Commentary / Japan

Falling short of a 'NATO' for the Indo-Pacific

by Kuni Miyake

Facing a serious threat from a major adversary at the time, a U.S. president told a joint session of Congress that, “it must be the policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

An acting U.S. secretary of defense rejected “actors (who) undermine the system by using indirect, incremental actions and rhetorical devices to exploit others economically and diplomatically and coerce them militarily. They destabilize the region, seeking to reorder its vibrant and diverse communities toward their exclusive advantage.”

The first statement was made by Harry S. Truman on March 12, 1947. He asserted that if totalitarian regimes coerced nations of freedom and democracy, they would automatically represent a threat to international peace as well as the national security of the U.S. Of course, he was referring to the Soviet Union. But his statement resonates with the second one, made by Patrick M. Shanahan last Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Naturally Shanahan was referring to China without naming it. His speech was the second in a series on the U.S. “Indo-Pacific strategy.” His predecessor James Mattis delivered the first one the year before.

Speaking for the first time in the annual Asia security summit, IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2019, Shanahan gave a 40-minute speech in front of ministers, high-ranking officials and other national security experts from various nations in the Indo-Pacific including defense ministers from Japan, China and South Korea. His remarks included:

Reaffirming the enduring U.S. commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.

Stating that the U.S. is a Pacific nation and the Indo-Pacific is its priority theater.

Asserting that no one nation can — or should — dominate the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP).

Stating that the U.S. rejects actions that run counter to the order we have built together.

Those, however, sounded basically the same as the statements made a year ago. No wonder a Washington Post journalist asked Shanahan whether the defense secretaries are making the same speeches every year because allies in the region continue to doubt the U.S. commitment and this remains the case especially under the administration of President Donald Trump.

Looking slightly offended, Shanahan answered, “The fundamental resourcing for this strategy is different than the past. In the past we had strategies, but we didn’t have the resources and funding.” He also said, “We’re not going to ignore Chinese behavior and I think in the past people have kind of tiptoed around that.”

In his speech, Shanahan detailed two issues that Mattis did not discuss last year. First, he criticized specific Chinese behavior that he called “a toolkit of coercion.” Second, he referred to strong bipartisan congressional support for the Indo-Pacific strategy’s budget and resources.

The Chinese toolkit of coercion includes:

Deploying advanced weapons systems to militarize disputed areas.

Using influence operations in other nations’ domestic politics.

Engaging in predatory economics and sovereign debt deals.

Promoting state-sponsored theft of other nations’ military and civilian technologies.

On the budget, Shanahan said that “the strategy is much more than words. The strategy underpins the department’s budget and drives our resourcing. We have more than a strategy. We have a plan.” Then he discussed five-year plans to upgrade space, cyber, undersea warfare, tactical aircraft, command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) and missile defense capabilities.

Who do you think is right, Shanahan or The Washington Post? Maybe both are right, and both are wrong. Seen from Tokyo, what is more important, however, is the future of the Indo-Pacific strategy. The Truman Doctrine led to the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in April 1949. Will the U.S. eventually seek to establish a NATO-like alliance network in the Indo-Pacific? Is an Indo-Pacific Treaty Organization (IPTO) feasible? Hardly now, but what about in five to 10 years? If Beijing continues to use its toolkit to change the status-quo in the Indo-Pacific region, we may have to consider it.

It may be premature to discuss that possibility now but the following is my take on this far-reaching intellectual challenge:

1. Does the U.S. want an IPTO? I doubt it. Even NATO, established in the late 1940s when the Cold War started in Europe, is not functioning. Remember, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization was created in 1954 but dissolved in 1977.

2. Would Japan want to join an IPTO? To join a full-fledged multilateral mutual security treaty organization, it may need to amend its Constitution. It is also unknown whether it would welcome an international system to jointly deal with Chinese threats.

3. What about other U.S. regional allies? Australia might joint an IPTO while South Korea and the Philippines may find it difficult to be part of the organization for fear of antagonizing Beijing.

4. What about U.S. partners in Southeast Asia? Many ASEAN nations may be reluctant to join or closely work with an IPTO for similar reasons. Laos and Cambodia? Forget it. Even Vietnam may find it almost impossible.

5. Would India ultimately join an IPTO? No. India has the “Nonalignment 2.0” policy and we cannot expect its accession to an IPTO in the foreseeable future.

6. If an IPTO is not feasible, what else can we expect? Conventional wisdom tells us that any form of an IPTO is an unreachable dream for some time. What we can do is to make the emerging multilateral security network in the Indo-Pacific region as functional and workable as practically possible.

If Washington and its allies act in haste, Beijing could easily take advantage of, divide and even destroy, to their advantage, the new U.S.-led regional security network which is still in embryonic form — and very fragile as a multilateral entity. For the FOIP strategy to survive, we need a stable and consistent administration in Washington.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.

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