Foreign and Defense Policy, Asia

Baby Steps Towards an Asian NATO

In our recent report on an Asian alliance structure for the 21st century—principally authored by my colleague Dan Blumenthal—we argued that in order to balance against China’s rising power, the United States should work towards a more tightly knit grouping of allies in Asia. We attempted to preempt the conventional counter-argument—that “the allies would never choose sides between the United States and China”—by pointing to the military modernization that is happening across the board in Asia: countries in East, Southeast, and South Asia are all fielding new, more modern capabilities in response to China’s own build-up. As we wrote, it looks to us as if “the allies have made a choice without being asked: they are balancing against China’s power.”

Writing for Foreign Policy, James Traub took issue with this conclusion:

The “Asian Alliances” report warns that “Asia’s future demands nothing less” than a new “shared strategic concept.” The web of Cold War alliances should give way to a military partnership among the United States, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, and others that would require a major increase in military spending and in military and intelligence cooperation. “[A]ny would-be aggressor” would be made to understand “that targeting one ally means invoking the ire of the rest.” It’s hard to believe that these states would agree to join such an explicitly anti-Chinese coalition. There’s also the danger that China would react by concluding that time was no longer on its side, thus turning the coalition into a devastatingly self-fulfilling prophecy.

While Traub’s concern is a reasonable one, evidence suggests that such a coalition is slowly beginning to form, even without direct U.S. participation. Today’s Wall Street Journal reports on a recent meeting of Japanese and Southeast Asian defense officials:

The relationship between Japan and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has “matured from dialogues to one where Japan plays a more specific cooperative role” on a range of regional security issues, Japanese Vice Minister of Defense Kimito Nakae said Thursday in Tokyo, the day after meeting with senior defense officials from the 10 Asean nations.

Mr. Nakae was speaking at the opening of a seminar on common security issues held the day after the annual defense meeting. Attended by representatives of Japan and Asean countries … the seminar this year prominently featured maritime issues…

Bolstering the possibility of establishing a wider multilateral strategic framework, Mr. Nakae said resolving the maritime problem requires stronger cooperation from Japan, the U.S., and others.

China’s growing naval confidence was the primary subject discussed by a panel of regional security experts during the session on “efforts to strengthen maritime security in the region.”…

Earlier this week, Japan and the Philippines tightened military and security ties, elevating the bilateral relationship to a “strategic partnership” in a joint statement signed by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Philippine President Benigno Aquino III in Tokyo.

In short, countries in Asia find themselves more and more worried about China’s rise and its increasingly aggressive behavior. They are beginning to coordinate their efforts to maintain peace in the region—and, notably, doing so without China’s participation, which they probably believe would be counter-productive.

This is no Asian NATO, not even close. But America’s friends in the region are taking baby steps in that direction.

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