Commentary: Lessons from SEATO’s death


THE resurrection of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) to contain China has been proffered and predicted since the 1990s. In a 1995 New York Times op-ed, Thomas L. Friedman recommended to “dust off the SEATO Charter” if American foreign policy fails to shape a more “benign China” (“Foreign Affairs; Dust Off the SEATO Charter,” June 28, 1995). Two decades later, Interaksyon columnist Cesar Polvorosa Jr. predicted that one of the possible consequences of China’s rise is SEATO’s comeback (“China following US capitalist footsteps and its various implications,” August 3, 2015). Dreams of SEATO’s successful re-emergence might just be wishful thinking. Certainly, there’s a difference between wishful thinking and wishing for something. The latter requires the dreamer to come down to earth and learn from SEATO’s experience.

Initiated and bankrolled by the Americans, SEATO, along with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), was one of the Cold War alliances the US and its allies created in order to contain the spread of communism from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Formed in 1954, the alliance partners were France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines, and the United States. While NATO persists, SEATO bit the dust in 1977.

Through the years, SEATO was increasingly viewed more as America’s foreign policy tool than as an institution embodying the collective aspirations of its members. In 1969, US Sen. George S. McGovern rebuked SEATO as a mere “paper treaty” providing nothing but “legal rationalization” for American Presidents “to intervene in Southern Asia.” Meanwhile, the 1961 Laos Crisis demonstrated the weak grounding of the alliance members’ collective desire. With American support, Thailand proposed that SEATO intervene in Laos, while the UK and France strongly opposed it.

Plagued by disagreements and ambiguous treaty provisions, SEATO dissolved in June 1977. No one grieved its death. Its end was even heartily welcomed by several non-member Southeast Asian countries—Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, which all wanted to forge closer ties with Beijing.

According to realism, the raison d’être of alliances is the existence of a state that each alliance member finds threatening. When that state is no longer perceived as a threat by most of the alliance members, the alliance ceases to exist.

From the start not all SEATO members viewed China as a threat to the same extent that the US did. Pakistan viewed India more of a threat. Despite the shadow of the Cold War, the UK and France maintained a trading relationship with the PRC.

What dramatically diminished the threat posed by China was the 1961 Sino-Soviet split, which opened up an opportunity for the US and its allies to normalize their relations with Beijing. After a series of secret talks, in 1972, President Richard Nixon visited China. It produced the Shanghai Communiqué, which marked the end of hostility between the two nations. In the same year, the newly elected governments of Australia and New Zealand sought closer economic ties with the PRC. And in 1975, both the Philippines and Thailand established diplomatic relations with China.

But it wasn’t just changes in the strategic context that triggered SEATO’s dissolution. What also killed SEATO was the absence of a collective identity among its members.

From a social constructivist perspective, the absence of external threat isn’t enough to dissolve an alliance. Alliances dissolve because its members haven’t reached the depth of co-identification sufficient to form a collective self. The reason why alliance members stay together is that their sense of self is entangled with the collective identity of their alliance. Without the fusion of selves, members will find it easy to leave an alliance when the strategic situation changes. An alliance disbands when sufficient members no longer find it necessary for their survival.

Since the alliance was based on a vague collective identity, the members found it difficult to identify their common interests. As the declassified Pentagon Papers on United States-Vietnam relations (1945-1967) revealed, “anti-communism was no unifying force” for SEATO.

Unlike NATO, the SEATO treaty didn’t automatically oblige its members to come to the aid of alliance members who were under attack. Because of this, SEATO wasn’t able to encourage the formation of a community-feeling among its members that would allow them to recognize that an attack on one of them was an attack on all of them. The SEATO treaty let members assess how a threat affected them individually rather than how it imperiled their existence as a community.

The absence of a strong “We identity” made it difficult for SEATO’s members to withstand the myriad differences of its members on various issues. Without a “We” to hold on to, SEATO members found it easy to leave and see their alliance die without shedding a tear.

To those who are dreaming of a NATO-like alliance in the Pacific in order to contain China’s ascendance, SEATO’s dissolution imparts an important lesson. It’s one thing to say that China’s rise is a threat. That it’s a threat in the same degree to all possible alliance members is another. That the possible alliance members will be able to identify one another deeply enough to form a collective identity, which in turn would be the bedrock of their security community, is quite another still.

(Published in The Manila Times, 11 May 2017)

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