Towards an Indo-Pacific Cooperation Arrangement: Lessons from SEATO

Where old Dhaka meets its newer part sits the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B), a much acclaimed international health research organization. It represents a high point in the short life of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO), which sponsored the Cholera Research Organization in 1960, the predecessor of ICDDR,B. The alliance was founded in 1954 with the membership of the US, UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand to address the threat of communist expansion in Southeast Asia.

A low point in the history of SEATO happened barely two miles away at the former Ramna Race Course, now Suhrawardy Uddyan, where Pakistani forces formally surrendered following defeat in the liberation war of Bangladesh. Shortly after this, Pakistan, the only South Asian member of SEATO left the organization. The alliance was formally disbanded in 1977 when France departed.

Today, as the strategic competition between the United States and China is gathering steam, there is renewed interest in the experience of SEATO in the quest for possible ways the US and its allies could address China’s increased influence in Indo-Pacific region [1]. Specifically, the lessons learned from the failure of the alliance can provide important guidance for future.

Why did SEATO fail?
There are several reasons why SEATO failed. First, modelled on NATO, it was a wrongly conceived solution to a wrongly perceived problem. Whereas NATO was created as a military pact to collectively address the threat posed by the Soviet Union to the western democracies, the main preoccupations of most countries in Asia-Pacific region after WW2 were gaining independence from their colonial masters and chart a new course for their people. The failure to distinguish the needs of Southeast Asia from the needs of Europe was a major cause for SEATO’s failure [2].

The Korean War and the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 increased the threat of communist expansion in the region, which were the proximate prompts for the creation of SEATO. Yet, with self-determination and development foremost in their mind, the leaders of the region had little or no incentive to join the same colonial powers to confront the “communist menace.”

Indeed, barely seven months after the founding of SEATO, leaders of Asia and Africa flocked to the Bandung conference, out of which was born the non-aligned movement. The organizing countries included some of the largest ones in the region such as Burma, India, Indonesia and Pakistan (who had just become a party to SEATO!). With most of the regional countries opting for non-alignment, SEATO thus failed to create a region-wide coalition to confront actual or perceived communist threat.

It is therefore unsurprising that SEATO had marginal regional presence, not to speak of local ownership. Its three Asian members had their own special reasons to join the pact. The Philippines enjoyed a special relationship with the US as a former American colony and entered into a military base agreement with the US in 1947, a year after it gained independence.
Thailand, which supported the Japanese during the war, found itself in a precarious situation at the conclusion of the war. It joined SEATO as it feared adverse Chinese action when the so-called Thai Autonomous Region was established in Southern China.

Pakistan’s decision to become a party to SEATO was in response to its security vulnerability to its principal adversary, India with whom it had fought a war over Kashmir a year after both countries gained independence from the British rule in 1947. Pakistan’s decision, however, was borne out of misplaced expectation since SEATO pact did not provide for action by the alliance in situations like India-Pakistan conflict. No other regional country joined the pact during its lifetime, thereby making it an externally driven entity.

Even for Australia and New Zealand, SEATO was not a primary security framework with the US. Already, in 1951, they had forged a separate alliance with the US in the form of ANZUS. Their participation in SEATO was at best supplementary to ANZUS. Also, SEATO provided these two British Commonwealth countries a shared platform with the UK which could not enter the ANZUS pact despite repeated efforts.
SEATO also had serious design deficiencies. First, there was nothing comparable to the article 5 of NATO in the SEATO treaty. Article 5 provides that any attack on an alliance member “shall be considered an attack against them all.” On the other hand, the SEATO treaty provided that each nation will consider attacks upon other members as endangering its own peace and security and will act to meet the common danger; but the treaty remained silent on how such action would be taken. The lack of a collective defense obligation and the absence of clarity of the decision process made SEATO fundamentally weak.

Moreover, in contrast with NATO, the absence of a central command made SEATO virtually incapable of taking coordinated action. This was compounded by internal conflicts that prevented deployment of its military forces. While SEATO provided a cover to US and Australia for their involvements in Southeast Asia, both UK and France rejected the use of SEATO forces in the Viet Nam war and conflicts in Laos. As a result, military work of SEATO was limited mainly to organizing joint exercises.

Furthermore, in the case of NATO, the Marshall Plan played a key role in getting European democracies on board the alliance. The countries in the Asia-Pacific region were emerging from colonial rule into newly independent states in the late 1940s and early 1950s with massive development needs, but there was no comparable incentive for these countries in the context of SEATO.

What are the main lessons?
However, the failure and demise of SEATO do not diminish the need for coordinated collective action; instead, it illustrates how not to form an alliance.

Today, the challenges arising from China’s expansionary policies, particularly the risk it poses to democratic systems are understood and broadly shared in the region. China’s support to and multifaceted engagement with the murderous regime in Myanmar, and more recently its support to the increasingly autocratic regime in Bangladesh, for example, are indications of its readiness to supplant democracy.

The Indo-Pacific countries have moved on in the past 75 years and democracy has gained solid grounds in most countries of the region. It is therefore natural that people in countries where democracy has taken root should have an interest in preserving and protecting their political system against disruption, and those that are struggling against remaining autocracies also should have a critical view of China’s policies and actions.

Another shared concern is the lack of transparency in China’s investments in the countries of the region which makes them susceptible to unsustainability, misuse and corruption. Increasing projection of China’s military power and its maritime and border disputes also makes some regional countries deeply nervous.

No single power can confront these challenges alone. To be effective, countries in the region and the democratic world as a whole that share these concerns need to pool their combined strength and capacities in a pragmatic way which pays attention to the interests and voices of the regional countries. The lessons from SEATO’s failure can provide useful guidance in this regard.

First and foremost, the ground realities of Indo-Pacific should be adequately recognized. Countries of the region maintain multifaceted relationship with China, which is their top or near top trading partner and a major source of investment. Over the past decades, many of them have developed cooperation arrangements in the area of defense, education, tourism and other areas. Some aspects of these ties may be controversial, but countries of the region cannot be expected to dramatically moderate their relationship with China. In some instances, increased cooperation with China may be beneficial to their development process.

Moreover, most regional countries would not deliberately want to provoke the most powerful nation in their neighborhood. Therefore, many of the regional countries will likely take a cautious approach to becoming part of an arrangement that China may view as unfriendly or even adversarial. In particular, they will seek to avoid an arrangement with explicit military orientation.

Some of the larger countries like India and Indonesia entertain ambition to become major global or regional powers. Unsurprisingly, they would like to preserve and expand their own “policy spaces” and take positions on issues that may not be fully in line with those of the western powers, including the US.

Moreover, there are countries like Pakistan whose population are hungry for democracy but would continue to regard their close relationship with China as a critical element in addressing security vulnerabilities. These countries would understandably like to keep their feet in both camps.

Moving forward: A variable geometry approach
For these reasons, building a cooperation arrangement in Indo-Pacific would need to involve a “variable geometry” approach that will allow countries to get on board relatively comfortably based on their individual circumstances. This article does not intend to provide a blueprint of such an arrangement and would instead indicate some general considerations in light of the experience with SEATO.

The starting point should be to lay the building blocks by promoting a collaborative arrangement that will embrace a unifying value-based agenda emphasizing democracy, human rights and rule of law. In other words, the arrangements should be seen as value-based coalition instead of an anti-China bloc. Such an approach will help foster a common appreciation by the countries of the region of the systemic risks China poses as well as the need for collaboration to preserve their democratic system, without having to take a deliberate position against China. This way, it will have the potential to gather maximum number of countries under a single umbrella.

While it would be necessary to allow “policy spaces” of various degrees to the potential participating countries, it will also be important to permit and foster coalitions of the willing of subgroups of countries on specific sets of agenda consistent with the overall objectives of the umbrella arrangement. Such flexibility will be needed to accomplish tasks that a subgroup of countries considers important without necessarily implicating other members. These voluntary coalitions will facilitate ownership and commitment of their respective participants in the design and implementation of collaborative actions. This kind of organizational arrangement may seem messy, but a straitjacket approach is not likely to work.

As the principal protagonist, the US is expected to play a crucial role. While continuing to lead from the front, it should ensure that the voices and vulnerabilities of countries of the region, particularly the smaller nations, are taken adequately on board. It should continue to facilitate the process by strategically using its considerable leverages to help countries consolidate and defend their democracies and to facilitate democratic transition in countries that have witnessed democratic backsliding.

The US actions in support of the fight for democracy in Myanmar and free and fair elections in Bangladesh have proved popular in the respective countries. These kinds of actions will go a long way for the leadership of US to be regarded by the people of the region as a force for good. Since this is going to be a long game, the US and its allies will need to pursue their policies and actions to support democracy and democratization in a consistent and determined manner with a clear, consistent and long-term commitment.

Finally, the ongoing considerations to redefine global value chains away from China offer a great opportunity to the countries of the region to rapidly scale up their economies. This can be the centerpiece of a new Marshall Plan for the Indo-Pacific. The US can lead the charge by encouraging coalitions of countries to voluntarily band together at their respective sub-regional levels to create larger economic spaces that would incentivize relocation of investments.

In order not to repeat the concentration of value chains in one or two large countries, US and its allies should aim to distribute the relocated investment activities across the region so that all countries stand to benefit from it. This can be supplemented by development finance to build necessary infrastructures, logistic facilities and human and institutional capacities from countries like the US, Japan and the EU, as well as from multilateral organizations and the private sector.

If China persists in externally projecting its own domestic system and bolstering authoritarian regimes abroad, a time may come when the countries of the Indo-Pacific region will be faced with a binary choice between protecting democracy and falling prey to authoritarianism. Alternatively, strong cooperation among democratic forces in Indo-Pacific may induce China to moderate its own actions. Until such time, countries in the region and their allies will do well by pooling and enhancing their strengths and capacities to collectively safeguard their democratic system of governance and rights-based way of life.

[1] Meyer, Paul, SEATO: The Tantalizing Promise of NATO’s Forgotten Counterpart In the Indo-Pacific, NATO Association of Canada, August 22, 2022

[2] Gentilucci, Louis T., SEATO Stumbles: The Failure of the NATO Model in the Third World, Cupola, September 2015.

ABOUT AUTHOR: Khalil Rahman began his career as a foreign service officer of Bangladesh in 1979 and subsequently served in the United Nations, including as head of economic, social and development affairs at the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General. He received PhD degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1983.
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