The U.S. must learn from the unfocused foreign policy that kept it quagmired in backwater countries like Afghanistan for two decades and refocus its efforts toward fashioning a clear, decisive strategy that protects the nation’s vital interests.
With the China-Russia axis becoming closer to reality, the U.S. must ally itself with another global player that has a spine. The E.U.’s lack of vertebrae has only become more pronounced since the invasion of Afghanistan. Clearly they will be no real help. The US needs a new coalition, a new NATO, but in Asia.
Mullahs inching their way toward the bomb in Iran and a hermit king playing with his rockets in Pyongyang do not pose a substantial threat to America’s standing in the world. Even Russia, faced with a population drowning in vodka and heroin, a fragile economy and the potential military superpower of the European Union on its border, is not an existential threat unless it comes to nuclear war.
China, on the other hand, is a force to be reckoned with. China has a standing army of over 2,000,000 with tens of millions of potential reservists, has an estimated GDP of $27 trillion and is currently using its economic might to gobble up strategic resources and influence governments across the globe through its Belt and Road initiative — creating a potential satellite network that the Soviets could have only dreamed of. It is also using its newfound military might to claim and convert islands in the South China Sea into massive naval and airbases which they can use to strike anywhere in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. China wants its place in the sun in this new century, and it actually has the military and economic muscle to back up its ambitions.
The United States, though we still have the military edge on the Chinese (for now), is both unwilling and unable to realistically contain the Chinese threat alone. To effectively contain them, we would have to maintain a massive military force that the public would be unwilling to accept and require unfathomably lengthy and complex supply lines stretching entirely across the Pacific.
We need bases to provide a line of defense, and we need allies to provide frontline support to any line of containment. The United States requires a new NATO, which proved effective at countering Soviet aggression, to combat this century’s Evil Empire. To do that, the U.S. can look to SEATO as a blueprint.
SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) was created in 1954 to curtail the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia. It included the U.S., the Philippines, Australia, Thailand and Pakistan as members as well as Britain and France (both of which still had considerable interests in Southeast Asia). After numerous failures to curtail the spread of Communism, most notably in South Vietnam and Cambodia, the alliance dissolved in 1977.
The United States’ primary partners in this new alliance ought to be those who have both a historical and contemporary rivalry with China. Japan and South Korea are foremost on that list. Both have a historical enmity with China stretching back centuries, and both are under threat from China’s desire to become the dominant power in East Asia.
Japan maintains an advanced military and has one of the highest military budgets in the world, but it is prohibited under Article 9 of the Japanese constitution from declaring war or using military force in international disputes. The time for a remilitarization of Japan has come. It is the fourth largest economy in the world, and its crimes from the Second World War are behind it. There are more pressing strategic matters than eternally haunting Japan with the ghosts of its past.
Likewise, South Korea has the potential to become a significant military power in the Western Pacific. It only spends 2.6% of its GDP on its military, but South Korea currently has the seventh largest army in the world — 599,000 active troops — the world’s highest number of reserve troops and the tenth largest overall defense budget.
The South Koreans have also proved very willing to aid the United States in other conflicts. It sent over 300,000 troops to South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and it was the third largest contributor to coalition forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom, behind only the U.S. and Britain.
The East Asian members of a new alliance could be won over by the overwhelming military threat that China poses to their immediate security, but the islands of the South China Sea could secure the cooperation of potential Southeast Asian members of the alliance.
China has aggressively pushed its territorial claims on islands in the South China Sea, islands also claimed by Vietnam, Indonesia, Taiwan and the Philippines. The islands may hold untapped reserves of oil and natural gas, but their true value lies in their position. The islands straddle the critical shipping lanes that move through Singapore to China’s southern ports. China has embarked on large-scale land reclamation projects on several of the islands, no matter who legally claims them, turning them into veritable fortresses complete with air bases and dockyards for the Chinese Navy. The project has been dubbed the “Great Wall of Sand” by a former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Because of its claims on the islands in the South China Sea, Vietnam would be a perfect candidate for a new alliance. Though Vietnam and its northern neighbor express the same Communist ideology, it has already been demonstrated that the two sides are willing to put aside any ideological kinship for the sake of ancient grudges. The two nations have fought numerous times throughout history, including a short month-long skirmish in 1979 that resulted in an overall death toll of around 50,000.
Australia should also be an easy grab for the new alliance. It has always concerned itself with security in Southeast Asia, and it was a founding member of the original SEATO.
Perhaps the biggest factor in SEATO’s effectiveness is India. Pakistan, which at the time also included Bangladesh, was a member of the original SEATO, but its untrustworthiness was demonstrated time and again in Afghanistan. India’s growing economic power and its recent border skirmish with China make it a prime candidate for a new anti-China alliance. With a growing superpower in the fold, an Asian NATO would gain a foothold on the Asian mainland more substantial than Vietnam, transforming it into a land alliance rather than just a naval one, as well as a manpower reserve that within a few years will surpass China’s.
Though including Taiwan would be a natural choice to close the ring around China in the Pacific, including the island nation, which China believes to be illegitimate, might show the alliance’s hand a bit too early and encourage aggressive action on the part of the Chinese before the alliance is cemented.
An alliance between the U.S., Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and Vietnam would provide both the economic and military backbone for an alliance that could realistically stem China’s advance on the international stage.
Though Republicans are loath to suggest such an idea, a trade agreement similar to the Trans-Pacific Partnership should be considered in order to help some would-be members of the alliance weather the storm of economic retaliation that would surely be unleashed by the Chinese.
The U.S. must mobilize both its domestic and international power to counter the new global threat to America’s interests and status as a superpower. It successfully achieved a similar goal against the Soviets after World War II by creating and fostering NATO. The United States did it once, and it can do it again with Asian nations to counter China.
If the U.S. wants to keep its power and influence overseas, then it must adapt to changing times and circumstances. It can either double down on its current strategy of propping up corrupt and ineffectual “allied” governments, or it can learn from its mistakes in the Middle East, formulate a clear plan to challenge its most threatening foe and reclaim America’s lost prestige on the world stage.
Enough nation-building, it’s time for alliance-building.
Hayden Daniel is the opinion editor at the Daily Caller.