TCS Daily

Yes NATO... But NAATO?

By Jason Miks - August 1, 2006 12:00 AM

TOKYO -- Three years ago there were reports of discussions between US and Indian officials about the possibility of creating an Asian version of NATO. Indeed, Professor Madhav Nalapat, an influential adviser to the Indian government who was reported to be involved in the talks, even went as far as suggesting the name NAATO, for the North America-Asia Treaty Organization.

Over the next several months there was some discussion about the merits and drawbacks of such an organisation. But with the US forced to focus its attention on events in Iraq and then Iran's nuclear program, the issue largely disappeared from view.

Yet in the three years following these talks, the need for an Asian security body is in some ways even clearer than it was then. There is continued instability in Afghanistan, China continues a military build-up that is still shrouded in secrecy and North Korea defied international, and more interestingly Chinese pressure, in launching seven missiles earlier this month.

In the absence of a NATO-like entity the region relies for security co-operation on a number of useful, but still fairly limited, groupings such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).

ASEAN, whose foreign ministers meet in Kuala Lumpur this week, was formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore -- largely in an act of defiance of communism. It has since been joined by five more members, but unlike an organization like the EU, it is not so much interested in treaties and other legal frameworks as a consensual approach to decision making. This has allowed it to survive as group, and has even provided some genuine successes such as agreement on free trade. But the reluctance to integrate or intervene in regional matters restricts effective security co-ordination. Indeed the limitations of the ASEAN model were clear during the crisis over East Timor and are reflected in the association's approach to terrorism, which fails to really commit its members to any specific responsibilities.

Perhaps in recognition of these constraints defense ministers from the ASEAN nations announced in May their intention to contribute to the establishment of an ASEAN security community (ASC) to, in their words, 'bring ASEAN's political and security cooperation to a higher plane'. However, again, while the ASC is a step forward in co-operation it is likely to eschew any kind of defense pact, alliance or united foreign policy, thus placing continued restraints on its ability to meet regional challenges demanding a quick response.

The other arena for security co-operation is the 25 member ARF, which met for the first time in 1994, and which includes ASEAN members and other key players such as the US, EU, Japan and China. As with ASEAN it aims for a gradualist approach, though it does provide an opportunity for high-level meetings and allows for the type of regional identity which could be a pre-cursor towards an alliance.

While such confidence-building is of course welcome, it does not provide for the binding treaties that would oblige greater transparency on issues such as defense.

This reluctance to integrate -- due largely to issues of trust and sovereignty -- is a large barrier to an Asian NATO. This is a point Brad Glosserman, Executive Director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Pacific Forum, made to me recently when I asked his view on the possibility of creating such an entity. He believes that at present there is insufficient agreement on security threats and how best to address them for such an organisation to be viable in the near future, and argues that it would risk antagonizing countries like China which might choose not to be involved.

All of which is a shame. The region could benefit from greater co-ordination and transparency. It is riddled with rivalries, many still simmering from the Second World War, and there are a host of territorial disputes that provide potential flashpoints. The benefits of more integrated defense planning would perhaps help dissipate some of these tensions and ease concerns over countries like Japan, which are hoping to play a more active role in defense. Allowing Asian nations to address more concerns themselves might also ease the kind of suspicions of 'outsiders' which were evident when Australia dispatched forces to East Timor.

And such an alliance would certainly be preferable to the group of regimes that have linked up under the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. The SCO was formed in 2001 and includes Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia and China; it has also cozied up to Iran, which hopes to become a full member.

Asia might not yet be ready for a full-fledged military alliance, but that is no reason not to at least consider the possibility of one for the future. In a sometimes troubled part of the world, the extra trust it would engender would be welcome.

Jason Miks is a Tokyo-based writer and Assistant Editor at the Center for International Relations.


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