Is the US creating an Indo-Pacific version of NATO to deter China?
Is the US creating an Indo-Pacific version of NATO to deter China?

Is the US creating an Indo-Pacific version of NATO to deter China?

To better protect security in the region, countries should rather focus on “developing patterns of cooperation and interdependence,” said Mahbubani, who heads the National University of Singapore’s Asian Peace Program.

He cited the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – the world’s largest free trade agreement – which entered into force in January and counts Australia and China among its members. “Submarines are insidious, but trade agreements are insidious,” he said.


What is “something of a mystery” to Mahbubani is the Quad, which includes Australia, India, Japan and the United States.

“The four countries deny that it is against China. But the perception is that it is against China,” he noted. “It creates this rather strange situation.

“That’s why, if you notice that not many other East Asian countries have volunteered to join it … It’s therefore important for the members of the Quad to explain what exactly the Quad final game is.”

Quad is officially known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. There are joint military exercises alongside the dialogue – such as the Exercise Malabar, which began in 1992 between the Indian and US navies.

Japan participated permanently in the naval exercise in 2015, and Australia participated for the second time in 2020.

Today, Quad cooperation includes climate change, counter-terrorism and infrastructure development. Its members have also collectively promised to donate at least one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses globally by the end of the year.

“Three or four years ago, it would have been more focused on maritime security,” noted Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Tokyo-based International Christian University.

“Today, Quad has evolved to focus on the delivery of public goods … connectivity support to Southeast Asia and South Asia and … investment in the selective diversification of supply chains throughout the region.”

Without a shift away from “a security view on the Quad,” he said, the alliance “will not get buy-in” from countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.

In Southeast Asia in general, Quad has had a mixed response.

“The biggest concern” was that Quad “would increase tensions in the region, especially towards China,” said Lynn Kuok, Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

But with its moves away from “its more militaristic elements” and towards “areas that Asean is more concerned about” such as pandemic recovery – which demonstrates “sensitivity to the needs of the region” – she believes that “the position of the Quad dialogue is become a little softer “.

The latest joint statement from Quad’s foreign ministers was released in February.

In that, Asean’s centrality was “all the way to the top,” noted Gregory Poling, senior researcher at Southeast Asia and director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

These are engagement efforts taking place in a region that is “much more heterogeneous than NATO,” Nagy noted.

“(NATO countries) have the same political systems … similar economic standards, and they are well integrated into each other’s economies, whereas (i) Southeast Asia and Japan and Korea we have a number of different styles of government,” he said.

“We have a number of commitments to democracy, a number of different levels of development.”

Therefore, on the question of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, he believes that it “does not make sense” to equate NATO with the Quad.


Aside from any parallels to NATO, however, developments in the South China Sea could give the US strategy a boost.

For example, work one hour from Singapore has begun at a US-funded Indonesian maritime training center.

The Batam Center will be owned and operated by Indonesia’s Maritime Security Agency, or Bakamla, and will assist the Agency in overseeing Indonesia’s territorial waters and its exclusive economic zone.

The project is significant as Bakamla has intensified patrols in recent years to deal with Chinese fishing boats – escorted by Chinese coastguards – sailing into what Indonesia considers its territory.

“Indonesia needs to upgrade its navy and also its maritime capabilities. Having defense cooperation is one of the best ways,” said Klaus Heinrich Raditio, author of Understanding China’s Behavior in the South China Sea.

“Batam’s location is very strategic … And we are aware that the United States has a lot at stake in defending the freedom to sail in the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.”

According to the U.S. State Department, the United States provided Indonesia with nearly $ 39 million by 2020, mainly in security assistance, plus spending on military funding and military training.

In the Philippines, the annual Balikatan exercise between U.S. and Philippine forces ended last month. It was billed as the largest version ever, and in a first, the U.S. Patriot missile system was deployed during amphibious operations.

“We can assume that this is part of the different scenarios for operations,” said international relations expert Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby. “This is probably in preparation for China’s next move in Taiwan, or whatever may happen in the South China Sea.”

The associate professor at De La Salle University in Manila also noted that the United States is a preferred partner in the Philippines.

For example, she and her colleagues conducted a survey of perceptions in the Philippine strategic community in 2020, and the majority preferred to be partners with Australia, Japan and the United States – the Philippines’ traditional partners.

“China is far down the list,” she said.

Especially after Washington was “blind-sided” by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-Americanism when he took office, it is likely that the United States is now “much more aware” of how strategically important its alliance with the Philippines is, Poling said.

“The Philippines and the United States are now starting to have the kind of talks that the United States has had with Japan, Korea, Australia and NATO for three decades,” he added.

With specific reference to NATO, Article 5 of its Treaty states that there are collective defense obligations in the event of an attack on a member.

However, tying Indo-Pacific countries to a mutual defense treaty would “be a fool,” Kuok said.

“The United States knows that … especially the Southeast Asian countries all have different interests and different positions in relation to China as well as each other. I do not think the United States is trying to build NATO in Southeast Asia.”

But as the superpower promotes its Indo-Pacific strategy, Gao worries that it could lead not only to miscalculations, but also to “very dangerous courses of action.”

“Now with Ukraine in the middle of this war … we need to realize the value of peace and stability,” he said. “We do not want to be hijacked by a single large country.”

Kuok, meanwhile, believes the election for the Southeast Asian countries is “very clear”.

It is not so much as one between the United States or China, but rather “one that supports a rule-based international order and the rule of law, or a world that might be right”. “I choose the first,” she said.

“I did not want to see the world, and especially not the region, fall into a situation where power is right. And we have seen what happens in a scenario like this: in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

See this section of When Titans Clash here.

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