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Indo-Pacific NATO: A Pipe Dream

Sep 16, 2020
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

A few days ago, in an online interview on the sidelines of the annual U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum, the No. 2 man in the U.S. State Department, Stephen Biegun, proposed to “formalize” the quadrilateral security dialogue and establish a closer relationship modeled on the lines of NATO.

“It is a reality that the Indo-Pacific region is actually lacking in strong multilateral structures,” Biegun said.

The strategy of the United States for the Indo-Pacific region is to pick a fight on virtually every front and in every area of interest of the People’s Republic of China. The purpose of the quadrilateral security dialogue is to build a critical group around shared values and interests that will attract more Indo-Pacific countries, even countries from around the world, to work together in common cause and eventually forge more structured alliances.

Biegun added: “I’d just be very careful to not define it solely as an initiative to contain or to defend against China. I don’t think that’s enough.”

He cited NATO as an example, though he cautioned about being too ambitious with a compact of only four nations — the United States, Japan, Australia and India. But it is now clear that the U.S. intends to set up a NATO-style network in the Indo-Pacific region.

The quadrilateral security dialogue of the four nations, was launched in 2017, when working-level meetings were held to explore security cooperation in the region. Then, during last year’s United Nations General Assembly, the quadrilateral security dialogue expanded to embrace its first ministerial meeting, and less than three months later it held a high-level meeting in Bangkok during the East Asia summits.

Not long ago, India invited Australia to participate for the first time in the Malabar naval exercises involving the United States, Japan and India. These countries also agreed to hold a ministerial-level meeting in New Delhi this fall. It seems that the preparatory work for establishing an Indo-Pacific NATO is accelerating.

However, like a big house built on unstable ground, the scheme lacks realistic roots and common interests and therefore cannot come true.

The idea is that an Indo-Pacific NATO would respond to the so-called China threat, which does not exist. China is committed to peaceful development and does not pose a threat to any country. Yes, China has been developing rapidly since it introduced its reform and opening-up policy more than 40 years ago, but its development has relied on mutually beneficial cooperation and the hard work of its people. China does not engage in forced buying and selling, nor does it engage in colonial practices or gunboat policies or zero-sum games.

China does have territorial and maritime disputes with India, Japan and other countries in the South China Sea, but these are all historical legacies. China’s approach has been clear and consistent: to resolve disputes peacefully through dialogue.

China has not made any territorial claims against the United States in the Gulf of Mexico, so there is something of a disconnect when it comes to U.S. claims of excessive expansion by China. Some self-reflection by the U.S. seems warranted.

The United States has described China’s development and self-defense actions as “expansion” and “aggression,” to allege a basis for the establishment of an Indo-Pacific NATO. This tactic, which confuses right and wrong, will not work.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America first” slogan means that the United States will not succeed in building up a new power center. Since Trump won the 2016 election, his administration has taken “America first” as its guiding principle while abandoning America’s international obligations. It has withdrawn from numerous groups and treaties and left other countries, especially its own allies, confused.

In addition, the United States is trying to force its NATO allies to raise their defense spending quickly, threatening that the U.S. might withdraw from NATO. The United States announced the withdrawal of troops from Germany and is pressuring the Republic of Korea and Japan to significantly increase their contributions toward the maintenance of U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan.

The current U.S. administration has thrown its friends into tizzies, taking relations between the U.S. and its allies to the most difficult place they’ve been in the postwar era. The Indo-Pacific NATO will also fail in the same way as other anti-China international alliances have.

Japan will not easily discard the repair of China-Japan relations and getting them back on track. Although maintaining the Japan-U.S. alliance remains a cornerstone of Japanese diplomacy, Japan has seen clearly from the U.S. pursuit of various unilateralist and bullying practices an untrustworthy and unreliable affiliate. U.S. actions have only bolstered Japan’s sense of autonomy.

In addition, as China’s economy continues to develop, Japan recognizes that to develop its own economy, it needs the Chinese economy and market, as well as good relations. It is against this backdrop that Japan’s goodwill toward China has helped bilateral relations get back on track and make new progress.

Therefore, on the Indo-Pacific NATO issue, Japan will be cautious in deciding whether to follow the U.S. lead at the expense of its hard-won improvements in Sino-Japanese relations.

Although Australia is an ironclad ally of the United States and follows its lead, it is quite dependent on China — the so-called dual structure of relying on the United States for security and relying on China economically. Australia will also think twice about the Indo-Pacific NATO and will not rashly fall into the trap of labeling China as its enemy. As Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said, “The relationship that we have with China is important. And we have no intention of injuring it.”

As a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS, and also a part of the quadrilateral security dialogue, India has become the world’s largest swing country — that is, it’s somewhere between an emerging economy and a developed one. In the new international climate of great power competition, this is the latest application of India’s “strategic autonomy” principle, which is meant to reap maximum benefits from all parties in that competition.

Recently, the U.S. administrations has been drawing India closer to facilitate a strategic eastward shift, or Indo-Pacific strategy, while India has returned the favor by trying to accommodate the intentions of the United States. India enjoys the treatment of a de facto United States quasi-ally in terms of arms procurement, intelligence exchange and logistical resource sharing. It is also attempting to counterbalance China with a closer relationship with the U.S. The current structure is probably in India’s best interest. If it opts for an alliance, how will it continue to maintain its independence and avoid the constraints and dependencies that come with an alliance? Such a step would not only subvert the principle of strategic autonomy, the cornerstone of India’s diplomacy, but would also undermine its fundamental interests.

Not surprisingly, U.S. State Department’s Biegun said in his speech, “We’ve got to make sure everybody’s moving at the same speed” and that the U.S. will keep the Indo-Pacific NATO idea alive for the time being. He added that such a formal alliance “only will happen if the other countries are as committed as the United States.”

This shows that the members of the quadrilateral security dialogue are divided on this issue. Without consensus, how can an Indo-Pacific NATO work?

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