“Mini NATO” in Asia-Pacific Region Plan by US and Australia

At the annual ministerial meeting between the United States and Australia, held late July this year, an Australian journalist asked US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, whether America had an interest to establish wider relations with Australia, Japan and the Republic of Korea. Powell admitted that the US had thought about this and was in favor of a certain kind of consultative mechanism, such as a forum.

There was immediate worldwide response to the news that a “mini NATO”, composed of the above four countries, will soon appear in the Asia-Pacific region, once the so-called consultative mechanism came into being. A consensus was that the mechanism, with the US and Australia as leaders, would be a new Asia-Pacific security pattern aimed at China.

Upon the conjectures and concerns of the international community, Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, explained that what they planned was just an informal dialogue mechanism rather than a “NATO”. He also said that if the proposed four-country security consultative mechanism worried the region, it would not be worthwhile.

In fact, Australia has been longing for such a “mini NATO” for many years. An article in Australia-based Time Magazine said that Canberra had been engaged in producing a multilateral security cooperative system in the Asia-Pacific region for almost 20 years. Another Australian newspaper revealed that in 1999, Australia talked with Japan about a tripartite dialogue mechanism comprising of US, Japan and Australia. It also lobbied US to join them, but the then US President Bill Clinton didn’t seem enthusiastic about it. Australia’s attempt was fruitless. After Gorge Bush assumed power, the hawk prevailed in US administration, and Australia saw new hope.

Reasonably, such a security consultative mechanism in the Asia-Pacific region should include China, a big Asian country. But why was China excluded from it?

In fact, Australia has a complicated relationship with China. The fast growing economy of China brought Australia attractive business opportunities, and it has gained much from it. China has become the third largest trading partner of Australia and the largest source of tourists to Australia. More Chinese students have shown a preference to study in Australia in recent years. Australian telecommunications, finance and insurance industries are confidently marching into the Chinese market. Thanks to China’s successful bid for the 2008 Olympic Games, more Australian industries, including construction, environmental protection, and even the dairy sector, will find a niche in Chinese markets.

Nevertheless, Australia also has fears. It feels uncomfortable being a neighbor of such a big country, which has a population of 1.3 billion and a different social system. In the sea of yellow people, Australia feels lonely. From the perspective of territorial area, Australia can be seen as a big country. But considering its population, scientific and economic strength, it is comparatively smaller, although its per-capita income ranks among the highest in the world. So, to sleep soundly, Australia thinks it must be stronger and find a base to depend on.

On this issue, different Australian governments have had varying attitudes. The past two governments were in favor of mixing into Asia and seeking security in it. This was manifested by its initiation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in the 1980s. But the present government stresses the European characteristic of Australia, and proposes to seek security in Asia with extra strengths. The suggested “informal consultative mechanism” was the product of this stand. Because of limitations of its own strength, Australia asked for the support of US to establish a West-led security system in Asia.

Australia’s proposal caters to the appetite of US hawk. US strategists started strategic adjustment when the former Soviet Union disintegrated and the Cold War ended. Americans thought its former rival had disappeared and that Russia was becoming feebler. Europe was settled, but the situation of the Asia-Pacific region was still uncertain. The world economic center was moving eastward.

China, which has a different political system and culture, was rising up and became the only competitor challenging the interests and status of America. Based on this, America has been actively strengthening relations with China on the one hand, while adjusting strategic policies and regrouping armed forces on the other. It has also actively strengthened bilateral military cooperation with India, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia and other Asia-Pacific countries and regions.

Now, US is intending to develop its former bilateral military alliance with Japan, South Korea and Australia to a new multilateral one, while keeping its military forces in these countries. It seems that America’s war planners will cause more trouble in the Asia-Pacific region. If the multilateral military alliance is established, it will change the military pattern in the Asia-Pacific region and produce more crises there.

But whether the dream of the two countries would be realized is questionable. Firstly, Australia is thought as an “arrogant Western country” by its Asian neighbors, and so it has no influence in the region; Japan doesn’t have a good reputation in Asia and most Asian countries will boycott it; and the Republic of Korea will not sit on the same bench with them. The United States had some excuses to sign bilateral security treaties with Asian countries in the 50-year Cold War period, but to create a security group in the region cannot be that easy.

(Beijing Review 09/20/2001)

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