The United States Needs a New Regional Security Organization for the Asia-Pacific

Threats of tension and conflict in the Asia-Pacific will be a source of important security challenges facing the incoming Trump administration.  Stability in the region is crucial to long-term American economic and physical security. However, the Asia-Pacific is simmering with territorial disputes, international rivalries, and political challenges that handicap cooperative responses to shared threats from state and non-state actors. Given the US president-elect’s long-standing skepticism of existing security relationships, a push for the creation of a new multilateral regional security organization for the Asia-Pacific may be the best chance to secure American interests in a more cost-effective way than the current mix of bilateral security relationships. Much like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) helped to stabilize Europe in the face of the threat of Soviet aggression during the Cold War, a new purpose-built multilateral organization for security cooperation might provide a way to manage the complex challenges facing the Asia-Pacific region in the twenty-first century.

The number of important US allies and trading partners in the region should keep the Asia-Pacific at the top of any administration’s list of foreign policy priorities, no matter what other crises of the moment compete for attention. The region accounts for over 60 percent of US exports and includes key chokepoints for international trade overall. Meanwhile, the shared regional security threat from North Korea’s nuclear program and the ongoing risk of conflict over territorial disputes in the South China Sea are two of the most prominent potential flashpoints that risk the relative peace and stability that has benefited the region for decades.

Worryingly, the existing relationships that have helped secure American interests in the region are under major stress. Security alliances with Japan and South Korea, which are crucial for deterring regional conflicts in the short term and for discouraging either country from pursuing destabilizing nuclear weapons in the long term, are handicapped by ongoing tensions between the two countries. The suspension of democracy in Thailand and the aggressive and uncertain positions taken by President Duterte of the Philippines since his election are key instances of how relations with other regional partners have become more volatile due to domestic political forces. Absent a multilateral system of institutions binding countries in the region together with predictable obligations and systems for cooperation, it is difficult for the United States to rely on these vulnerable bilateral relationships alone to deal with regional security challenges and threats.

NATO is the most obvious example of US involvement in a multilateral regional security organization aimed at confronting shared challenges. During the Cold War, the development of NATO played a crucial role in stabilizing a splintered Europe, creating the space for historically rivalrous European countries to peacefully resolve disputes and to begin building shared economic and political institutions such as the European Union. However, while NATO was originally organized in response to the dangers of a  bipolar rivalry between its members and the Soviet bloc, today’s Asia-Pacific is shaped by a more complicated web of trade ties, small scale rivalries, and shared security challenges.

The United States should promote a strong regional security framework for the Asia-Pacific based on consistent but easily supported commitments for mutual support on shared security challenges, accompanied by a mutual non-aggression agreement. Issues such as terrorism, maritime piracy on major shipping lanes, and nuclear proliferation provide some obvious places to start. A treaty framework and accompanying institutions focused on these issues could both mandate and coordinate cooperation through measures such as relevant intelligence sharing and logistical support, while serving as a standardized forum for joint military exercises, training exchanges for military personnel, and consistent multilateral meetings between member nations’ senior military and political officials to discuss security trends and challenges. In promoting such cooperation, this kind of a framework could also smooth dispute resolution between members over time while also allowing space for reductions in military expenditures and a lighter US military footprint.

This kind of regional security organization should be open to any country in the region willing to abide by its requirements (and should include procedures to expel members who violate them). Crucially, this should include China in order to avoid an architecture that crystalizes regional tensions into a new Cold War dynamic between China on the one hand and the United States and its allies in the region on the other. There should also be a focus on implementing agreements based around a limited set of specific commitments and uncontroversial shared challenges. This would help lessen the threat that non-members may feel from the regional security organization, while still formalizing mutual obligations and regular venues for collaboration.

There is no silver bullet solution to the security challenges facing the United States and other countries in the Asia-Pacific. Much like in Cold War Europe, even the United States cannot singlehandedly solve all of the problems in the region. What US policymakers can do is once again take the lead in building stronger multilateral security institutions that support more open regional cooperation. A multilateral security organization for the Asia-Pacific will not solve all of the region’s problems overnight, but it would provide a much better set of tools to do so over time than the status quo.

Robert C. Thomas is a government security contractor and the Managing Editor of Parabellum Report. He expects to receive his MA in Ethics and Public Affairs from George Mason University in 2017. Robert is an incoming 2017 Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).

Charged Affairs is a publication of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Views of the authors do not necessarily represent the views of the organization. All rights reserved.

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