In recent years, the Asia Pacific region has become a hotbed for political and military instability. A rogue and increasingly dangerous North Korea entered 2018 celebrating its “historic accomplishment of completing our nuclear capabilities”. Since February last year, North Korea has fired a total of 23 missiles, including some over the Japanese mainland; and since September, launched its most powerful nuclear test to date. The balance of peace in a highly volatile region lies in an unstable, nuclear armed nation. Despite this, co-operation between regional governments remains significantly fragmented. So, the question remains – is a NATO-style collective defence bloc against North Korea within the Asia Pacific possible? Can a successful containment policy be implemented without alienating surrounding regional neighbours?
The idea of a NATO-style bloc in Asia has been floated several times in the past, however the concept itself is difficult to achieve. Several countries within the Asia Pacific region have expressed elevated concern over the elevated aggressiveness of North Korea’s military, most notably Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The two countries arguably at the forefront of the confrontation with North Korea are Japan and South Korea. Although they each share a common threat and concern, significant distrust still runs deep between the two nations. This historical distrust stems from World War Two, including Japanese conscription of comfort women and Japanese colonial rule of Korea. Furthermore, ongoing cultural and territorial disputes exacerbate the already strained relationship between the two nations. Whilst Japan and South Korea also share a mutual defence ally in the United States, attempts to orchestrate a successful trilateral relationship appear to be hindered.
Adding to the difficulty, several major territorial disputes also occur within the Asia Pacific. Although technically unrelated to North Korea, these disputes contribute highly to regional tension in the Asia Pacific, and make it much harder to form long standing agreements or settlements. With regards to forming a collective defence pact against North Korea, the two territorial disputes that would form the biggest impediment towards such a formation would be the Spratly Islands and Liancourt Rocks disputes. The Spratly Islands is disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and China – several countries of which have also expressed concern over North Korea. The Liancourt Rocks dispute involves Japan and South Korea – the two nations which both actively work to defend themselves against North Korean aggression, but at the same time, share significant mutual distrust.
Lastly, there is the issue of alienating China – an obvious problem. Although China has begun to impose stricter sanctions against North Korea, the two nations are still on somewhat fair terms. Ensuring the survival of North Korea is essential to Chinese national interests. As North Korea is right on the border with China, North Korea serves as an important buffer zone between China and South Korea – a strong U.S ally and a nation with American troops stationed. Therefore, the Chinese-North Korean relationship is important strategically for China, and simultaneously important for North Korea, having a major military power helping its survival. Forming a collective defence bloc against North Korea will highly likely be met with condemnation or at least concern from China, and may be interpreted as an act of aggression towards North Korea; and also an act of alienation against China. China is one of the Asia’s most important trading partners – it is in fact the largest trading partner of South Korea, Australia, Vietnam and Indonesia; and one of the largest for Japan. Formation of a collective defence bloc against China’s strategic ally and the potential interpretation of aggression or alienation of China carries the risk of economic sanctions or trade conflicts. An example of this occurred during the American deployment of the THAAD missile defence systems to South Korea – a move that angered China, and led to severe economic restrictions placed on South Korea in retaliation, resulting in a significant loss for the South Korean economy and businesses. To put it bluntly – China’s major trade partners rely more on China than China does on them. Alienating China, or appearing to undermine the North Korean regime, may be met with significant financial retaliation from the modern economic giant.
Whilst there are several issues concerning the formation of a collective defence bloc, there are still many supporting arguments. The obvious advantage of this idea centres on the principle of collective defence, or “an attack on one is an attack on all”. NATO itself was founded in order to deter Soviet aggression in Europe, created in the midst of encroaching Soviet aggression during the early Cold War.
It is unlikely that North Korea will launch a direct attack on surrounding nations or the United States, as China has declared that it will not protect the North Korean regime “if North Korea launches missiles that threatens U.S. soil first and the U.S retaliates”; and will only intervene when “the U.S and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime” (as per the 1961 Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance).
Many also consider Russia a somewhat friendly superpower towards North Korea. After all, Russia and North Korea in 2015 declared a “year of friendship” with the plan of expanding political and economic ties. Russia also wrote off $10 billion of debt owed to them by North Korea during the Soviet era; as well as publicly criticised U.S responses to North Korean actions. However, with regards to defending North Korea in the event of a war, Russia has been somewhat vague and even critical of North Korea, declaring in 2016 after North Korea threatened to “annihilate” the U.S and South Korea, that “the DPRK will become fully opposed to the international community and will create international legal grounds for using military force against itself in accordance with the right of a state to self-defence enshrined in the United Nations Charter”.
Taking the responses of China and Russia into account – both considered superpowers on somewhat friendly terms with North Korea – a direct first-strike act by North Korea would ultimately isolate themselves from international protection and put them more at risk of an American led retaliation against the regime. If this is the case, then why even consider a collective defence bloc against North Korean aggression? If North Korea attacks first, they will be isolated, leaving the small rogue country fending itself against an American led retaliatory response – ultimately a suicide mission.
The main purpose of forming a collective defence bloc against North Korea would be to enforce a containment policy. This very same principle formed the basis of the establishment of NATO – an American attempt to contain the spread of Soviet influence and aggression during the Cold War. For the same purpose, North Korea’s attempts to destabilise the Asia Pacific region and the Korean peninsula must be contained, for the sake of regional stability.
Going back to an earlier point with China’s declaration to protect North Korea if North Korea is attacked first; this makes the concept of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s missile or other strategic sites dangerous, as it carries the risk of retaliation from either China or North Korea itself. Increasing economic sanctions on North Korea, which was supported by both China and Russia, has also done little to quell North Korea’s belligerent rhetoric. Thirdly, enforcing a containment policy would give significant reassurance to US allies in the Asia Pacific, especially Japan, South Korea and even Australia. This is critical if the United States wants to maintain its influence in the Asia Pacific region. A collective defence bloc would ensure that multiple Asia Pacific nation states are united for a common cause, and would help improve regional co-operation by enhancing political and military ties. Finally, there will usually be someone that asks, “why don’t we just leave North Korea alone”, arguing that American style interventionalist policies threaten the national sovereignty of individual nation states. “Leaving North Korea alone”, so to speak, not only signals to the world our unwillingness to defend and protect regional stability when it is threatened, but also signals to nations in the Asia Pacific that they will be left to fend for themselves without aid. Backing down in the face of belligerent rhetoric and threats of annihilation forms the epitome of appeasement – a principle more dangerous than any interventionist or containment policy.
Now assuming the difficulties towards forming a collective defence bloc can be overcome, and local national partners decide to put their historical and territorial disputes aside for the sake of regional security and stability against North Korea – what would a collective defence bloc in Asia look like?
This defence bloc would most likely include Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea – the four most vocal critics of North Korea in the Asia Pacific. The United States may be interested in joining by providing a supporting or logistical role in the collective bloc rather than guaranteeing military intervention, as it enhances America’s influence in the Asia Pacific whilst at the same time not committing themselves to a binding defence obligation. Japan and South Korea may also be interested in an allied bloc that may help deter military activity in the South China Sea. Australia itself has several major benefits in joining a collective defence bloc. First and foremost, Australia would gain a significant military edge in the Asia Pacific. NSW Senator-designate Jim Molan, a retired senior military officer and general, warned that there is no longer a guarantee that the United States will come to the aid of Australia in the event of a military crisis, stating that, “we have an expectation that the U.S will come to our aid in an extreme scenario… there seems to be very strong grounds to question that expectation”. Senator Molan also warned that, “American power itself has relatively declined”. The Senator’s claims have been echoed by Dr. Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst for Defence Strategy and Capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Dr. Davis stated that the American military had severely waned since the Bush administration, and that Australia cannot simply rely on the U.S military to defend them, even as we enter a more dangerous and unstable era.
Australia must find other means to bolster its own defence and security. Although the ANZUS treaty has formed one of the pillars of the U.S-Australia military relationship, it does not guarantee American military aid to Australia if a military crisis occurs unlike NATO which requires assistance to member states in the event of an attack, including the use of military retaliation. Technically in 1954, a South-East Asia Collective Defence Treaty was signed between the United States, Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand and the United Kingdom to protect against the spread of communism in Asia – establishing SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organisation). SEATO was actually intended to be the NATO of South East Asia, providing a collective defence bloc against communist spread and encroaching Soviet influence in Asia. SEATO was a strategic bloc that enforced a containment policy against communist influence. Although SEATO was used as a justification for intervention in Vietnam, the SEATO alliance itself did not fare well militarily due to most member states inability to contribute enough to the organisation, and internal disagreements leading to indecisiveness and issues with joint military training. Eventually, SEATO was dissolved in 1977.
SEATO was Asia’s first experiment with a collective defence bloc against a common threat that turned out to be unsuccessful. Why then pursue another one if the first experiment failed? The main reason for SEATO’s downfall and inefficiency was due to internal conflicts within the organisation itself. These conflicts of interests significantly hindered joint military exercises and organisational cooperation. Firstly, most of SEATO’s member states were actually outside of the South East Asian region, including the United States, United Kingdom, France and Pakistan. As such, these governments had significantly different interests and reasons for joining SEATO:
- Australia and New Zealand joined for the purpose of collective defence;
- The United States joined for the purpose of combating the spread of communist influence into Asia by enforcing their containment policy;
- Pakistan joined to gain an advantage against India;
- The United Kingdom and France joined due to historical colonial ownership of certain nations within South East Asia.
An example of SEATO’s military inefficiency with dealing with an international crisis due to internal conflicts was the Laotian Civil War in 1953, involving a communist uprising against the Laotian government. Although the Laotian Civil War culminated into a large proxy war between the Eastern and Western blocs during the Cold War, SEATO, which was formed to combat the spread of communist influence, failed to intervene in the conflict because France and the United Kingdom rejected using military force. As a result, only the United States provided support for the Laotian government during the civil war. Furthermore, SEATO also failed to intervene in the Vietnam War despite America’s requests due to an absence of French and British cooperation. As different member states had different interests in South East Asia, naturally, the alliance fell apart.
With regards to a new modern collective defence bloc in Asia, member states such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and potentially the United States all share a common interest in the region – to combat North Korean aggression (and to some extent, help maintain stability in the South China Sea). Currently, these nations have signed bilateral (or trilateral for the ANZUS treaty) defence agreements between the United States and themselves (ie. The American-Korean Mutual Defence Treaty, 1953; and the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan, 1960). By establishing a collective defence bloc, not only will these main member states receive further reassurance of their safety in the event that tensions escalate in the Korean peninsula, but will enhance the current standing bilateral defence agreements through the provision of additional regional collective security. If the United States decides to provide support to the organisation, America will also reaffirm their influence in the Asia Pacific, and solidify the American sphere of influence within the region.
Other potential member states may include the Philippines and Indonesia. The Philippines recently expressed concern over North Korea’s aggressiveness, but also has an additional ongoing problem – the ISIS capture of the city of Marawi. This major incident showed that ISIS and radical Islam are not simply contained within the Middle East and Western Europe, but has the potential to spread to the Asia Pacific as well. In addition, the capture of Marawi signified that the Philippines is in serious danger of radical Islamic attacks. In this sense, a collective defence bloc may serve in the national interests of the Philippines – a nation recently under threat by radical Islamic fighters – through organisational cooperation and perhaps the provision of defence aid by other member states.
Although Indonesia historically has had cordial relations with North Korea (Indonesia is one of the few countries that has an embassy in Pyongyang) under President Sukarno who governed Indonesia from 1949 to 1967, Indonesian ties with North Korea have soured in recent years under the current President Joko Widodo. There are two main reasons for this shift in relations. Firstly, President Widodo has sought to pivot towards South Korea in an attempt to attract foreign investment and enhance economic and political ties between Indonesia and South Korea. President Widodo met with Moon Jae-In, the South Korean President, in 2017 to endorse South Korea’s efforts to ease tensions with North Korea and also agreed to hold a meeting of Indonesian and South Korean foreign and defence ministers. The second reason for Indonesia’s shift away from North Korea is the assassination of Kim Jong Nam which occurred in 2017 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. It is widely believed that the two women that applied the nerve agent – an Indonesian and a Vietnamese – were tricked by North Koreans into assassinating Kim Jong Nam unknowingly. In Indonesia, this was seen as an example of North Korea’s deception and manipulation of Indonesians – an opinion echoed by Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla.
So, is this enough for Indonesia to join a collective defence pact against North Korea? Probably not, but Indonesia also has another problem. Similar to the Philippines, Indonesia has a problem with radical Islamic fighters. Currently, more than 600 Indonesians have left home for Syria to fight for ISIS and other radical Islamic groups. Indonesia also ranks second in the world for most numbers of foreign fighters arrested in Turkey, attempting to go to Syria. In 2014, an Indonesian academic Al Chaidar reported that approximately two million Indonesians within the country have begun supporting the ISIS cause. The ultimate goal of the foreign fighters in Syria, and the radicals back home, is to import the extremist ideology back into Indonesia, and spread it across South East Asia to surrounding countries. Whilst Indonesia has not suffered a major blow by the Islamic militants yet, unlike the Philippines which had the city of Marawi captured, the threat of a large scale attack on the large country grows every day. In 2016, a Starbucks was attacked in Jakarta using bombs and guns leaving seven dead; an attempted suicide bombing at a Javan police station injured a police officer; and Indonesian police stopped an attempted bombing of the Myanmar embassy. New radical Islamic recruits are now being targeted online, and Indonesia may begin to view the idea of a collective defence pact in Asia as a way of bolstering their own security, as well as a method to request aid if necessary in the event that the radical fighters launch a large scale attack such as they did in the Philippines.
There are many advantages in the establishment of a collective defence bloc in the Asia Pacific. Although some argue that conflicts of interests and mutual distrust between certain Asia Pacific nations such as Japan and South Korea would lead to the failure of a second collective defence bloc similar to the fall of SEATO, the concept still is possible to achieve. The formation of NATO occurred in 1949, only four years after the conclusion of the Second World War – a war in which Germany invaded France for the second time in recent years; resulting in significant distrust between France and West Germany (France protested West Germany’s membership into NATO). Mutual defence interests within the Asia Pacific region against the rogue North Korea have the potential to supersede the modern day territorial, historical and cultural disputes between Asian nations. Australia and New Zealand will also receive a stronger defensive advantage currently being offered by the ANZUS treaty, and if the United States at least provides aid or non-binding defensive support, can reaffirm America’s influence in the Asia Pacific region as well as attempt to enforce a containment policy against the rogue North Korean regime. Whilst this, ultimately, is still an idea – a hypothetical concept – and most likely will not occur any time soon, the very principle of a collective defence bloc in Asia Pacific is worth considering and debating, and whether or not this can be achieved is up to the regional governments. To conclude, the question still remains – is it possible to form a NATO-style collective defence pact in the Asia Pacific and enforce a containment policy on North Korea and the threat of radical Islam? Perhaps not now, but the future can be unpredictable.