Would a ‘neighborhood watch’ really deter China’s Asia-Pacific aggression?

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A recent report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) suggests a “neighborhood watch approach” to coordinate unmanned systems and sensors. This approach to multilateral security, described as “low risk” by the authors, is advocated as a means to deter China’s political and military moves in the Asia-Pacific.  

While mostly technical and tactical in scope, the report’s approach touches on an issue of broader military and political import for the region — namely, is a multilateral security architecture the most effective way to deter China? And if so, are methods such as coordinated surveillance a good way to start building such an architecture?

The CSBA report comes at an interesting time, in view of the Wall Street Journal’s recent analysis of Japan’s efforts to develop an independent military capability to deter China. This capability, while explicitly connected to Taiwan’s security, does not depart from Tokyo’s firm commitment to alliance with the U.S. Similar investments are being made in India, where modernization of naval and other capability is driven by concerns about China’s aggression.

U.S. military/security relationships in the Asia-Pacific region since World War II have been bilateral, rather than tied to a multilateral structure such as NATO. That arrangement suited the times when the U.S. was the most capable military partner in these regional bilateral relationships. However, such arrangements create seams in Asia-Pacific security that are not lost on China.  

Beijing pursues a “divide and conquer” strategy that takes advantage of these seams amid declining U.S. security focus and resources in the region over the past 20 years. China’s economic boycotts of Australia and maneuvers to exclude Philippine and Malaysia maritime commerce and fishing in the South China Sea are cases in point.

Calls to shift to a more collective security approach in the Asia-Pacific — something like the “neighborhood watch” outlined in the CSBA study — are not new. They are more urgent in view of China’s stated intent and capability to exert military and political dominance in the region.  

Multilateral military consultations and exercises are already in place, with Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) as one of several venues designed to reinforce naval interoperability among participants. But the authors make a strong point that additional arrangements centered on areas of common interest and common technical and tactical advantage between the U.S. and allies and friendly states in the Asia- Pacific have a place in U.S. policy.  

Past attempts at creating a multilateral defense architecture in the Asia-Pacific do not offer much grounds for optimism about future collective defense arrangement in the region. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was established in 1954 as such a defense treaty, but did not adequately address bilateral frictions and differences, and generally has been assessed as a failure to achieve its stated objectives.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has created an architecture for communication and some interoperability for regional maritime security among member states in Southeast Asia. However, ASEAN is not a collective defense agreement. Its achievements in coordinating maritime security efforts stumble on what commentators at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute describe as a complicated and bureaucratic structure. Further, the U.S. is not a member of ASEAN.

The “neighborhood watch” label makes sense as a next tactical and technical step to expand on multilateral security commitments. It recalls Franklin Roosevelt’s “garden hose” justification of Lend Lease — similarly arguing how more can be done to counter growing threats, without suggesting a more formal alliance. This makes a virtue of necessity since an Asian NATO still appears a bridge too far — existing historical frictions (Japan-Korea) continue to work against a full collective security alliance in the region. 

The verbs and models used in the proposal expose some of its flaws. In a neighborhood watch, the neighbors watch and if they observe something suspicious, they call the police. Who will be the police in the Asia-Pacific neighborhood watch? Short of formal NATO-like rules and structures that commit members to collective military action, it seems problematic that a less formal “watch” agreement will deter China without the threat of action.   

The issue with collective structures such as NATO traditionally has been free-riding (as the economists call it), leaving the U.S. to spend a much larger amount on European security. Perhaps the opportunity for a more balanced approach to multilateral defense is emerging in the Asia-Pacific.  

It is encouraging that countries such as Japan are committed to deterring China independently with improved military capability. A neighborhood watch with more capable neighbors like Tokyo will make any future collective security arrangement more credible vis-à-vis China. The same could be said of India’s military modernization.  

A neighborhood watch that fosters both collective and independent capability, and takes advantage of member states’ technical leads in artificial intelligence and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, could be a first step in exploring the mechanics of multilateral security. That promotes U.S. objectives in the region.

Bob Nugent is a retired U.S. Navy officer who served in the intelligence, operations and acquisition communities. He teaches in the Strategy, Management and Operations Department of the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America.

Tags ASEAN Asia-Pacific China China aggression NATO

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