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Odd partnerships

Pacific Reflections By Gabriel McCoard

For better or for worse, Palau gets more attention than most of its neighbors. Or any of its neighbors when looking toward Micronesia.

Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. was in regional news again when he said at a Tokyo press conference that the U.S. needs to be more of a deterrent against Chinese ships entering its waters and, among other things, disrupting its internet, which apparently as of this writing is offline.

Informing the U.S. that its security is America’s business and Palau wants help in deterring maritime incursions, Whipps then referred to the rule-based-order international that has become the hallmark of U.S. involvement in the Pacific in recent times.

Around the same time, writing in “The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs,” Oren Gruenbaum referred to China as “bumping up against Washington’s global projection of its own power (which it prefers to call ‘the rules-based international order’).”

That I think is the best description of the Pacific power play I have seen – “the-rules-based-international-order” as Washington projecting its own idea of its power.

I’m still not sure if the other partnerships in the region –The Quad, Indo-Pacific Strategy, Partners in the Blue Pacific – are part of this or are distinct concepts. It seems to change with every telling.


And let’s certainly not confuse any of this with the Pacific Islands Forum.

Instead, let’s revisit an old-is-new proposition: The U.S. and its Pacific allies need a regional security pact. A Pacific NATO, as parties within the U.S. have suggested, and China has accused the U.S. of doing.

In case you haven’t heard of the situation in Ukraine, NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – rose from the ashes of World War II when the United States, Canada and a handful of Western European nations agreed to provide a military counter-point to what was then the Soviet Union and to protect each other in the event of an attack.

A Pacific NATO, therefore, would be a mutual defense coalition, whereby Pacific nations would create a military foil against China and presumably rush to each other’s defense in the event that one member faced an attack.

We’ll leave aside for the moment the lack of military forces in Pacific nations other than the U.S., South Korea, Australia, Japan and New Zealand, and to some degree The Philippines, not to mention India’s not-entirely-clear ambitions to remember that the U.S. once tried a very similar idea: The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, or SEATO.

In 1954, the United States, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan formed SEATO to counter communism. This came as communists defeated France in the basin of Dien Bien Phu in Viet Nam, and Ho Chi Minh cited the Declaration of Independence in creating a republic free of France’s colonial shackles. Or such was the idea.

Besides the idea that the U.S., France, Britain, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan could agree on anything, much less mutual defense, SEATO officially disbanded in the late 1970s. It never really coordinated a mission or a palpable military command. Each nation had its own objective for SEATO. For the U.S. it was its experiment (to put it charitably) in Viet Nam. For Pakistan, it was to counteract rival India. The list goes on.

What about Pacific NATO?

In “The Senkaku Paradox: Risking Great Power War Over Small Stakes,” Michael E. O’Hanlon, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes that military forces should be wary of direct defense of a friendly territory facing a limited attack, stating that such actions “are not so obligatory, quite often would not be wise, and in some cases may not even be feasible.” Just look at U.S. support for Ukraine.

Small Island Developing States have little in common economically or socially with larger regional allies, and again, no military forces. Throw in climate tensions, and the sheer disparity of, say, the U.S. economy compared to that of Palau.

The U.S. has had enough recent controversies convincing NATO allies to shoulder more of the cost of NATO.

The perpetual David vs. Goliath treatment in the world press doesn’t help in understanding the relationship between islands and larger powers.

Surangel Whipps Jr. is correct in that the U.S. has military rights to Palau’s territory by way of the Compact of Free Association. What is less certain is what rights and obligations Pacific nations would have in a broader Pacific alliance.

Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. Send feedback to

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