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Will the United States set up a NATO-like Pacific Treaty Organization in Asia? If so, how?

Question submitted by Felix Seidler, from Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel, Germany, June 3, 2013

Answered by: Stewart M. Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program

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Despite its strategic "rebalancing" toward Asia, the United States is unlikely to sponsor a collective defense organization for the Asia-Pacific, for at least three reasons: insufficient solidarity among diverse regional partners, fear of alienating China, and the perceived advantages of bilateral and ad-hoc security arrangements.

Unlike in Europe, the United States during the Cold War designed a "hub and spoke" containment strategy for East Asia, focused on bilateral and (in the case of Australia and New Zealand) trilateral alliances. This difference, which has long fascinated scholars, reflected at least five considerations: a U.S. desire for freedom of action vis-à-vis weaker partners; Japan's recent legacy of brutal aggression (which made neighboring nations reluctant to ally with it); the region's lack of geographic contiguity (unlike Europe); the political and economic diversity of the region; and racist attitudes in the early Cold War United States.

Some of these conditions have changed, but there is little groundswell for an Asian NATO. First, the countries of the region retain diverse interests and regional priorities and (in the case of ROK-Japanese relations) insufficient levels of trust to band together. Second, the United States is anxious to provide "strategic reassurance" to its East Asian allies and partners confronting China's rise, but without aggravating China's sense of "encirclement"—something a multilateral alliance would clearly do. Finally, the United States is increasingly attracted to cooperation within flexible coalitions that can coalesce temporarily, as mechanisms for addressing regional as well as global security challenges. Some of these, like the Six-Party Talks over North Korea, will involve China. Others will not.