China's increasing belligerence in the East and South China seas, and toward India, has fundamentally destabilized the security dynamics of Asia. Japan is seeking a closer alliance with India and is likely seeking advanced offensive weapons from the U.S. Vietnam is considering a U.S. alliance. China increasingly makes common cause with Russia, using unethical and illegal practices in trade and geopolitics.
While existing bilateral alliances go partway toward defending against the resurgent autocratic threat, only a formalized multilateral treaty organization would provide the coordination necessary to defend democracy and international law in Asia against emerging threats. To survive, Asian democracies must create what might be called an Asian Treaty Organization, patterned after the successful North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Europe and North America.
As China is a more powerful adversary than Russia, especially considering current defense expenditures and growth trends, this multilateral defense alliance must be stronger and more unified than NATO ever has been. Asian defense organizations such as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (1954-1977) and the still-existing Australia New Zealand U.S. Security Treaty cannot act as templates for 21st-century threats. The ATO should be designed to integrate with and ultimately strengthen NATO, in what could eventually become a single global alliance of democracies.
Partnership for peace
Membership requirements should be stricter than those of NATO and the failed Asian organizations. The ATO would initially include only democracies capable of technical warfare, including the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and potentially Taiwan. Taiwan's membership would have to be delayed until relations with China were such that the inclusion of Taiwan would decrease rather than increase the likelihood of conflict.
The historical chill in relations between South Korea and Japan must be addressed during the accession process. China and North Korea are the greatest threats in Asia not only to these two democracies but to all potential ATO members. Full Japan-South Korea rapprochement is long overdue and can be achieved through trust-building measures, reparations, apologies and policy change as necessary. Rapprochement is for the common good of all ATO entities, which should therefore jointly carry the burden through diplomatically linked financial and policy agreements. International sharing of the burden would provide face-saving measures needed by Asian democracies to join together against the common threat.
ATO would define collective defense as NATO does, including the requirement that all member states must come to the aid of any member state subjected to an armed attack. Membership would require minimum defense spending, as NATO does, of 2% of gross domestic product. This would be enforced more strictly than in NATO, with the requirement that the budgeting level must be enshrined in domestic law and that noncompliance would lead to expulsion.
A NATO-style Partnership for Peace program should include countries that do not meet the democracy and technology requirements of ATO but are closely allied with its ideological or strategic goals. Such countries include India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Mongolia, Brunei and Malaysia. The first five have technical challenges with modern warfare but are generally democratic. Singapore is technologically sophisticated but autocratic. The last four are autocratic or politically compromised but their maritime resources or trade routes are threatened or controlled by China. They are natural allies from a realist perspective. Integration of these states with ATO through a Partnership for Peace program must be gradual, customized and sensitive to each country's circumstances. But a welcoming path through democratization and development to eventual full membership should be laid, and ATO should provide these countries with democratization, development and military assistance.
Strengthening the edges
Even the autocracies of China, Cambodia and Myanmar would be invited to join the Partnership, if they met conditions such as progress toward democratization and full resolution of territorial and maritime disputes with ATO entities.
In war, the alliance would act as a unified military force under a single command. The alliance would need dedicated and fully integrated military forces, including interoperable equipment and an integrated chain of military command. Those countries with greater levels of defense spending would be accorded the highest positions. Countries with lower levels of defense spending should be woven into the command structure in such a way that they would have more influence than they would outside the alliance, or in a less formalized network of democratic cooperation.
Given that the U.S. spends five times more on the military than all the other proposed ATO members combined, the alliance would need to include the U.S. to counterbalance China militarily and offer it the top command position to incentivize it to join. No resulting increase in Chinese military spending could possibly threaten such an alliance. U.S. membership in ATO would further formalize and increase its commitment to its Asian allies, above and beyond its current bilateral treaties.
ATO would have a decentralized but forward-deployed force strategy. Member states on the front line against China and North Korea, such as Japan and South Korea, and partners such as India, Vietnam and the Philippines, would be assisted with sufficient troop deployments from other countries to reliably defend disputed areas, such as the Sino-Indian Himalayan border, the Korean demilitarized zone, and the East and South China seas. ATO would facilitate an increased naval presence from the U.S., Australia and India to roll back past Chinese gains achieved through violations of international law. Strengthening the edges of the treaty organization would effectively defend geographically protected democracies such as the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.
The uncertainty felt by some members of NATO is a weakness that should be avoided in ATO. Between 1960 and 1966, France withdrew from the NATO integrated military structure, evicted U.S. troops from its soil and developed an independent nuclear deterrent. France could not be sure that the U.S. would defend it against the former Soviet Union if a nuclear war started.
Uncertainty should be decreased for core members of ATO -- specifically Japan, South Korea and Australia -- through U.S. provision to those countries of independent nuclear deterrent forces that are nevertheless under the centralized ATO command. Such nuclear forward deployment would provide unilateral deterrence in times of need, yet integrated command in case of war. Because of ATO command and control, and with additional technical measures, this nuclear forward deployment would not violate the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Just as Turkey is a member of NATO but far from the Atlantic, non-Asian countries meeting the stringent ATO requirements should be welcome to join ATO, which would help integrate ATO with NATO countries and other powerful democracies. Likewise, ATO should facilitate integration and membership of its core countries with NATO. As ATO would have more stringent requirements than NATO, these enhanced requirements should eventually be adopted by NATO in order for a joint NATO-ATO to emerge. This should be a global alliance of democracies such that the military forces of democratic countries are efficiently and effectively arrayed to contain the expansionism of autocratic states.
The creation of an Asian version of NATO would not preclude regional confidence-building measures, such as the development of an Asian grouping along the lines of the 57-member Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The goals of ATO and an Asian OSCE would be complementary and symbiotic. They would support each other and could be pursued at the same time.
The proposed ATO alliance of Asian democracies would be patterned after the NATO alliance that won the Cold War against the Soviet Union but with alterations in its architecture that would transform weaknesses into strength. The ATO alliance would be an improvement over NATO through enforcement of a 2% defense-spending target, forward deployment of strategic nuclear forces to all core members equally and deployment of conventional military force such that the edges of the alliance were fully protected. As global instability and the threat of autocratic maritime and territorial aggressions increase, the democracies of Asia must act decisively to create what would likely become the strongest multilateral alliance in the world.
Anders Corr is the founder of risk consultancy Corr Analytics and editor of the Journal of Political Risk. He spent five years working with U.S. military intelligence, including in the European and Asia-Pacific regions.