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Birth of an Asian NATO: A New Strategic Alliance Emerges Amid Regional Tensions

As regional tensions continue Japan, the US, and the Philippines are strengthening ties. Does this hint at Asian NATO to counter China's assertiveness?



At the Japan-US-Philippines summit meeting (from left) Philippine President Marcos, US President Biden, and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the White House, Washington, DC. (© Kyodo)

Preoccupied with Ukraine and the Gaza conflict, the United States currently does not have the leeway to fully focus on China. Furthermore, should the US directly intervene in those war zones, it risks depleting military strength that could be crucial for defending Taiwan. China would view even the slightest power vacuum in the Indo-Pacific as a strategic opportunity ripe for the picking. Given this new imperialist power's sinister machinations, I wonder whether Nankai Sensei would anticipate an Asian version of NATO and how he would respond.

"Nankai Sensei" is a fictional political strategist. He appears in the famous book A Discourse By Three Drunkards On Government (Sansuijin keirin mondo). Renowned Meiji-era journalist and political thinker Nakae Chomin published this piece of political philosophy in 1887. In the book, the three characters engage in a debate on the proper approach to governing. 

One is a Western-educated gentleman who advocates unarmed pacifism. Another is a "hero" who is eager to conquer weak nations. The third is the eminent scholar Nankai Sensei, who acts as the moderator. 

Chomin's work vividly portrays the inherent conflict between advocating "peace through disarmament" and "peace through power." These options can only yield tangible results through the middle ground of Nankai Sensei's defensive strategy. That realism is what we have today in forms like the Japan-US alliance

Times have changed. If Nankai Sensei, the advocate of realism, were alive today, he might well take his proposition one step further. He would likely broaden the concept to establish a security framework aimed at deterring Beijing's ambitions for a China-centric world.

'Strategic Triangles'

Currently, US diplomacy is seeking to develop "strategic triangles" to prevent the "dragon" from infringing on other countries. 

During his official visit to Washington DC, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is joined by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Together, they will connect with other leaders to inaugurate a more integrated trilateral partnership.

One example began in November 2023, when Kishida visited Manila. While he was there, Japan agreed to provide the Philippines with coastal surveillance radars. This marked the first support under Japan's new Official Security Assistance (OSA), a framework tailored to recipient countries' security needs. 


Furthermore, talks are underway for a Japan-Philippines reciprocal access agreement to enhance exchanges between the Self-Defense Forces and the Philippine military. Future joint training and disaster relief efforts are poised to experience a substantial increase in intensity and effectiveness.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Manila in March of this year. During his visit, he declared that any attack on the Philippines' armed forces would trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty with the US.

Focus on Deterrence

This burgeoning Japan-US-Philippines alliance serves as a triangle of deterrence against China, complementing the earlier Japan-US-South Korea framework. The plan is to extend the existing network of cooperation in Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia as well. 

Particularly significant is the fact that the Philippines has granted the US military access to four additional military bases. These bases include two on Luzon, the island closest to Taiwan. 

The Biden Administration is attempting to establish an unbroken line of deterrence by multilayering these two strategic triangles. This sets the stage for cooperation in providing support during future crises involving Taiwan or the Korean Peninsula.

A Filipino activist holds a placard during a protest condemning China's actions during an encounter in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, outside of the Chinese Consulate in Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines, April 9, 2024. (© REUTERS/Lisa Marie David)

China's Provocations Against the Philippines

These cooperative arrangements stem from China's aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and East China Sea. Beijing's "everything is mine" strategy in the South China Sea now increasingly involves employing water cannons against Philippine vessels. Its actions aim to test the limits of the US-Philippines defense treaty. 

Chinese military aircraft and warships encircle Taiwan, applying pressure and gauging the US response in the Taiwan Strait.

On March 23, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel directed a powerful stream of water at a Philippine wooden supply ship. The clash took place in disputed waters near Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal). According to Reuters, at least six such attacks have occurred during the last eight months. 

If water cannon attacks are classified as "armed attacks," the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty mandates US assistance to Manila. China's cunning use of water cannons, laser irradiation, and the ramming of Philippine ships to intimidate constitutes a gray zone. It is unclear whether its actions are "peaceful" or "warlike," with the latter possibly interpreted as the use of force.


Sun Tzu Tactics in the Taiwan Strait

The same holds true in the Taiwan Strait. On March 20, Taiwan's diplomatic authorities noted China's construction of a large military base near Taiping Island in the Spratly Islands. Taiwan effectively controls the island. 

Observers believe that Taiping Island ("Peace Island")in the Spratley Islands could become a flashpoint before China launches an attack on Taiwan proper. These same diplomatic authorities warn that "China is building huge military facilities on three reefs surrounding Taiping Island. These reefs include Subi Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, and Mischief Reef."

Encroaching gradually into neighboring territorial waters reflects a strategy reminiscent of Chinese military general Sun Tzu. In the Art of War, he advised, "Attack where the enemy is unprepared, appear where unexpected." 

In a modern context, it means identifying the enemy's vulnerabilities and seizing unexpected opportunities to catch them off guard.

An image released on February 25 by the China Coast Guard on its official WeChat account shows an exercise conducted around the Taiwanese Kinmen Island. The letters "China Coast Guard 2202" can be seen on the hull. (©Kyodo)

China Itself Is Spurring the Creation of an 'Asian NATO'

The main flaw of the Japan-US Indo-Pacific strategy is the absence of a preparedness state similar to NATO in Europe. Such preparedness could thwart China's potential aggression. A "NATO for Asia" would ensure that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all, serving as a strong deterrent.

During Shinzo Abe's tenure as prime minister, he collaborated closely with the US to establish a comprehensive security framework. This included trilateral, multilateral, and other forms of security cooperation.

Another Donald Trump administration committed to an "America First" agenda may shake the current robust Japan-US alliance. Should this happen, it would be necessary to look to "Plan B" and strengthen other arrangements. 

Progress in this regard has already begun through the establishment of the Quad framework, which includes Japan, the US, Australia, and India. Initiating the Quad framework facilitated the formation of the new AUKUS arrangement, uniting the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia.

After World War II, the US developed a "hub-and-spoke" strategy. In schematic form, bilateral alliances (spokes) encircle the US (hub) in a wheel-like arrangement. Today, we are moving away from this strategy towards a more interconnected "web-like" approach, where alliances expand and intertwine.


The lack of an Asian-style NATO may be attributed to mutual distrust between regional countries, such as Japan and South Korea. Disparities in national power, like those between Japan and the Philippines, also contribute. We now seem to be overcoming those constraints. 

Reviving Old Alliances, Creating New Ones

Although NATO emerged triumphant in the Cold War, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it lost its centripetal cohesion. It became what French President Emmanuel Macron has characterized as "brain dead." Now, ironic as it may seem, the alliance has been resuscitated thanks to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

Similarly, as China grows more aggressive in intimidating its neighbors, the pathway to an Asian NATO may gradually emerge.

Nonetheless, one lingering concern is what will happen if Trump wins the US presidential election in November. Trump is, after all, well known for his disdain for multilateral alliances. 

Dealing with Trump's "America First" ideology and his penchant for creating turmoil will not be easy. If only an enlightened strategist like Nankai Sensei could join the administration and guide Trump toward a realistic course.


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Hiroshi Yuasa, political commentator