July 15, 2016

Dreaming of forming a military alliance against China? Learn from SEATO's experience

Written by Sass Rogando Sasot
Master's Student, International Relations
Leiden University
The Hague, Netherlands

Impermanence bows to no might. Even the leader of the world’s mightiest nation recognised this in his remarks to the United Nations General Assembly last September 2015. “None of us last forever,” Barack Obama soberly said. Deeply aware of the precariousness of their existence, States seek to maximise their security (Waltz). One way States do this is by forming alliances. Alliances are “cooperative security arrangements” States forge against a mutually perceived existential threat (Griffiths and O’Callaghan). Through their collective strengths and actions, States boost their chances of surviving in the sea of impermanence.
FEATURED IMAGE: President Rodrigo Duterte met with Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua in Davao City in May 2016. SUNSTAR DAVAO

The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) is one example of such alliances. Along with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), SEATO is one of the Cold War alliances the United States and its allies created in order to contain the spread of communism. Formed in 1954, the alliance parties were France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines, and the United States. While NATO persists, SEATO bit the dust in 1977.

This is a post-mortem of SEATO. Surely, SEATO’s dissolution can just be considered as some sort of natural death: SEATO, just like any alliance that came before it, simply reached “the final stage [of] the alliance life-cycle” (Misiolek and Wilemon). However, alliances blossom under different circumstances. The uniqueness of the circumstances of alliance formation extends to alliance dissolution. To analyse the peculiarities of SEATO’s disbandment, I will use two theoretical frameworks: Walt’s balance-of-threat theory; and a theory I will call depth of identification theory which I derived from Wendt’s constructivist perspective.

An October 1956 SEATO poster

This analysis has four junctures:
  • First, following this introduction is a short discussion of the key features of the two theoretical frameworks, as well as their implications on alliance dissolution. 
  • The proceeding section will provide a short overview of the rise and fall of SEATO. 
  • Using the dissolution of SEATO, the third section will test the hypotheses of the theoretical frameworks by weighing the evidence supporting their respective prognoses of alliance dissolution. The last section offers a conclusion.

As China is being perceived as a threat again, the resurrection of SEATO has been proffered and predicted since the 90s. 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.” Two decades later, Josh Gelernter advocated in the National Review the revival of SEATO. In 2015, in InterAksyon, Cesar Polvorosa Jr., has also argued that one of the possible consequences of China’s rise is SEATO’s comeback. This essay joins this conversation by offering a proviso on the viability and sustainability of SEATO’s possible re-emergence.

Walt and Wendt

a) Balance-of-threat Theory

Walt’s balance-of-threat theory is an attempt to rectify Waltz’s balance of power theory. As implied by Waltz’s theory, States enter into alliances either to balance against or bandwagon with the brawniest State. This theory is “seriously flawed,” Walt asserts, “because it ignores the other factors that statesmen will consider when identifying potential threats and prospective allies.” For Walt, the distribution of capability insufficiently explains alliance formation. States do not form an alliance as a “response to power alone” but as a response to “the most threatening power” (Walt 1985). Thus, States enter into alliances in order to balance against or bandwagon with the State that poses the greatest threat to themselves.

The balance-of-threat theory has several features. First, States are unitary actors, as well as the consequential actors in the international system. Second, their primary interest is survival. Third, the international system is anarchical. Fourth, since States are the consequential actors, they are also the consequential threats in the international system. This implies that the threat being confronted by the States forming an alliance is external to them (Walt 1987). And fifth, the level of threat a State poses to other States is determined by four factors: its aggregate power, promixity, offensive capability, and offensive intentions. Accordingly, States feel more threatened by nearby States with enormous resources, greater offensive capabilities, and “extremely offensive ambitions” (Walt 1985).

In this regard, this is how the balance-of-threat theory predicts the dissolution of an alliance: the absence of a common external threat spurs the dissolution of an alliance. The raison d’être of alliances is the existence of a State that each alliance member individually finds threatening. Thus, when that State no longer poses a threat to most of the members of the alliance, the alliance ceases to exist.

b) Depth-of-identification Theory

Constructivism is a sociological approach to international relations which “emphasises the social, or intersubjective, dimension of world politics” (Griffiths and O'Callaghan). For constructivists, international relations is “partly socially constructed” (Hurd). Its dynamics does not exist independently of the interaction of States. Rippling out of this principle is Wendt’s dictum that “anarchy is what states make of it” (Wendt).

Bilateral meeting between the People's Republic of China and the Philippines at the East Hall, Great Hall of the People.

One of the key distinctive features of constructivism is its view on how State interests come about: interaction precedes identity and identity precedes interests. Interests are a function of the role States take (enemy, rival, friend) in the process of relating with other States. States do not have a “portfolio of interests that they carry around independent of social context,” Wendt asserts, “they define their interests in the process of defining situations.” Without identity, States will find it difficult, if not impossible, to define the situation, and in turn their interests. States, however, have no pre-given identities; they acquire them by relating with other States (Wendt).

Constructivism may be an odd choice of theory in explaining why alliances dissolve. However, Wendt’s concept of “cooperative security systems” can be useful in understanding alliance formation and dissolution. Accordingly, alliances form when “[S]tates identify positively with one another so that the security of each is perceived as the responsibility of all” (Wendt 1992). Through the process of positive identification, States mutually identify each other as friends, and eventually, as indispensable members of one community. A collective identity then gets formed, blurring the distinction between self and other, fusing them “into a single identity” (Wendt 1992).

The blurring of self and other has implications on interests and threat assessment. Since identity precedes interests, States’ interests are the interests flowing from the collective identity. The extent States identify the collective interest as their interest largely depends on “how well developed the collective self is” (Wendt 1992). Because the self becomes the collective self, for alliance States threats are those that imperil their collective identity. They engage in collective action not because “they each feel individually threatened by the same threat” but because they feel, as a community, that the threat is an attack to their collective identity (Wendt 1999).

By implication, alliances dissolve not because of the absence of external threat but because its members have not reached the depth of 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 among its members, 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 own survival.

SEATO’s Rise and Fall

Under American initiative, SEATO was formed upon the signing of the Manila Pact in September 1954. SEATO’s secretariat was based in Bangkok and its operations were primarily bankrolled by US largesse. Its primary purpose was to contain the spread of communism in South- East Asia, particularly that of People’s Republic of China (PRC), which supported communist movements in the region (van der Kroef). Walter Lippmann hailed the treaty as marking a “new venture” in collective security. The Manila Pact “opens up the possibility of legalised and licensed [international] intervention in [the] internal affairs” of its alliance members and in Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam (Lippman; Protocol to the Manila Pact). Meanwhile, SEATO merely considered these attacks as a “common danger.” There was no obligation to come to the aid of the attacked alliance member; and measures to be taken must be unanimously agreed by and must conform to the “constitutional processes” of alliance members (Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty).
A 1960 SEATO-themed 4c stamp issued by the United States Postal Service.

Throughout the years, SEATO was increasingly viewed more as America’s foreign policy tool than as an institution embodying the collective aspirations of its members. US Senator George S. McGovern rebuked SEATO as a mere “paper treaty” providing nothing but “legal rationalization” for American presidents “to intervene in Southern Asia” (McGovern). Affirming this is a recently declassified document from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Vietnam Task Force). Meanwhile, the 1961 Laos Crisis demonstrated the weak grounding of the alliance’s collective desire. With American support, Thailand proposed “for a SEATO force to intervene” in Laos; it was quashed by the “strong opposition from the French and British” (McKnight).

Plagued by disagreements, lacklustre support from some its members, and ambiguous treaty provisions, SEATO dissolved in June 1977. No one grieved its death. The New York Times called its demise a “tearless end.” SEATO was one of those things that, to borrow Oscar Wilde’s words, brings happiness “whenever they go.” Its end was heartily welcomed by several non-member Southeast Asian countries - Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia - which viewed SEATO’s existence as an “obstacle to improving ties with the new Communist states of Indochina, which saw it as a military threat” (Andelman).

SEATO's Post-mortem

So what killed SEATO?

From the balance-of-threat perspective, what proved to be fatal to SEATO was that the threat that spurred the alliance to form — China — ceased to be perceived as threatening.

From the beginning not all SEATO members viewed the PRC as a threat “in the same degree” as the US did (van der Kroef). Pakistan viewed India more of a threat than the PRC. As early as January 1950, Pakistan already recognised the legitimacy of the PRC and established full diplomatic relations the following year (Embassy of Pakistan). Meanwhile, Pakistan had several territorial wars with India. The British had a “less fundamentalist approach” against communism (McKnight). Despite the shadow of the Cold War, the UK maintained a trading relationship with the PRC. In fact, “British companies were among the first to trade with communist China” (British Chamber of Commerce). Meanwhile, France had no interests in the region “directly vulnerable to Chinese pressures.” France also started trading with China in 1958, exporting goods worth 44.4 million USD (Boyd).

A composite image of the flags of Pakistan (left) and India (Right)

But the precipitating moment that dramatically diminished the threat posed by China was the 1961 Sino-Soviet split. This opened an opportunity for the US and its allies to establish ties with China. After a series of secret talks, in 1972, President Nixon visited China and “negotiated the Shanghai Communiqué, an important step toward improving relations between the United States and the PRC after many years of hostility” (US Department of State). Meanwhile, the newly elected governments of Australia and New Zealand in 1972 “sought closer economic ties with China” (Buchanan). And in 1975, both the Philippines and Thailand established diplomatic relations with China. In the same year, these two countries issued a joint communiqué, calling for the phasing out of SEATO “to make it accord with the new realties of the region” (New York Times, 25 July 1975). Thus, when the raison d’être of SEATO ceased to be threatening, the alliance bit the dust.

From the perspective of depth-of-identification, what killed SEATO was the absence of collective identity. To begin with, only the Philippines and Thailand were from South-East Asia. The alliance members “represented disparate cultures in countries scattered around the world” (Vietnam Task Force). Because of this, alliance members find it difficult to identify themselves with each other because they are too different. Consequently, their “incompatible views...resulted in paralysis” (Buszynski).Since the alliance was based on a vague collective identity, the members found it difficult to identify their common interests, which rests on the members’s ability to define their situation. They could not define their situation because they did not have a “We” on which to base their assessment. Furthermore, the absence of a “We” made it difficult for SEATO’s members to withstand the myriad differences of its members on various issues, chief of them was “drawing a distinction between communism and nationalism in a decolonizing Southeast Asia” (McKnight).

More significantly, there was no sufficient fusion of selves in SEATO. Since the treaty did not oblige members to come to the aid of alliance members who were under attacked, SEATO was not able to encourage the formation of a collective identity among its members that would allow them to recognise that an attack on one of them was an attack to all of them. SEATO’s treaty encouraged members to assess how a threat affected them individually rather than how it imperilled their existence as a community. Without a We to hold on to, SEATO members found it easy to leave and see their alliance vanish into history without even shedding a tear. The alliance members divorced without even getting married.


By using the balance-of-threat theory and depth-of-identification theory derived from constructivism, this essay analysed why SEATO dissolved. The balance-of-threat theory emphasised factors exogenous to SEATO, while constructivism those endogenous to it. According to the balance-of-threat theory, SEATO’s dissolution was due to the cessation of the threat posed by China to most of its members. Meanwhile, from a depth-of-identification perspective, the alliance disbanded because SEATO failed to foster a collective identity among its members.

These perspectives do not contradict but complement each other. Each has a blindspot that the other reveal. International events, such as alliance formation and dissolution, consist of both material and nonmaterial facets. By solely focusing on one aspect, one gets an impoverished understanding of international relations whose complexity demands to be appreciated from multiple vantage points. The presence of an external threat may provide the necessary impetus for alliance formation, but it is not a sufficient condition for an alliance to thrive and function as a cooperative security community that would come to the aid of its members who are under attacked.

To those who are dreaming of another NATO-like alliance in the Pacific in order to contain China’s ascendance, this essay offers a warning that this dream might just be wishful thinking. Certainly, there is 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. It is one thing to say that China’s rise is a threat, that it is a threat in the same degree to all possible alliance members is another; and that the possible alliance members will be able to identify each other deep enough to form a collective identity, which would in turn be the bedrock of their security community, is quite another still.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of ThinkingPinoy.net.

About the Author

Sass Rogando Sasot has over 10 years of international relations experience. Se has worked with people at the international level, such as international NGOs, private international defence and consultancy firm (on chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear threats), and high-level diplomats.
Sass Rogando Sasot graduated with a Combined Major in World Politics and Global Justice, minor in International Development, magna cum laude, sa Leiden University College in The Hague, Netherlands.
Some of her key courses are International Law, Jurisdiction, Transnational History, Sovereignty and Statehood, Peace and Conflict Psychology, Conflict Resolution and Settlement. Under a former NATO Secretary-General, Sass also studied Foreign Policy and Diplomacy and Multilateral Institutions.
Sass also studied US Foreign Policy and Chinese International Relations in UCLA, and "Global Poverty, Local Solutions" at the International Institute of Social Studies.
Sass is currently doing her master's in international relations at Leiden University, working on her thesis on the South China Sea conflict.


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