China Is a Challenge, But an Asian NATO Is Not the Answer

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continues to undermine President Donald Trump’s "America First" agenda by promoting ever-expanding military commitments around the globe. Pompeo’s latest interventionist fling occurred last week when he attended the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, in Tokyo.

Also present were representatives of Australia, India, and Japan. This international meet-up was unashamedly directed against China. Pompeo urged participants to protect their people from Beijing’s "exploitation, corruption and coercion." He and Australia’s foreign minister reportedly discussed "China’s malign activity in the region."

Moreover, the administration indicated that it hoped the Quad would lead to much more, perhaps even an Asian NATO. In August Deputy Secretary of State Steve Biegun attended the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum, at which he lamented that "The Indo-Pacific region is actually lacking in strong multilateral structures." He urged the Quad to expand its membership: "I think there’s plenty of reason to bring other countries into this discussion as well." Indeed, he hoped "to create a critical mass around the shared values and interests of those parties in a manner that attracts more countries in the Indo-Pacific and even from around the world."

Pointing out that "even NATO started with relatively modest expectations," the administration said its objective is to create barriers to "a potential challenge from China." However, an Asian military alliance against the People’s Republic of China is unlikely to draw aspirants from Europe or Africa. Members from South Asia seem only slightly more plausible.

The Asia-Pacific remains the most likely source of applicants to an expanded organization. Besides the other three Quad members, South Korea, New Zealand, and Vietnam appeared to top Biegun’s list. Other imagined prospective members included Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore.

Yet such hopes seem wildly unrealistic. Even the current Quad members are primarily interested in enhancing military cooperation, not creating a military organization. Opined Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center: "the Quad nations are not interested in an alliance. They see the Quad as a stepping stone to operational maritime security cooperation, but outside of the alliance system in which the U.S. has traditionally embedded its military cooperation with its closest defense partners."

In fact, a Washington-dominated Asian military alliance is a bad idea. Substantial differences among America’s many security clients long precluded formation of an enduring regional security structure. During the Cold War the US fought two major Asian wars without support from a formal, multilateral military organization. In 1954 Washington joined France and the United Kingdom in establishing the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, or SEATO, with local defense clients, but it never amounted to much. The entity formally dissolved in 1977 after the withdrawal of several members. Today a Washington-dominated Asian alliance would be no more appropriate.

First, the US is not threatened militarily by China. No one imagines that a nonexistent Chinese carrier group is going to descend upon Hawaii, conquer the islands, and then head toward the West Coast. There is no evidence that the Chinese Communist Party has such ambitions. Anyway, Beijing would have little success even after an enormous military buildup. Such is the disparity in cost between projecting power across the Pacific and deterring such an attack. Which correspondingly limits Washington’s military options against the PRC.

At stake in East Asia is American influence rather than security. A challenge to the former is not unimportant but is very different than a military threat against the US proper. China poses no meaningful danger to America’s territory, population, prosperity, liberties, or constitutional order. Instead, Beijing is resisting Washington’s attempt to effectively impose the Monroe Doctrine in Asia, that is, to dominate the region up to China’s border.

Ruling the world may seem reasonable, even natural, to Americans. However, imagine Washington’s reaction if the PRC attempted to do something similar in the Western Hemisphere, sending its navy up the East Coast and into the Caribbean, forging an alliance with Cuba, and constantly talking of the possibility of war with the US Americans’ response would be defiance, not acquiescence. Which helps explain Beijing’s resistance to Washington’s efforts. The cost to America of projecting sufficient power to overwhelm China in its own neighborhood is far greater than any benefit in doing so.

Second, America’s friends and partners in Asia already are too dependent militarily on the US Biegun allowed that a formal alliance "only will happen if the other countries are as committed as the United States," but none demonstrate anything close to such determination. For instance, while there is little prospect of a PRC attempt to conquer Japan, conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is possible. Why, then, does Tokyo continue to spend just one percent of its GDP on its military? With that minimal contribution Japan still has created competent, high-tech armed forces. Imagine if it devoted two, three, or four times as much, equivalent to America’s burden. There would be far less mewling in Tokyo and Washington about a Chinese military threat.

Of course, it is not for the US to tell the Japanese people how much to devote to their military. History continues to weigh on regional relationships. However, World War II is 75 years in the past. Today the PRC is the most dangerous neighborhood power. The Japanese should not expect America to defend them when they are unwilling to create the armed forces necessary to deter Chinese adventurism.

The case of South Korea is even more dramatic. With more than 50 times the economic strength and twice the population of North Korea, Seoul could easily defend itself from that antagonist. The South already is constructing a Blue Water navy, which could cooperate with its neighbors’ forces against Beijing. Australia deploys a fine military that could be expanded. The Philippines, in contrast, is greatly deficient militarily. However, it is unlikely to do more so long as it expects to borrow the American navy to fight China over disputed shoals, islets, and other bits of rock of no importance to the US

Third, the differences among Asian neighbors are greater than in Europe, where alliance members have been cooperating closely for decades. Then there is the necessity of dealing with the PRC, which is far more integrated economically in the region than the Soviet Union ever was in Europe. Observed Narushige Michishita of Tokyo’s Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies: "While we talk about the Quad, some people express their concern about what China might think about it." Actually, we know what Beijing would think about it.

Consider countries with substantial ethnic Chinese populations: Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. They and others in Asia have close economic ties with the PRC and know they will forever be Beijing’s neighbors. None want to gratuitously make an enemy of China. None would fight on behalf of the latter’s most likely military target, Taiwan.

India favors multilateral naval cooperation in Southeast Asia and seeks US support in the Indian Ocean and along its land border with China. However, Delhi isn’t going to subjugate itself to Washington. The Republic of Korea refused to even criticize Beijing over repression in Hong Kong. Seoul likely won’t commit national suicide on behalf of Japan, let alone Taiwan.

Under President Rodrigo Duterte Manila’s policy toward the PRC has oscillated wildly, with the mercurial demagogue demanding war one week and requesting China to exercise financial suzerainty the next week. Countries as diverse as Vietnam, Australia, and Thailand have carefully balanced their relations between China and America.

Of course, more threatening Chinese behavior could push countries toward the US However, much more menacing behavior likely would be necessary to convince them to ally with America. Countries would have to believe that the PRC was seriously threatening their independence before they would risk military confrontation. Becoming a forever enemy of one’s economically important permanent neighbor over small security stakes would not be good for regime preservation.

Finally, like every other U.S.-dominated alliance, members of an Asian NATO would expect Washington to do all the heavy lifting. With a legal guarantee of Americans’ readiness to go to war on their behalf, governments like Japan, which has started doing more out of concern over the durability of Washington’s commitment, would inevitably slack off militarily. In a real war against the PRC the US would be expected to do most of the fighting. Bomb the mainland? Break a blockade? Withstand missile attack? Counter nuclear threat? Call Uncle Sam!

Such a burden would be a bad deal for the US at any time. Washington already is overburdened. Americans are expected to defend prosperous and populous Europeans, who prefer to fund generous welfare states than maintain effective armed forces; protect rich repressive royals throughout the Middle East, whose people refuse to risk their lives for licentious, extravagant elites; alternatively wage war and practice nation-building in Mideast nations which matter ever less to the US; and safeguard Asian nations which consistently underinvest in their own defense. Creating an Asian NATO would exacerbate Washington’s fiscal burdens and military responsibilities without offering any commensurate security benefits.

Yet Washington is effectively bankrupt. It just rang up a $3.13 trillion deficit for the 2020 fiscal year; its total debt already is greater than America’s GDP. The "COVID recession" will end up costing between $8 trillion and $16 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office recently warned that the US may end up owing between 150 percent and 200 percent of GDP by 2050. Washington desperately needs to shed, not add, defense responsibilities. Americans cannot continue to defend Asia, Europe, and the Middle East while allied states focus on domestic priorities.

Failing to offer other nations a full-service security guarantee does not mean refusing to cooperate when appropriate. Washington should promote economic ties and freer trade: killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership was one of Trump’s biggest mistakes. The US also could work with other states, including India, to preserve freedom of navigation, which benefits all.

However, America should act as an offshore balancer rather than on-site meddler, ready to act only if necessary to counteract a dangerous and decisive shift in Asia’s balance of power. That seems highly unlikely at present, with the PRC surrounded by nations with which it has been at war in recent decades: Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. And threatening behavior would become even less likely if other nations did more on their own behalf, as is likely if they no longer could depend on the US

Washington also should intensively engage China to ensure that their disagreements do not result in military confrontation. Defense Secretary Mark Esper contended that America had an "amazing amount at stake" in the Indo-Pacific. However, violent conflict also would put an "amazing amount at stake." Even important interests typically are not worth war with a nuclear-armed great power.

The U.S.-dominated alliances and US military commitments that arose after World War II belong to another era. As China has grown more threatening in the Asia-Pacific, so has the need for America’s friends and allies to take over responsibility for their own protection. Yet a formal Asian NATO would discourage them from doing so.

Worse, such an organization would not improve American security. Rather than create new enemies and take on new responsibilities, Washington should emphasize fixing problems at home: creating a freer, more prosperous America which better shared the rewards of success and prosperity with all. US allies should get off the defense dole and begin acting as the serious powers they have, or could, become.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of a number of books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.