The geopolitically inclined will remember NATO’s impotent cousin SEATO, the South East Asia Treaty Organization. It was assembled in 1954 to deal with the threat of Communist insurgency in the countries around Communist China; it never really got off the ground, because so many of the members hated each other. It was dissolved in 1977.
This week, satellite photos showed that Communist China has built a new helicopter base on an island near an island chain claimed by both China and Japan. This is part of a military buildup designed to support China’s claim over the entire South China Sea, which lies west of the islands in question, the Senkakus — and which has always been part of international waters. According to a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, “China’s new heli-base . . . demonstrates that the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] is preparing for an offensive military operation against the Senkaku/Daiyoutai Islands.”
So, it’s time to bring back SEATO. And this time, a functional SEATO.
Old SEATO squabbled itself to death. According to a paper written at the Army War College, SEATO member France — having been humiliated at Dien Bien Phu — refused to join in SEATO’s support of South Vietnam: “As a means of dramatizing her disapproval of U.S. policy in Vietnam, France . . . ceased to actively participate in SEATO affairs.” Bangladesh belonged to Pakistan, which meant Pakistan was allowed to belong to SEATO, and Pakistan was furious with the United States — also a member of SEATO — because the U.S. was lending support to (non-member) India. Member Thailand was angry at the United States because it thought the U.S. favored non-member Cambodia in a Thai–Cambodian border dispute. The Philippines, a SEATO member, was angry at fellow member Britain for supporting the creation of independent Malaysia on territory claimed (in part) by the Philippines. Taiwan — seat of anti-Communist China — was still in a standoff with the Mainland; South Korea was recovering from the Korean War, and Japan was recovering from World War II. None was in a position to join the treaty. And anyway, at-risk countries believed that, as it had in Korea, the U.N. would stand up to Communist aggression. So no one was in the mood to work together on anything. East Asia was a mess.
Now, though, things are different. Russia got away with stealing Crimea. And Russia’s global influence is waning as China’s waxes. Imperialist Red China wants the South China Sea for the energy reserves beneath it and the trade routes that run through it. In the last few years — in the interests of its SCS claim — Chinese ships have fired at Philippine and Vietnamese fishing boats, killing nine. They’ve cut survey cables laid by a Vietnamese petro-exploration ship, and then cut the cables of a Norwegian ship Vietnam had hired. An Indian naval ship sailing through the South China Sea was shadowed by a Chinese frigate; soon afterward, China established a garrison on the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands — which it doesn’t own. Last year, China announced that anyone who wanted to fish the South China Sea would have to obtain a Chinese permit; soon after, the Chinese Coast Guard expelled two Philippine-flagged ships, set up an oil rig in Vietnamese waters, and rammed a Vietnamese naval vessel. Soon after that, a Chinese ship rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat, which sank; watch the exciting footage on YouTube. In August of last year an American surveillance plane in international airspace over the South China Sea was intercepted by a fully armed Chinese fighter jet, which came within 20 feet of the Americans’ wingtip. A Pentagon spokesman said it wasn’t the first time this had happened, and a Chinese admiral called for Chinese fighters to “fly even closer to U.S. surveillance aircraft.”
China has just turned an SCS ocean reef into an airbase, to go with the new helicopter base adjacent to the Senkakus. The lesson of Ukraine is that, without a formal treaty, the world won’t lift a finger to defend another country’s territory; as a British TV show once said of the British Foreign Office, they “will offer every support short of help.” Now, the countries of Southeast Asia have a clear and present reason to unify themselves in defense of their common interests: national sovereignty and international non-sovereignty, free from Chinese aggression. Needless to say, with free navigation and free trade on the line, we have a clear and present reason too.
And cooperation among the Southeast Asian powers could help solve some of the area’s other arguments. South Korea and Japan, two of the world’s ascendant free nations, hate each other, because of Japan’s imperialist past. And neither recognizes Taiwan, for the same Red-China reasons that we don’t recognize Taiwan. Singapore is sufficiently small and isolated that it explicitly modeled its military on Israel’s. And ultimately, thousands of years of wars, dynasties, and colonies mean that no Southeast Asian country is really crazy about any other Southeast Asian country. But here’s a chance to unite against a common enemy. After all, it’s not too long ago that the idea of Britain and France on the same side of a fight would have seemed absurd. To say nothing of the NATO partnership of Britain, France, and Germany.
Besides the obvious military threat of China’s (so-called) People’s Liberation Army, new China wields an enormous economy — a nominal GDP of about 10 trillion. But — take the GDPs of Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and you get a combined GDP of about 10.5 trillion. Add Australia and New Zealand, both members of original SEATO, and it goes up to about 12 trillion; add the U.S., and it goes up to 29 trillion. So a strong defensive/economic union could defend itself while withstanding Chinese trade threats.
China can be stopped — peacefully — with a united front. Southeast Asia has to whip itself into shape, and we have to help. Freedom of the seas is sacrosanct; if we (the brotherhood of nations) lose the South China Sea, the Strait of Hormuz will be next, and then the northern passage over Russia. Plus, a little harmony in the Asia–Pacific would be good for everyone. Hell, we might even be able to start democratizing Vietnam.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.