This report will address four questions in the Pacific NATO debate. First, is there a historical precedent for a Pacific NATO? This report does find a precedent in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), though it was largely unsuccessful due to its lack of regional adoption, weak mutual defense provisions, and ultimately became tainted by the Vietnam War.
Second, would such an alliance be necessary given the plethora of existing multilateral partnerships in the region? While there is a broad multilateral landscape in the Indo-Pacific, there is currently no agreement that combines both the wide reach and deep obligations of a hypothetical Pacific NATO. However, the Quad and RIMPAC do bring together many of the key Indo-Pacific powers and serve as an important foundation for U.S.-oriented multilateral regional security.
Third, how could such an alliance be structured? This report examines three options: expanding NATO’s mandate beyond Europe, building on its Enhanced Opportunity Partner (EOP) program, and creating a new alliance system. It also uses the case of Montenegro’s NATO accession to generate a broad set of criteria for future membership.
And fourth, how would Indo-Pacific nations, including China, respond to such an alliance? This would be exceedingly difficult. China has significant economic leverage over even our closest allies, like Australia and Japan.
Intractable internal disputes abound, particularly between South Korea and Japan and four nations—Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam—with competing claims in the South China Sea. Two of the United States’ most important partners in the region, India and Singapore, have a longstanding aversion to exactly this type of alliance system. And for newer partners, like Malaysia and Indonesia, the value proposition is even less clear. The Chinese are likely to respond to any attempts at a multilateral military alliance in its backyard with a whole-of-government effort to stop it. If that alliance includes Taiwan, it could result in even more aggressive action.