 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 has already spread far past any potential line a Quad plus might seek to draw on a map. Furthermore, the initiative has been received incredibly well by the countries that it has stretched to, meaning drawing them into a Quad plus is highly unlikely.
Finally, we should consider the one that got away--NEATO. This proposed alliance would have tied together the US' bilateral security arrangements with Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the Philippines into a single organization. These details are vital for understanding its failure to launch. First, the two key Asian members--Japan and the ROK--suffer from deep and unresolved trust issues, mostly dating back to Japanese colonization of the peninsula in the 1940s, leaving them unwilling to work together in a formal capacity. Furthermore, both of them have deep historical links to China. They didn't view China as a threat the way the US did. Neither of them wished to alienate a potential economic partner, something that joining a deliberately provocative alliance would have done.
It is in this final assessment that we should see how doomed a Quad plus project would be. Relations between some of these nations have barely improved since the failures described above. In addition, considering China's increased diplomatic and economic heft, nations across the Indo-Pacific have to ask themselves: do they want to side with countries that have no stake in the region, against a key economic partner who happens to be also the dominant economic and military power in the region, and find themselves on the wrong side of history? Anyone with a good handle on history will conclude that the answer is no.
The author is a writer and a lecturer at the Department of Marketing of the Business School at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and at the Rita Tong Liu School of Business and Hospitality Management at Caritas Institute of Higher Education.
The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
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