Could Pompeo's Anti-China Alliance Work? SEATO—Asian NATO—Failed Before

In a speech emblematic of the new era of direct U.S.-China confrontation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that the free world must join together to resist Beijing's "new tyranny." He warned: "If the free world doesn't change Communist China, Communist China will change us."

The speech, which prompted angry denouncement in China, accused China of becoming "increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else."

Pompeo, long a critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), cited former President Richard Nixon who "once said he feared he had created a 'Frankenstein' by opening the world to the CCP, and here we are."

The uncompromising address is symptomatic of deteriorating U.S.-China relations, already frosty and undermined further by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

President Donald Trump's administration is placing the blame squarely at Beijing's door, citing the pandemic as further evidence that the CCP cannot be trusted as an international partner and cannot be allowed to continue growing its wealth, influence and territory.

U.S. lawmakers and administration officials are investigating ways to contain what they see as America's greatest strategic challenge, one that will loom over the country's foreign policy for decades to come.

The Trump administration and presidential challenger Joe Biden have both said the U.S. must strengthen international alliances to help contain China's rise, with a special focus on Asian nations already chafing against an increasingly assertive China.

"Free nations have to work to defend freedom," Pompeo said last week. "It's the furthest thing from easy," he said, adding: "I have faith. I have faith because of the awakening I see among other nations that know we can't go back to the past in the same way that we do here in America. I've heard this from Brussels, to Sydney, to Hanoi."

The U.S. has tried something like this before. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO)—consisting of the U.S., U.K., France, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand—was a multinational body set up to combat the spread of communism in Asia, at a time when Washington, D.C. feared the red menace would topple national dominoes across the region. Indeed, the U.S.'s SEATO membership was central to its justification for the Vietnam War.

But the eight-nation body was weak in helping its members deal with internal conflict and had no way to deploy independent military forces to meet external threats.

The organization also only included three Asian nations, prompting criticism that it was another Western colonial venture replacing the imperial system that broke down after World War Two.

By the early 1970s, nations began drifting away from the body amid continued U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Both France and Pakistan opposed the American action there, and in 1973 Islamabad officially withdrew from SEATO after it failed to assist Pakistan in its war against India.

With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the most pressing driver for the body disappeared. SEATO was formally disbanded in 1977.

The U.S. might also pursue a more trade-focused approach to containing China, for example reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), marooned in 2017 when Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal shortly after taking office.

The agreement was touted as a way to draw Asian nations closer to the U.S. and curtail Chinese expansion, but the Trump administration believed the deal would negatively impact U.S. workers.

Andrew Small of the European Council on Foreign Relations told Newsweek that the TPP or a successor to it would have been "the obvious thing" for the administration to turn to, and could have been crafted to be "even more seriously focused on dealing with some of the China-related economic issues."

An economic and technological focus is more likely than a military one for future multilateral cooperation, Small added. Already America's confrontation with China rests heavily on the dispute over Huawei and 5G networks, a battle U.S. allies are increasingly being drawn into as well.

"It's harder to imagine—certainly in an East Asian context—that you would have some kind of significantly expanded military linkages between any of the U.S. partners, partly because of the inherent difficulties in relations between them—most obviously Japan and South Korea—but also just because there's a certain level of caution about taking those sorts of steps," Small said.

The China issue covers a range of areas—military, trade, technology, academia, and so on—meaning different countries will have different priorities, and making certain nations more valuable U.S. partners on some issues than others.

This might mean that a series of national groupings makes more sense than one uniform body. Small suggested the world might see "different overlapping coalitions of countries working together on a lot of their shared concerns."

Whatever focus the White House chooses, Trump's aggressive and transactional approach to America's traditional allies may make multilateral success harder.

Robert Manning—a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has served as a strategist and an adviser in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the State Department—argued that Trump has made the China question into a Washington vs. Beijing issue, rather than a global one involving allies.

"I think it's naive to think that just because we have similar grievances, that that will automatically ensure a coalition," Manning said of regional allies and other nations chafing against China. "It requires agile multilateral diplomacy, and we haven't seen a lot of that. It's all been unilateral and bilateral, and I think that's a mistake...The response to this problem has to be multilateral and global."

Throwing in with the U.S. is risky for smaller nations in China's immediate environment. Beijing has already warned U.S. allies that toeing the line from Washington could bring retaliation from China. "Because of the way this administration has dealt with allies, there's been a lot of constraints to the risks that certain countries are willing to take in this regard," Small said.

As Manning explained: "They live there. They know they have to live with China no matter what the U.S. does." And with what promises to be the most bitter presidential election in recent memory looming, "you're not too sure about where the United States is going to go," Manning added. As such, U.S. allies and other Asian nations are "a little bit tentative" in the lead up to the election, Small said.

Biden has made diplomacy a cornerstone of his foreign policy platform. He has promised to refund and refocus on traditional, multilateral diplomacy if he takes power in January, meaning a return to U.S.-directed international cooperation might be on the cards.

"I think countries will be treading quite carefully for now until that's cleared up," Small said of the election. "So I don't I wouldn't expect to see anything dramatically new."

Bipartisan recognition of the China challenge might be growing in Washington, but that is a long way from a coherent strategy for the nascent confrontation—already being described as a new Cold War by some observers.

"China's going to have a bigger footprint in the world whether we like it or not," Manning said.

"So what do we think are China's legitimate interests? No one ever talks about that. And I think sooner or later—unless you have reason to believe the CCP is going to disappear, which I think the world would be better for but I don't see any evidence—then you've got to live with it."

Mike Pompeo, China, US, Asia, allies, SEATO
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo is seen before a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on the State Departments 2021 budget in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. on 30 July 2020. GREG NASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/Getty