Calls in US for NATO-like alliance in Indo-Pacific

Despite the many and varied threats to regional stability, analysts say there is little likelihood that the nations of the Indo-Pacific will come together in a local version of NATO

On 18 December, North Korea fired a long-range ballistic missile from a mobile launcher outside Pyongyang (photo: IANS)
On 18 December, North Korea fired a long-range ballistic missile from a mobile launcher outside Pyongyang (photo: IANS)


A group of conservative US politicians have proposed a bill to Congress that would establish a fact-finding panel as the first step in the creation of an Indo-Pacific version of NATO that could act as a deterrent against growing aggression in the region by China and North Korea.   

While there are many who agree the proposal could bring together like-minded nations in a military alliance, the broader sense is that the proposal is doomed to fail.

The Indo-Pacific Treaty Organization Act was submitted by Republican Rep. Mike Lawler of New York. "Our adversaries — China, Russia, Iran and North Korea — have forged an unholy alliance to disrupt and destabilize the globe," he said in a statement released by his office in early December.

"A collective security agreement has the potential to deter aggression and protect the forces of democracy in the Indo-Pacific," the statement added. "It is crucial that the democracies of the region and the world work in unison to combat this rising threat."

Challenges to peace and stability 

Recent events would seem to support Lawler's suggestion that there are growing challenges to peace and stability in the western Pacific, with China continuing its campaign of pressure on Taiwan ahead of the island's elections on January 13, and deploying naval assets to deter the Philippines navy from resupplying troops on an islet in the South China Sea that Beijing claims as its own.

On 14 December, South Korea scrambled fighters when two Chinese and four Russian military aircraft entered its Air Defense Identification Zone without warning. Japan also deployed air units over the Sea of Japan. 

On Monday, North Korea fired a long-range ballistic missilefrom a mobile launcher outside Pyongyang, with the weapon flying on a lofted trajectory before landing in the Sea of Japan, about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away. 

The missile was the fifth long-range missile that North Korea has launched so far this year, and the launch came one day after the North fired a short-range weapon that flew for a distance of 570 kilometers before splashing down. Immediately after the launch, the North Korean Defense Ministry condemned Washington's deployment of forces in the region and claimed recent talks between South Korea and the US were "an open declaration on nuclear confrontation."

But despite the many and varied threats to the stability of the region, analysts say there is very little likelihood that nations of the Indo-Pacific will come together in a local version of NATO. 

Political, bureaucratic 

"There has been talk of this sort of thing at times since the Cold War, but I do not think it will go much beyond an idea," said Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo.

"For one thing, there is a lack of trust among many of the governments in the region, even if we leave China and North Korea out, while other nations just do not see the need for a formalized institution like NATO here," he told DW.

"As an institution, NATO may look good, but it took decades to build to the level it is at today. It is very political and just as bureaucratic," he pointed out. "To many Asian nations, the hub-and-spoke approach to alliances looks much more appealing because it is flexible." 

There are numerous examples of bilateral or small-scale alliances across the region, he said, whether for economic or security reasons.

The Association of South East Asian Nations is a political and economic union of 10 states, for example, while Japan, South Korea and the US are about to complete a pact that will enable them to rapidly share information if North Korea launches a missile.

AUKUS focuses the attention of the US, Britain and Australia on security issues in the region, while the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, is similarly designed to bring together the US, Australia, India and Japan. 

Bilaterally, Japan recently signed an agreement to provide coastal patrol craft to both Malaysia and the Philippines, two nations that are in dispute with Beijing as it attempts to expand its area of control in the South China Sea, Hinata-Yamaguchi pointed out. 

Stephen Nagy, a professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University, said there was at present little likelihood of the many disparate nations of the region shaking off their political differences to such a point that they could become a bloc of comparable power to NATO.

"But that will be decided by China because if Beijing decides to become significantly more aggressive in the region, then anything could happen," he cautioned.

As things stand, however, China is using carrots as much as sticks to win over regional governments, with Chinese President Xi Jinping going to Hanoi for two days of talks with his Vietnamese counterpart Vo Vun Thuong from 12 December. The discussions went ahead despite the two nations being at loggerheads over disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Balancing act between China, US 

"Many countries in the region are delicately positioned between China and the US and many prefer to build multi-polar alliances instead of allying with Washington or Beijing," he said.

The trend, Nagy said, is towards "mini-lateralism" over multilateralism, with small groups of three or four nations that are aligned on a narrow issue cooperating towards that aim.

For others, however, an Indo-Pacific alliance along the lines of NATO would be the best solution to growing threats.

"I fully support the idea, although I realize it would be extremely difficult to create and operate such a security mechanism," said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of politics and international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.

"I think it would have the support of many smaller states in the region that are weaker individually but stronger together with their neighbors, such as the Philippines," he said. "And I do believe the foundations of such an organization are already in place. I see the Quad as being the basis of a regional alliance and I hope that in the years to come it welcomes more nations as partners."

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Published: 19 Dec 2023, 11:35 AM