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Jahangir Khan Pakistan and the South East Asia Treaty Organization

Every state has its own way of dealing the world and defining its particular role. The foreign policy of a state is formulated according to its regional environment, national interest, capabilities, and ideologies. As “no nation can have a sure guide as to what it must do and what it need not do in foreign policy without accepting the national interests as that guide” (Morgenthau,1951). America has its own ways and policies influenced by its geographical location, historic experiences and political values and Pakistan’s external relations especially in the early years were founded on the geo-strategic realities and compulsions of the South Asian region. The basic contour of Pakistan’s policy was shaped by the Indian factor. Foreign policy was crafted with the aim of acquiring a bulwark against this giant neighbor. India remained the ‘arch-enemy.’ The situation remained same despite passing of six decades.


There was a time, when the foreign policy of Pakistan was fully tilted towards the Western Block and it got the membership of the defense pacts under the American patronage. These defense pacts were aimed at saving the Middle East and South East Asia from the Communist domination. However, the countries included in these pacts were considered to be the parasites of the American block. One of these pacts was Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. Primarily created to block further communist gains in Southeast Asia, SEATO is generally considered a failure because internal conflict and dispute hindered general use of the SEATO military; however, SEATO-funded cultural and educational programs left long-standing effects in Southeast Asia. SEATO was dissolved on 30 June 1977 after multiple members lost interest and withdrew.  


Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), 1954 a briefing

Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), alliance organized (1954) under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty by representatives of Australia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States. Established under Western auspices after the French withdrawal from Indochina, SEATO was created to oppose further Communist gains in Southeast Asia.[i] The treaty was supplemented by a Pacific Charter, affirming the rights of Asian and Pacific peoples to equality and self-determination and setting forth goals of economic, social, and cultural cooperation between the member countries. The civil and military organizations established under the treaty had their headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand. SEATO relied on the military forces of member nations and joint maneuvers were held annually. SEATO’s principal role was to sanction the U.S. presence in Vietnam, although France and Pakistan withheld support. Unable to intervene in Laos or Vietnam due to its rule of unanimity, the future of the organization was in doubt by 1973, and SEATO was ultimately disbanded in 1977.[ii]


SEATO in Action

In September of 1954, the United States, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan formed the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, or SEATO.

The purpose of the organization was to prevent communism from gaining ground in the region. Although called the “Southeast Asia Treaty Organization,” only two Southeast Asian countries became members. The Philippines joined in part because of its close ties with the United States and in part out of concern over the nascent communist insurgency threatening its own government. Thailand, similarly, joined after learning of a newly established “Thai Autonomous Region” in Yunnan Province in South China, expressing concern about the potential for Chinese communist subversion on its own soil. The rest of the region was far less concerned about the threat of communism to internal stability. Burma and Indonesia both preferred to maintain their neutrality rather than join the organization. Malaya (including Singapore) found it politically difficult to give formal support to the organization, though through its ties with Great Britain it learned of key developments. Finally, the terms of the Geneva Agreements of 1954 signed after the fall of French Indochina prevented Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from joining any international military alliance, though these countries were ultimately included in the area protected under SEATO and granted “observers” status.[iii]


Most of the SEATO member states were countries located elsewhere but with an interest in the region or the organization. Australia and New Zealand were interested in Asian affairs because of their geographic position in the Pacific. Great Britain and France had long maintained colonies in the region and were interested in developments in the greater Indochina region. For Pakistan, the appeal of the pact was the potential for receiving support in its struggles against India, in spite of the fact that neither country was located in the area under the organization’s jurisdiction.[iv] Finally, U.S. officials believed Southeast Asia to be a crucial frontier in the fight against communist expansion, so it viewed SEATO as essential to its global Cold War policy of containment.


Headquartered in Bangkok, Thailand, SEATO had only a few formal functions. It maintained no military forces of its own, but the organization hosted joint military exercises for member states each year. As the communist threat appeared to change from one of outright attack to one of internal subversion, SEATO worked to strengthen the economic foundations and living standards of the Southeast Asian States.[v] It sponsored a variety of meetings and exhibitions on cultural, religious and historical topics, and the non-Asian member states sponsored fellowships for Southeast Asian scholars.


Beyond its activities, the SEATO charter was also vitally important to the American rationale for the Vietnam War. The United States used the organization as its justification for refusing to go forward with the 1956 elections intended to reunify Vietnam, instead maintaining the divide between communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam at the 17th parallel. As the conflict in Vietnam unfolded, the inclusion of Vietnam as a territory under SEATO protection gave the United States the legal framework for its continued involvement there.


The organization had a number of weaknesses as well. To address the problems attached to the guerrilla movements and local insurrections that plagued the region in the post-colonial years, the SEATO defense treaty called only for consultation, leaving each individual nation to react individually to internal threats. Unlike the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), SEATO had no independent mechanism for obtaining intelligence or deploying military forces, so the potential for collective action was necessarily limited. Moreover, because it incorporated only three Asian members, SEATO faced charges of being a new form of Western colonialism. Linguistic and cultural difficulties between the member states also compounded its problems, making it difficult for SEATO to accomplish many of its goals.[vi]


By the early 1970s, members began to withdraw from the organization. Neither Pakistan nor France supported the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, and both nations were pulling away from the organization in the early 1970s. Pakistan achieved independence in the beginning of the cold war and, because of its geopolitical significance, quickly attracted the United States attention. A partner in the U.S. containment policy, Pakistan became an ally in the struggle with soviet communism. The Eisenhower administration had endeavored to enlist India in the containment policy, but Delhi was reluctant to join American sponsored alliance and in fact had become a harsh critic of Washington’s foreign policy. Pakistan therefore became member of the southeast treaty organization 1954, and signed the Baghdad pact in 1955 (later CENTO).     


Pakistan formally left SEATO in 1973, because the organization had failed to provide it with assistance in its ongoing conflict against India.[vii] When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the most prominent reason for SEATO’s existence disappeared. As a result, SEATO formally disbanded in 1977.


Though Secretary of State Dulles considered SEATO an essential element in American foreign policy in Asia, historians have considered the Manila Pact a failure and the pact is rarely mentioned in history books. In The Geneva Conference of 1954 on Indochina, Sir James Cable, a diplomat and naval strategist, described SEATO as “a fig leaf for the nakedness of American policy”, citing the Manila Pact as a “zoo of paper tigers”.[viii]


Consequently, questions of dissolving the organization arose. Pakistan withdrew in 1972 after the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, in which East Pakistan successfully seceded with the aid of India. France withdrew financial support in 1975. After a final exercise on 20 February 1976, the organization was formally dissolved on 30 June 1977.[ix]


Pakistan and SEATO: A Retrospective look

Pakistan membership of SEATO came about by the decision of her Foreign Minister to exceed his brief and decide to take a foreign policy initiative himself. All that can be said in Zafarullah’s    defense is that any Pakistani Foreign Minister at that time and place would have been subjected to great pressure to do the same. From the archives available, it seems that there was a rift between the Pakistan Foreign Ministry and army on the question of membership.[x] Conversation recorded in Karachi with ministry officials and in Washington with the Pakistan ambassador, show a real enthusiasm for the idea of another pact.[xi]


There are probably two reasons why Foreign Ministry felt that SEATO was a good idea: firstly, the Mutual Assistant Agreement and the peace with Turkey earlier did not provide any territorial guarantee for Pakistan, something Pakistan had longed for since independence and not received; and secondly, there seemed to be a feeling amongst the Foreign Ministry that membership would give Pakistan a feeling of greater security in east Pakistan, the Achilles heel of Pakistan’s defense.[xii] Ayub Khan’s reservation on the other hand regarding SEATO did not merely consist in an objection to using troops in countries and areas irrelevant to Pakistan’s security, but there rather a probable result of his belief that Pakistan was not getting enough in return for doing so. Given the situation, however, Ayub could not prevent Pakistan from adhering to the pact.[xiii]


The Pros Cons of SEATO

Dulles has been accused of creating SEATO as a means of carrying out ‘collective security’ in the name of unilateral action, as became more obvious during the Vietnam War.[xiv] Pakistan made it clear from the start that she could not spare any troops for SEATO and refused a request to do so in 1962 in Thialand.[xv] Any faint hope that Pakistan had of trying to induce some solidarity from her allies on the question of Kashmir was also soon dispatched. The two visible gains which Pakistan got from the pact were that SEATO training centers were set up in Asian members countries, and Pakistan managed to train hundreds of its workers under this scheme secondly, the prestige and importance of being represented where India was not, rubbing shoulders with some powerful fellow-members.[xvi]


The disadvantages were that Pakistan did, despite efforts not to, alienate the communist powers, and the Pakistan government was regarded little more than a western puppet. Already bad relations with India also suffered which ironically increased and justified the need for defense spending. Another factor why Pakistan delayed the ratification of the treaty was internal problems. During Prime Minister Bogra’s tour of the United States in October, he was recalled by Ghulam Muhammad and told to resign.[xvii] Once he had done so, Ghulam Muhammad re-appointed him Prime Minister, having asserted his political supremacy. In the new cabinet, Ayub Khan was appointed Defense Minister and Iskandar Mirza was made Interior Minister. Ayub Khan later claimed that Ghulam Muhammad had offered him the post of martial law administrator at that time which he had declined. Given the direction and nature of Pakistani politics, however, such a result was inevitable.  


Critical Analysis

SEATO was not a very effective organization. It was set up for the eradication of a possible communist invasion but it could be provoked into action only if all the member states were unanimous about the action. However, it did have two impacts.

  1. 1.      The member states received military and economic assistance.
  2. 2.      The Soviet Union accepted the principle of peaceful co-existence and in this way, the threat of communist expansion was over.[xviii] From Pakistan’s point of view, this pact was useful only because, as one of its member, it received military equipment and its military officials received better military training.[xix] However, there was no threat of communist invasion on Pakistan while Britain and America could not agree on providing security guaranties in case of Indian aggression. As a result this pact was bitterly denounced in Pakistan, after the Indo-Pak war.[xx]


By joining the defense pacts Pakistan could not maintain a neutral foreign policy as did India. Interestingly, a threat from India or communist block was a perception based on theoretical terms which, however, never was assisted by the facts. Had Pakistan not joined this pact the present situation in Pakistan might have been very different. By maintaining neutral policy it could have prevented further aggravating the Soviet Union.[xxi] Similarly, in Indian case, Pakistan could have set a different approach by setting up the standards according to the true spirit of democracy, Pakistan could have enjoyed amicable situation with the neighbor country, because democracies never fight with each other. Pakistan still follow the same primitive policy not even thinking what fruits she got from the similar policies in past. Pakistan had become so used to accepting mediocrity and making compromises, that now we even don’t know where to draw the line. In fact, we have forgotten if there is a line.


To us rules are made to be broken, standards set to be compromised and results made to be manipulated. We need to get this mindset out of our lives and set foreign policy keeping in front the larger interest of the state further more respecting the sovereignty of the other states. If we had a troubled foreign policy, there is no shame in having a new go for the foreign policy and setting new principles and standards that would serve Pakistan and its masses. Consequently, Pakistan would re-emerge as one of the respected nation of the world and would come across the bliss, its people have always desired.                   


[i] Shaid M. Amin, Pakistan’s Foreign Policy: A Reappraisal, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2000, p. 44.

[ii]Ibid., p. 67.

[iii]Farooq Waseen Bajwa, Pakistan and the West: The first Decade1947-1957, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1996, p.95.

[iv] Ibid., p. 96-98.

[v]Ibid., p. 100.

[vi]Amin, Pakistan’s Foreign Policy, p. 67.

[vii]It is interesting to note that Pakistan was demanding that it should also be given protection against the Indian aggression and demanded that members states should confront aggression in general, but U.S. was mainly interested in containing communist aggression and was reluctant to give Pakistan a guaranty for help against Indian aggression. 

[viii]Bajwa, Pakistan and the West, p. 100-103.  

[ix] Ibid., p. 107.

[x] This shows that Pakistan Army was playing a major role in policy making since that time. It used to put pressure on officials for making certain decisions according to their will.

[xi]Denis Kux, The United States and Pakistan 1947_2000: Disenchanted Allies, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 70.

[xii]Ibid., p. 71.

[xiii]Ibid., p. 72.

[xiv]Ayesha Jalal, The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political

Economy of Defense (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p.193.

[xv]Bajwa, Pakistan and the West, p. 129,130,131.

[xvi] Pakistan got the opportunity to have more friends, thus SEATO proved useful in this way.

[xvii]Z.A. Bhutto, The myth of Independence, p. 111.

[xviii]Ibid., p. 115-117.

[xix]Keith Callard, Pakistan: A Political Study (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1957), p.105.

[xx]Bajwa, Pakistan and the West, p. 104.

[xxi]Keith Callard, p.107.

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