The resilience of "APTO" demands an active US participation

Many years down the road, hypothetically teleconferencing from their respective capitals, are the state leaders of the recently formed military alliance – we can call it APTO, or Asia-Pacific Treaty Organization, informally referred to as the Pacific Alliance. However, rather than presenting a polished appearance as one would expect from such leaders, there are only haggard faces of sleep-deprived prime ministers and presidents.

In this hypothetical conversation, it was only a few days ago when border disputes between Vietnam and China have erupted into a military skirmish, a classic case of “who did what first.” They are playing the blame game, but the stakes are much higher than simple culpability. For APTO, the relevant question is who shot first and why, and what happens next? Much like NATO, APTO members are bound to rush to the defense of their ally. But will they?

Beginnings of a new alliance

Let us first take a step back and examine APTO. Similar to NATO in formation and function, the Pacific Alliance is formed in response to fears of piracy and terrorist threats. Originally an informal partnership between traditional American allies -- Australia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines -- the group soon expands to include Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Vietnam. The objective of this partnership is to better integrate and improve defense capabilities, all in the hopes of providing stability and security in the Pacific.

However, what began as a collection of allies the United States could call upon quickly evolves into APTO, a formal military alliance bearing all the same responsibilities of NATO. Those 10 nations were joined by informal partners such as Brunei, Chile, India, Singapore, and, of course, the US (who, while aiding in the creation of APTO, elects to remain apart so as to not bear the same commitments as formal members).

The US is content on playing kingmaker, working from across the Pacific to provide material support for and participate in joint-training exercises with its regional allies.

Meanwhile, China expresses its disapproval of APTO, which it believes is an extension of American foreign policy. For Beijing, threats of piracy and terrorism are nothing more than veiled excuses for a military alliance to contain China. Nevertheless, it dares not attack APTO members, knowing full well that an unprovoked attack would perhaps lead to an unnecessary war with the US, never mind its immediate neighbors. No, unless there is justifiable cause for action, Beijing would simply have to tolerate APTO in its backyard.

And Vietnam, it seems, would provide said cause.

Casus belli

The hypothetical teleconference is more of a fact-finding mission than a preparation for war. After all, maybe China is right. Maybe Vietnam did start this skirmish; and maybe, if one examined the APTO declarations long and hard enough, APTO members didn’t have to fight. Technicalities in the defense treaty dictate that members are not required to aid Vietnam if Vietnam was found to have attacked first. If Vietnam shot first, why should any APTO nation partake in a war it had nothing to do with? Didn’t China say its business was only with Vietnam? Maybe, APTO leaders are privately thinking, maybe we should just let those two guys settle this on their own.

And they would have good reason to avoid war altogether since the US, as an informal member of APTO, is not bound to send its troops to war like formal members. Except for demands to resolve the conflict peacefully within the framework of the UN, the White House has done little else. Only having just recovered from its economic crisis, and with its defense budget drastically reduced, the American people and US Congress have little intention in entering another war. Although it has stated time and time again its future in the Pacific, said future had avoided all instances of conflict where possible. And right now, avoiding conflict is very much a possibility.

So, is this the end of APTO? This is its first test, and already we can see cracks forming in the alliance. Already we can see that members are looking for ways not to contribute.

But would things have been different if the US had been a formal member? Would APTO members readily rush to the defense of Vietnam had the US Congress given the nod? By asking these questions, we must therefore question the feasibility of any military alliance sans United States. Not only that, but by asking these questions, we must secretly acknowledge that such an alliance may not be able to function effectively without direct American participation.

Keystone for a successful alliance

This hypothetical scenario has highlighted the inherent difficulties of any security alliance where the US has assumed a background role. Where NATO succeeded was that the Cold War was largely “fought” between the US and Russia; NATO members and the Warsaw Pact benefitted from the defense arrangements and nuclear deterrents of their respective party.

APTO, on the other hand, would not be formed under the same context. Any future conflict will not be waged outright between the US and China, but China and its neighbors. American foreign policy will be separate from those of China’s neighbors, and said American foreign policy may be pursued without intervening in the affairs of China’s neighbors. Knowing this, for what reason and what role should the US play in a military alliance such as APTO?

Clearly, for the alliance to succeed, the US must assume a leadership role, where the success of the alliance is necessary for the success of American objectives. Simply put, APTO must be structured around American needs. Unfortunately, as historians will note, such an organization existed in the past and failed—SEATO, or the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. Therefore APTO cannot simply be a reflection of American foreign policy. It must be designed to address the needs of Pacific nations from which its members are draw, while at the same time provide an incentive for American participation.

Selling a reason

The US has echoed the concerns of some Southeast Asian nations over Chinese expansionism. In response, they have continued to conduct joint-military exercises with and sold armaments to their regional allies, as well as new, hoped-for partners. Even so, the US has recognized the rise of China and has, on several occasions, declared its hopes for China to become a strategic partner in a kind of a G-2 US-China Summit. Only when this matter has been addressed can APTO hope for the US to join its ranks as an official partner.

Present difficulties aside, any future APTO where the US is a formal member cannot serve to antagonize Beijing. Just as the Chinese economy has benefitted from American businesses, the US has also grown to rely on China. APTO, given its nature as a military alliance, threatens the already fragile relationship America has with China; therefore APTO must not be exclusive and antagonistic in nature, but inclusive and cooperative.

For APTO or any such organization to succeed, it must work with China, and assist in bridging gaps between Beijing and its neighbors. There is little to gain for the US if APTO merely pushes China away. Under such circumstances, there is little reason for the US to become more than a part-time member. If there is to be an APTO in the future, it must be designed to build bonds rather than break them.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law. He serves as President of the VDK Law Office and the VDK Investment Consulting Group.)