An Alliance for the Pacific

By Lieutenant Commander James Stavridis, u. S. Navy

It is time to reexamine the premises of U. S. strategy in the Pacific Basin and to establish a new economic and defensive alliance system with clearly defined roles and responsibilities for each of the members. This arrangement must derive from a dynamic treaty, must be based on international law, and must receive ratification and popular support in the countries concerned. It can serve as a guarantee of peace and as the nucleus of important economic advances. A new alliance can go far toward containing Soviet adventurism and improving the image of U. S. leadership in the region.

Premises of U. S. Strategy in the Pacific Basin

A planner must proceed from objective to policy. First, we must answer the deceptively simple question, "What does my country need or want in this region?" In the Pacific, the answer is a complex mix of positive and negative objectives.

A Peaceful Environment that Encourages Free Trade and Economic Expansion: Our major interest in the region is economic. More than 60% of the world's gross national product is produced in the Pacific Basin. Japan is our most important trading partner globally, providing our market with many desirable manufactured goods. Raw materials come from both the ASEAN and ANZUS countries. From China, Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong come textiles, manufactured goods, shoes, and other general consumer goods. The South China Sea potentially has great oil reserves, and Indonesia and other countries have oil to sell. Our trade in the Pacific Basin approaches $200 billion annually and is still growing rapidly. Trade with Japan recently surpassed that with all the European countries combined. It includes $1.2 billion in semiconductors, and millions of dollars of microchips, ball bearings, defense parts, and hundreds of other imports and exports. 4

Military Security for Ourselves and Our Allies: As Admiral James A. Lyons, Jr., the Commander-in-Chief of the U. S. Pacific Fleet, recently commented, "…the Soviet Pacific Fleet has increased from 200 ships in 1960 to over 500 today.” 5 With 1,000 land-based maritime bombers, major bases on their own coasts and in Vietnam, and a growing appetite for blue-water naval exercises, the Soviets now pose the principal military threat to Western interests in the region.

Other potential conflicts exist within the Pacific Basin. These have dangerous implications for Western interests. One of the most dangerous nations is North Korea, poised for an attack on South Korea. The North Koreans currently have more than 885,000 men and women in uniform, giving them the world's sixth largest armed force. As one observer recently commented, "North Korea is not a country in the traditional sense. It is one armed camp from the DMZ to the Yalu River.” 6 Another aggressor state is the People's Republic of Vietnam, which threatens Thailand and Malaysia with the third largest standing army in the world. 7 Additionally, many key countries face internal security problems, including the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Korea. As Secretary of State George Shultz recently stated, the Pacific is "…one of the most heavily armed regions in the world, and Asian peace is still marred by continuing conflicts.” 8

Freedom of the High Seas for Peaceful Navigation, Military Passage, and Economic Development: This historic U. S. goal applies throughout the world, and is particularly critical in the Pacific Basin with its huge ocean space, numerous archipelagic countries, and critical SLOCs between Western allies. Parts of the aborted Law of the Sea Treaty, retooled to meet the needs of a potential new alliance system, could be adapted as part of a new compact for the region. In particular, issues could be resolved regarding passage through key straits, oil and mineral development on the seabed beyond national jurisdiction, the size of territorial seas and exclusive economic zones, and other potential areas of dispute.

The Pursuit of Open Democratic Political Systems and Capitalistic Economic Markets: Demographic experts predict that by 1990 62% of the world's population will live on the Pacific rim, an area that includes the Pacific Basin to the north and all the South American Pacific coastline. 9 While not of immediate benefit to the United States, improvements in the climate of freedom and democracy are in the best interests of our country in the long term. The sponsorship of such developments is difficult, since many of the countries simply do not have the sort of democratic systems that could serve as the root of such systemic changes. Nonetheless, the omens are favorable in many countries in the region, particularly in light of the successful changes in the Philippines and the potential changes in South Korea. Lawrence Eagleberger, a retired Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and a highly respected career diplomat, remarked in 1984 that "the center of gravity of American foreign policy is shifting from Europe to the Pacific Basin.” 10 Clearly, the U. S. ability to influence events in the Pacific will depend on the compatibility of the region's political and economic systems with our own.

Minimize Soviet Influence in the Region: One key U. S. objective in the area is to minimize Soviet influence. Obviously, the Soviets have a major interest in the region, given their extended Pacific coastline and growing military forces in the basin. The Soviet backing of aggressive regimes at the center of hard-core Marxist spheres of influence (Vietnam and North Korea come to mind) will impede or negate U. S. progress toward its other objectives. In order for the United States to move events in a favorable direction, the Soviets' ability to control the timeline in the region must be blocked. In addition to the newly negotiated treaty with Vanuatu, the Soviets are moving in new directions with China, various Southeast Asian countries, and even the ANZUS countries. As one experienced observer commented recently, "Mikhail S. Gorbachev has served notice that he intends for the Soviet Union to become a Pacific power in the fullest sense of the term." 11

From Policy to Alliance

Having arrived at several basic objectives, we must establish them as policy. This has already occurred, although not in open discussion as part of a unified strategy. In recently published statements, both Admiral Lyons and Admiral William Crowe—the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commander of all U. S. forces in the Pacific—agree on the basic objectives. Many senior officials in the Reagan administration have pursued the "way West" with great vigor. These include the President, who often refers to the importance of the Pacific Basin in his speeches. 12

The policy must be implemented by a strategy. As part of a strategy, one potential approach would be the negotiation of a new Pacific Alliance Treaty with some collective defense and basic economic cooperation as its objectives. Along with the United States and the ASEAN countries, the following nations are all potential participants.

  • Japan is our most important Pacific ally, and must be encouraged to accept further defense responsibilities.
  • Canada is often overlooked as an important component of U. S. Pacific policy. The Canadians' ability to work in the maritime world could be extremely helpful in the critical battle for the Aleutians during a major conflict with the Soviets.
  • Australia is a traditional ally and a strong player in the global currents in the region, particularly in the southern and central Pacific regions.
  • China has played a dominant role in the region for centuries. Although it is a controversial choice for membership in the Pacific alliance, China can make an important and growing contribution in the Pacific Basin. The Chinese armed forces are limited by outdated technology but are maturing in military skill. Naturally, there are many issues that must be worked out between China and the alliance's more traditionally Western states. The Chinese, for example, have often commented publicly that they prefer a neutral course, and simply are not interested in a security arrangement with the United States or any other major power. Nevertheless, in light of the potential for increased Chinese economic involvement in the region, and growing Soviet naval presence in the Pacific, the Chinese may reconsider.
  • South Korea is facing the most direct military threat of any country in the Pacific. The South Koreans would be interested in expanding their defensive network. Relations are still tenuous with Japan, reflecting differences dating back to World War II, but these might be worked out.
  • The ASEAN states might be convinced to join in a broad Pacific alliance as adjunct signators to the pact, particularly if economic benefits, such as a Pacific Common Market scheme, could be developed.

The basic premises of the agreement could include some or all of the following, which could be refined in a working conference and signed at a Pacific summit.

Pact of Nonaggression: This might be the extent of the initial level of defensive alignment in the treaty, depending on the signators. The negotiators would attempt to work for a limited collective defense scheme if possible, but may have to settle initially for a pact of nonaggression.

Mutual Defense: This would be possible if the Pacific alliance were to replace the current patchwork of agreements in effect between the United States and Japan, Canada, Australia, and several minor powers. In order to include China, this section of the treaty would have to be carefully negotiated and tightly circumscribed to prevent the United States from automatically being involved in any outbreak of land warfare between China and the Soviet Union. One possibility would be to use a draft treaty that called for nonaggression generally, consultation on all defense matters, and cooperation in all naval engagements. Another difficult negotiating point would be the lingering hostile overtones of some regional relationships—notably between Japan and South Korea, China, and the Philippines—stemming from the Japanese occupation during World War II.

Preferred Trading Status: Given the economic basis of much of the Pacific alliance, the treaty should include provisions for a possible Pacific Common Market with preferred trading status between the partners.

Joint Military Exercises: As a logical outgrowth of the alliance, the signators would conduct joint military exercises and possibly form a Standing Naval Force Pacific. 13

Exclusion of Soviet Basing: This would be an understood corollary of the treaty's security arrangements.

The Law of the Sea Treaty: The following principles of the Law of the Sea Treaty are largely accepted as international law today:

  • Establishment of exclusive economic zones out to 200 nautical miles from the coast
  • Negotiation on maritime-related problems, using consensus techniques developed in the Law of the Sea negotiating format
  • Rights of strategic passage, particularly through all archipelagic states
  • Environmental and scientific research consultation as outlined in the Law of the Sea Treaty

Alliance Activities

A Pacific alliance would prepare and train to act in concert if the Soviets attack any of its members. It would also seek development of the region, and would resolve disputes ansmg from economic competition. Given the Pacific's geography, the alliance would have a naval character. Many of its activities would revolve around maritime warfighting scenarios in the Pacific. In particular, an annual open-ocean exercise, similar to the current RimPac, would give all the treaty naval forces an opportunity to train together. Each year, the exercise could take place in a different area of the Pacific Basin. Some possible scenarios might include the following:

Bering Sea Operations: The significance of the northernmost region of the Pacific is growing. The importance of the oil and natural gas fields and the sensitivity of the military bases there have caused U. S. planners to rethink many battle group scenarios to include operating time in the region. Admiral Lyons has commented that the Pacific Fleet has made a "major shift" in operating policy and its training now features the Tomahawk land-attack missile, amphibious assaults, and long-range air intercepts in the Northern Pacific. The United States, Japan, and the Soviet Union all come face-to-face in this region, which must be considered a potential zone of maritime conflict. Operational training there is needed—soon—for the alliance to develop an effective defensive posture.

South China Sea Operations: The Soviet military expansion at the $1 billion Cam Ranh Bay complex now includes more than 20 ships and hundreds of front-line fighters, bombers, and strike aircraft. From this strategic center on the South China sea, the Soviets and their Vietnamese allies are positioned to strike at vital commercial and military targets throughout the western Pacific. Any conflict with the Soviets would require the immediate neutralization of the Cam Ranh Bay complex, which would be a proper alliance target.

SLOC Protection and Sea Control: Ensuring the continued freedom of the seas in the region would be a key alliance priority. Exercise scenarios that maintain free transit despite both Soviet and Third World opposition—particularly at key choke points—would help build alliance capabilities. These exercise regions include the major passages from the Indian Ocean into the Pacific, the sea-lanes from Japan to the United States, the rim archipelagos, and the South Pacific lanes from the United States to Australia and New Zealand.

Amphibious Assault/Strike Operations: Alliance activities should include training for effective amphibious assault and land-attack operations. Both will be key to containing the Soviets effectively in the Pacific in open war.

In addition to developing naval capabilities, the alliance could serve as a vehicle for improving economic and political cooperation between the signatories. The concept of a Pacific summit—to parallel the Western summit meetings—should be explored.

One possible format for the Pacific Alliance Treaty would be a simple document opening economic relations and enhancing collective security, based loosely on the model used successfully for NATO.


A Pacific alliance, if forged today, would be different from NATO in many ways. Cultural differences are far more striking among many Pacific players than among the Western Europeans, for example, and the region has many long-standing conflicts and continuing controversies. The United States has far less influence and power to push a Pacific treaty than it had in 1945-49. Yet the time may be coming for such an agreement, because of the increased Soviet threat, the passage of time since World War II, and—above all—because of the surge of mutually beneficial economic activity in the Pacific Basin.

A Pacific alliance would look to the future, drawing together countries with disparate cultural and religious backgrounds and widely diverse geopolitical positions and objectives.

A Pacific alliance would establish the Pacific Basin as the new center for the progress of the world, through strong maritime linkages and growing trade.

A Pacific alliance might be the most ambitious treaty negotiation ever undertaken—and it might prove the most farseeing , as well.

1 John Paxton, ed., The Statesman's Yearbook (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984-85), pp. 51 -52.

2 Barbara Crosette, " Moscow Sees a Bigger Role for Itself in the Pacific," The New York Times, 10 August 1986.

3 David DeVoss, "So Says Admiral James A. Lyons, Jr.," Los Angeles Times Magazine, 10 August 1986, p. 17.

4 Ibid., p. 25.

5 Ibid., p. 17.

6 Washington Post National Weekly Edition, 29 September 1986, p. 18.

7 Soviet Power, Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office 1985 .

8 George Shultz, "Economic Cooperation in the Pacific Bas in," Address at the Asia Foundation, 25 February 1985, Department of State Bulletin, Volume 85 , April 1985, p. 13.

9 DeVoss, p. 17.

10 John Newhouse, "The Diplomatic Rounds: One Against Nine," New Yorker, 22 October 1984.

"Los Angeles Times, 27 August 1986, p. 7.

11 Many publications and speeches express this idea. See, for example, Proceedings, August 1985 , the Pacific Bas in feature.

12 See Capt. Stein K . Jessen, Swedish Navy, "Standing Naval Force Pacific?" Proceedings, March 1986, pp. 84 - 87.


Commander Stavridis graduated from the Naval Academy in 1976. He earned a master of arts in law and diplomacy and a PhD from The Fletcher School of Law and diplomacy. He has served in the USS Hewitt (DD-966), the USS Forrestal (CV-S9), and with the Strategic Concepts Group. Commander Stavridis is currently the operations officer on board the USS Valley Forge (CG-50).


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