A common complaint heard among American officials and policy analysts is that in East Asia — one of the most important and conflict-prone areas of the planet — there is no security architecture comparable to NATO. The U.S. has ties to many key countries, notably Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand, and Taiwan. But they do not have strong ties to one another, and there is no joint military planning of the kind that NATO undertakes. That does not seem likely to change in the future, because, although all those nations are suspicious of growing Chinese power, they also do not want to antagonize the 500-pound panda by forming an explicit alliance for its containment. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, formed in 1954, was a colossal failure and is unlikely to be resurrected.
But there are still steps that U.S. officials can take to encourage greater cooperation among our regional partners. In this regard, I was struck a few days ago while visiting Pacific Command headquarters, looked at Camp Smith overlooking Pearl Harbor, by the near-total absence of coalition allies. At Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Base in Tampa, there are substantial liaison offices from more than 50 countries — allies that are working with the U.S. to deal with Iraq, Afghanistan, Somali piracy and other issues. Since 9/11, an entire “coalition village” has sprung up around Centcom headquarters. There is nothing comparable at Camp Smith. In fact, when I asked about coalition representation, I was told about a handful of low-ranking liaison officers from Australia and a few other nations.
This would seem to be an obvious opportunity we are not taking advantage of — to encourage discussion and cooperation among disparate Asian nations hosted by our own regional military command. That would not be as good as a formal alliance structure, but it could represent a small, but useful step, in the right direction.