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NAATO: Blueprint for Asian security
By Jayanthi Iyengar

PUNE, India - As the Asian Tigers begin to roar again, India and China position themselves as the economic powerhouses to the world and play their share of politics, Taiwan and South Korea flex their muscles and the Arab world continues in turmoil, experts have started proposing various options for Asian security.

As the United States plans to shift its forces in Asia, coming up with a blueprint for Asian security is an urgent but complicated and divisive prospect; any idea is likely to generate both furious criticism and wary analysis. At least, say some observers, it's time to get the conversation started.

One of the most intriguing and controversial ideas - critics call it a non-starter and supporters are subdued while praising some aspects - has been put forward by M D Nalapat, professor of geopolitics and the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Peace Chair at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in Karnataka state. The academy is India's elite private university, independent of government or government-sponsored agencies.

This formula broadly deals with the creation of a US-led North America Asia Treaty Organization (NAATO) to counter the non-democratic forces in Asia, including China, Pakistan and the fundamentalist Arab world. What is significant about this formula is that unlike many other academic concepts, this one has generated some interest and small steps.

One of the strongest supporters of an Indo-US alliance predictably has been former US ambassador to India Robert Blackwill. Before leaving his post, he said the United States should "strengthen political, economic and military-to-military relations with those Asian states that share our democratic values and national interests. That spells India."

But Brigadier Arun Sahgal of the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi is wary: "As a concept it is a good idea but somewhat premature at present and in [the] near term." He said the Asian security scenario continues to be in a state of flux and is not likely to be responsive to any such concept of dramatic reordering.

Pentagon approves of closer India-US ties
At the ground level, the Pentagon too has taken note of the prospect of closer Indo-US ties and the possibility of a US-led Asian NAATO. The first step in this direction was a seminar held by the US Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon's key think-tank, in India in 2002 with counterparts from India's Integrated Defense Staff. This led to discreet talks between senior advisers to the Pentagon and to the Indian government last May on the prospects a US-led Asian NAATO. Nalapat was a participant.

"The talks between Andrew Marshall, director of the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment, and high-level Indian civilian advisers have not been publicized, but they reflect an important warming of the US-Indian relationship," United Press International (UPI) reported at the time.

The news wire service, which also quoted Nalapat extensively then, pointed out that having been non-aligned throughout the Cold War, with close economic ties to the Soviet Union, India had long been seen in Washington as a less-than-friendly and impoverished nation. "Now a nuclear power, with a thriving high-tech sector in a growing economy increasingly tied to the US, India is seen as a key strategic player in Asia and a potential ally that already sends its troops and naval forces on joint exercises with the US," UPI said.

Professor Nalapat, in an interview with Asia Times Online, said that as early as 1983 he had proposed an India-China-Russia axis as a counter to NATO, the North American Treaty Organization. Twenty years down the line, however, when Asia and the world are transformed, he has dramatically redefined his security concept. He now promotes an Asian NAATO, which he calls "an historical inevitability".

He points out that Asia's 500 years of recorded history have never before witnessed the extraordinary pace of change that characterizes the present era. So rapid is the transformation that if Asia had changed every 500 years, then 50 years, it now changes its face every five years. China in 2003 was not the same country it was in 1983. India also has changed dramatically during the last decade of liberalization. Four of the world's eight known nuclear-weapon powers are in Asia - China, India, Israel and Pakistan. Russia, the fifth, occupies half the Asian continent's landmass. Two of the world's three largest militaries, China's and India's - the third is the US Army - are in Asia. The continent's economic and security landscape is altering at a speed not found elsewhere on the planet.

US Asian alliances outdated, unworkable
However, what remains static is the region's security infrastructure, says Nalapat. The United States, in particular, still relies on a network of alliances that was set up in the early 1950s. Australia, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were then at the core of the alliance. Today, they remain so, despite the emergence of India as a major power, the steady democratization of parts of the Middle East, and the rise of the People's Republic of China (PRC) as a superpower. The rise of China, many analysts say, has the potential to unseat, or dethrone, the US from its current dominance in Asia.

"The network that worked so well earlier is proving inefficient now, whether it be in North Korea or in Iraq," Nalapat said, with the net result that the US is unable to implement a coherent security strategy in Asia. Nalapat's solution to the new security problems is thus an Asian NAATO based on economics. Unlike NATO, which was set up to help contain the former Soviet Union, NAATO would not have any country as its target, unless that state attacked one of the NAATO members. Central to this theme is the linking of democracies in North America and Asia in a security relationship.

This definition automatically includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar in the Middle East; Australia, India, the Philippines, Singapore in South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific; Japan and South Korea in East Asia; and the US and Canada in North America. It excludes China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Nalapat argues that those three countries could be included when they become democracies. "I have included Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait, as they are on the road to democracy. Iraq too will probably be in this list soon. There has to be a common world view, and this is possible only if all the members of Asian NAATO are either full democracies or getting there," he said.

He added that in Kuwait, for example, the emir has decreed that women should be given the vote, thus putting that country far ahead of Saudi Arabia in terms of personal freedom. "As for Pakistan, the army needs to get prised loose from civilian institutions if that country is to qualify. As for the PRC, that will take a while," he said.

Nalapat believes that this alliance would dampen rather that heighten tensions in an already volatile Asia. Taiwan, for instance, figures on his list of Asian NAATO members, since it is a democracy. An attack on Taiwan would be met by action against the aggressor by the whole of Asian NAATO. Some say Taiwan should only be a junior partner.

Though excluded, China would benefit
This alliance would actually be beneficial to the PRC, Nalapat said, as it would enable the moderates to keep hotheads at bay, once it became clear that an attack on Taiwan would result in a war not just with Taipei but with Washington, New Delhi and Tokyo as well.

He points out that China has constantly - and correctly - lectured India on the need to avoid conflict with Pakistan and use peaceful means to settle differences. "Beijing should do the same with respect to Taipei. Force should be taken off the table. Once Asian NAATO comes into being, it will be. No country likes to commit suicide."

Nalapat argues that an Asian NAATO is needed to secure democracies across the region from threats from authoritarian and extremist states. Should any democracy in Asia get attacked, Asian NAATO would come to its defense. This would act as a powerful disincentive to aggression and avoid Asia repeating the sorry European experience of the 1930s, he said.

Such an alliance is also needed to coordinate action in the "war against terror" and to integrate militaries and security infrastructure. This would generate a synergy as great as the one that was enjoyed by Western Europe from 1950-85, Nalapat says. Further, the past decade has also seen major changes within Asia and the world, which mandate such an alliance.

These developments are political, global and regional, as well as economic, including:
  • The disintegration of the Soviet Union.
  • The transition of India from a socialist republic and a former ally of the Soviet Union into a relatively free-market economy, with the United States as the ally of choice.
  • The interdependence of India and US on each other.
  • The European Union banking on Eastern Europe to supply cheap labor.
  • The resurgence of a new Russia, which lacks its earlier competitive edge as a supplier of defense technology.

    India leans to US in post-Cold War era
    Though the principle of non-alignment continues to be spearheaded and propounded by India and the regional bloc continues to exist, Nalapat points out that ground-level economic changes are continuously pushing India toward an Indo-US alliance in the post-Cold War era. He calls these forces the emergence of two Indias, the old and the new. The "old" India is traditional. It relies on bribes and government to preserve shrinking domestic monopolies. The "new" India is unafraid to compete globally and relies on skills rather than on bags full of cash. The new information-technology (IT) and biotech companies are an example of New India.

    "This is the sector that is pulling the rest of the economy out of the rut caused by 50 years of state socialism," he said. The most important factor about this sector is that 85 percent of its technology and markets are US-linked. The European Union and China are also big markets, but India has a small role to play here. Unlike the US, which is linked to India, the EU is betting on Eastern Europe to meets its needs for fresh labor and skills, which it requires to compete with the US. India has a marginal role in this vision of a European, rather than a global, Europe.

    As for China, the PRC sees India as a competitor rather than as a partner. The only major economy ready to engage India on acceptable terms is the United States, says Nalapat. The resurgence of Russia, India's traditional strategic ally, has begun, but from the defense perspective, this new Russia lags far behind in high technology. Further, Russians are constantly increasing their prices, as are the French.

    "Thus the best way of modernizing the military [for India] is to establish an alliance with the US," he concluded. That brings up the question of why the US should choose to align with India and not with China and Pakistan. A known impediment is the existing US-Japanese alliance, and the age-old political animosity between China and Japan, which make a US-China axis difficult.

    US carries less colonial baggage than Europe
    However, Nalapat has an additional explanation. He points out that unlike the Europeans, the Americans do not carry the same burden of colonial baggage. Indeed, by allowing Europe - in the form of NATO - to tag along with it everywhere, Washington is creating a perception that it itself is part of the colonial legacy, rather than what it is - a former colony that was liberated, as were India and Ireland.

    That in sum explains why the Asian democracies should join hands with the US and Canada in Asia to form an Asian NAATO.

    Professor Nalapat's concept of Asian NAATO generates a lot of heat in security circles, particularly in the US, China, India and Taiwan. Chinese and Taiwanese security experts are wary about going on record, but the media in both the countries have quoted him directly or indirectly.

    A Taiwan government official, who did not wish to be identified, refers to Nalapat as a "great intellectual and thinker with a far-reaching concept". The Chinese publications have not lagged behind. The Beijing Review carried an interview with him late last year, while the People's Daily has quoted him on the issue and on China time and again. The Taiwan Times referred to him as an expert whose views had been noted with interest by Washington. In the US, the reactions are expectedly positive, while in India - the largest democracy - they are understandably mixed.

    On the Indo-US front, Armeane M Choksi, president of the Washington-based US-India Institute, makes three points.
  • First, India is undoubtedly a better partner to the United States than China is because of shared common values - democracy, freedom, rule of law, open markets and similar strategic interests such as the global "war" on Islamic terrorism, which has affected India far more deeply than China.
  • Second, it is not clear whether China is willing to be a strategic partner or is a strategic competitor or a strategic threat to the United States. "Is China really interested in letting the US be the dominant economic and military power in the East or does it wish to occupy that position itself? These questions and the lack of shared common values and principles raise doubts about China as a partner in this alliance at this stage," Choksi said.
  • Third, for a new alliance such as NAATO to be effective, shared common values and principles such as democracy must be a binding factor. She cites the United Nations, where any sovereign state can be a member regardless of shared, common values or principles. This broad membership of nations with often diverging interests has resulted in the lowest-common-denominator approach to any problem, making the UN a far less effective institution than it could have been. "It mostly functions as a talk shop that has some cathartic value but not much," she explained.

    She further disagrees with a prevalent view that an Asian security alliance should be led by Asia and strongly argues in favor of a US-led structure. "That [an Asian NAATO led by Asian countries] degenerates into ethnic politics. The driving principle should be to include those countries that have a strategic interest in that part of the world, have common values, and the strongest economic and military power should lead that alliance if it is to be truly effective and credible. These factors make it obvious that it should be the US that should lead the alliance," she said.

    The only problem she foresees with Nalapat's concept relates to the inclusion of Taiwan. She says Taiwan qualifies when democracy is the unifying principle, just as Pakistan will qualify when it rids itself of terrorism and military dictatorship. However, Taiwan could pose a political problem, as the United States has its "one China" policy. Hence she suggests for Taiwan "possibly an associate membership to begin with" - something Taiwan surely would resist.

    A similar point is made by Leon T Hadar in the Cato Handbook for the (US) Congress. The Cato Institute is an independent, libertarian think-tank in Washington.

    In the section titled "Policy Towards India and Pakistan", Hadar states, "The United States has a clear interest in establishing strong ties with India, one of the rising political, economic and military powers in Asia and a potential strategic counterbalance to an increasingly assertive and difficult China. India is also the world's largest democracy as well as an important emerging economy and an expanding market for US goods and investments."

    Interesting concept, but premature
    Brigadier Sahgal, the defense analyst in New Delhi, has other objections: "The NAATO concept has manifest security connotations. In this case, security against whom is the question. This is particularly so against the backdrop of improving Sino-Indian relations, the six-nation Chinese initiative to resolve the North Korean crisis, the new feel-good factor [in talks] between India and Pakistan and also imperial over-reach of the Americans - three wars and counting: Iraq, Afghanistan, and international terrorism."

    Sahgal also points out the dangers of India committing itself to such an alliance when the country is in the very early stages of economic recovery and can ill-afford any formulations that could curb its geo-economic flexibility. He alludes to the statement by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee at the military Combined Commanders Conference last October and states, "India has adopted a much wiser course of building strategic partnerships with important regional and extra-regional players."

    A N Ram, former secretary in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, says he would personally not favor a military alliance for Asia, particularly one that involves powers outside this region. "It is neither workable nor desirable," he said, pointing out that such arrangements have not worked in the Asian context in the past. He said Asian prosperity is the biggest insurance for peace and it is better not to overstate the dangers of military conflicts in Asia.

    "In the post-Cold War era, even NATO is undergoing changes and its relevance is questionable. The security requirements in today's context are far broader than mere military threats." The need of the hour, he says, is regional conflict prevention and management mechanisms and genuine confidence-building measures.

    Jayanthi Iyengar is a senior business journalist from India who writes on a range of subjects for several publications in Asia, the United Kingdom and the United States. She may be contacted at

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