AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
Late last month, a joint force of Russian and Chinese warships was spotted off the coast of Japan, the latest sign both of growing cooperation between the two countries and of China’s increasingly aggressive posture in the Indo-Pacific. While NATO Article V commitments have arguably helped check Russian ambitions to at least some extent in Europe, the lack of a similar arrangement for attacks on Western interests in the Pacific may now leave China – or Russia – feeling more emboldened in the region.
As laid out in Article V of the NATO founding charter, signed in 1949, every member of the alliance agrees that if one member country is attacked, all will come to its aid. Known simply as “Article V,” this agreement was aimed squarely at combatting the threat posed by the Soviet Union. In the wake of the destruction wrought by World War II, Article V was meant to be a deterrent against another European war – this time with nuclear weapons in play.
However, Article V only explicitly covers attacks “on the territory of any of the Parties [member countries] in Europe or North America, on the Algerian Departments of France, on the territory of Turkey or on the Islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.” In other words, not Western territories or assets in the Indo-Pacific.
This means that key outposts of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region such as Guam and the Northern Marianas Islands are not necessarily protected under the NATO Treaty. Technically, not even the U.S. state of Hawaii is considered part of North America, meaning that a potential Russian or Chinese strike there would not necessarily force a response from America’s NATO allies. Though such a scenario seems unlikely currently, so too did the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Other NATO member countries face similar concerns. France’s territory of New Caledonia is also within range of a Chinese strike, as are British outposts in the Indian Ocean like Diego Garcia, home to a joint U.S.-British military base.
Updating Article V to cover these territories would go a long way toward modernizing NATO to reflect the global nature of threats faced by Western democracies today while deterring Chinese aggression in the process. While Vladimir Putin has undoubtedly caused great suffering and instability in Eastern Europe, the prospect of a unified Western military response has thus far deterred him from any direct attack on any NATO ally, something which the world can be grateful for. A similar arrangement in response to today’s greatest threat to democracy, China, could have a similar effect in deterring the Chinese Communist Party’s expansionist aims in Asia.
Additionally, raising the discussion about collective security commitments in Asia would be a first step toward solidifying a unified Western military response to China, something which is urgently needed amid Chinese advances in missile technology. As China continues to expand its space program, there are also signs that the CCP plans to use space and even the moon to develop military assets – including space-based missiles. Combined with China’s hypersonic missile capabilities, the potential threat to the United States and the West is severe indeed.
At the annual NATO Summit in Madrid late last month, world leaders seemed at least to recognize the challenges posed by China, calling Chinese actions “ambitious and coercive” while also specifically citing the “burgeoning relationship” between China and Russia as a major concern. As part of its “Strategic Concept,” NATO also pledged to strengthen member nation partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to address “shared threats.”
However, as history has shown, more than just words are needed for the West to strengthen its defense posture in the Indo-Pacific. For Western nations to combat the threat from Chinese missiles, they can begin by rapidly deploying comprehensive ground and air-based missile defense systems under unified command and control systems across the territories of NATO countries in the Pacific. They can also begin implementing groundbreaking directed-energy technologies in space as a check on China’s growing military presence there.
With the Cold War nearing its conclusion in 1988, Margaret Thatcher implored the West to “never forget that our way of life, our vision and all we hope to achieve, is secured not by the rightness of our cause but by the strength of our defense.” Today, that observation can serve as a warning to the United States and its NATO allies when it comes to the threats they face in the Pacific. Though the moral superiority of the Western vision of freedom, democracy, and individual rights to Chinese oppression is self-evident, a collective commitment to defending those values – with force if necessary – is the only sure path to secure their survival in an uncertain world.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.