Of the many alliances spawned by the Cold War, few died as unmourned as SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organisation). Marketed as a South-east Asian version of NATO, an anti-Soviet/Communist security alliance, it bore few of the imprimatur of its European inspiration. To start with, it had too many members that were very far (geographically, as well as in terms of political mindspace) from South East Asia. Most importantly, while it was a military alliance in essence, it lacked NATO’s “boots on the ground” – member countries didn’t contribute to and create standing forces of soldiers, ships and aircraft.
As a result, when SEATO formally disbanded in 1977, few tears were shed. Its time to consider a rebirth though. A newly imagined SEATO would serve two mutually re-inforcing imperatives facing Asia today. One, as an alliance against an increasingly assertive and confrontational China, a country with boundary (or maritime) disputes with almost all of its neighbours.
Two, as a hedge for the increasingly isolationist United States, whose military umbrella (and nuclear too, for many Asian countries) has enabled the region profit from globalisation in relative peace.
The imperative for an alliance is clear – Chinese belligerence radiating out of its periphery across the length and breadth of Asia. The Dash9 issue, seizing Singaporean APCs in Hong Kong, open bullying of Mongolia (and the more recent diplomatic kerfuffle with India) on the Dalai Lama issue, simmering disputes with Vietnam, exacerbating old disputes with India – Chinese hawkishness has assumed a dramatically higher level of edge in the last 5/6 years. The existing security architecture, both diplomatic (APEC/ASEAN/Indo-China Boundary Commission) as well as military (essentially US military presence in Asia) have proven to be insufficient in tempering the noise. With the “America first” approach of President Trump, the sufficiency of the existing architecture comes under even greater scrutiny.
A resurrected SEATO becomes an interesting policy response in the current scenario. The toughest part of a new SEATO would be the balance between the structural and the political. A formal military alliance will invariably meet with violent diplomatic reaction from China. An informal multilateral exercise effort (like Red Flag, Malabar etc) reflects a transient, ephemeral optics without any real deterrence value. There is also the issue of different, sometimes zero-sum political disputes between various Asian states (Singapore and Malaysia for example) that would bedevil a security alliance with strong military commitments.
To start off with meaningful chance of success, the new SEATO should be formulated around 2 core principles. One, it needs to be led by Asian member countries. US participation could be a glue (and a source of technical and military support), but the organisation cannot be led by the US. This would immunise new SEATO from Sino-US tensions and disputes, substantially. Two, the core of new SEATO should be around existing, well-discovered security dialogues. Membership can radiate out from a consistent core.
Keeping the above in mind, new SEATO would be best constructed around an Indo-Japanese core, with invitation open to all Asian countries willing to join. Why India and Japan? First, economically and strategically, these are two biggest Asian powers, after China, with the military and economic capacity to building a “boots on the ground” security architecture. Second, India and Japan share an enormous convergence on key strategic issues facing the region, and very few dissonances. Third, complimentary military capabilities (eg, Japanese Navy has top class ASW, while Indian Navy brings heavy Surface/Land attack firepower). A SEATO led by Asia’s second and third largest economies (and militaries) would provide the centripetal impetus for other Asian countries to join up. In the first phase, Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia would be the first obvious candidates for membership.
The good news is there are existing infrastructure available to kickstart formation of a standing security force for the new SEATO, in the form of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). Based out of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, straddling the chokepoint of straits of Malacca in the Indian Ocean, ANC is like an “unsinkable aircraft carrier”. Today, it is India’s only operational joint services command, with one infantry brigade, some small naval ships and a squadron of IAF transport choppers. In recent years though, there’s been significant upgrades to the infrastructure in ANC. The base today can house and operate destroyer-sized ships and Su30/P8I class aircraft. Adding in 2-3 frigates and LSTs each from both Indian Navy and JMSDF, a squadron of fighters on rotation and a mixed squadron of P8I and P3C maritime patrol aircraft– it would represent a very formidable strike force. The joint strike force would draw upon the experiences of Malabar and Sahyog-Kaijin maritime exercises to enhance interoperability. Other potential member states like Indonesia and Vietnam operate Russian platforms (Su30 aircraft, Kilo-class submarines, Petya-class frigates) maintained by India and whose crews are trained by the Indian military.
Formation of such a strong permanent standing force at the heart of the Straits of Malacca will send a powerful message to China, as well as to the broader region. It will be about Asia taking charge of its own security by putting boots on the ground, and refusing to be picked off in individual disputes with China.
Its not very often that history comes full circle, so soon. But the idea of a new SEATO is one whose time has re-arrived!