ABC News Commentary

1 October 1973

Australia and SEATO

Senator Willessee, Australia’s special Minister of State, has just attended the eighteenth Annual Council meeting of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO), established in 1955 and originally including eight member countries: the Philippines, Thailand, Pakistan, the US, UK, France, Australia and New Zealand. The military pact. which came into being at the height of the Cold War, was an integral part of the US policy of Containment, supposedly aimed at preventing Communist aggression. In fact SEATO was used by the United States, and by others such as Australia, to justify their military intervention in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia.. SEATO’s main role was not to provide collective security, but the legal framework for the preservation of America’s military, diplomatic and economic interests. After the mid-1960s France ceased all active membership of the organization, while more recently Pakistan has announced its formal withdrawal.

It had been widely expected therefore that the Labor Government in Australia would move quickly to terminate its participation in SEATO, which stood as a clear symbol of the mistaken and rejected policies of the past. However, contrary to previous expectations, Australia will remain a member of the organization and will join its efforts to the task of breathing new life in what was generally assumed to be a ‘moribund’ and out-of-date military arrangement. Obviously strong diplomatic and other pressures applied by the White House on both Australia and New Zealand have been responsible for the change of policy. 

The proposed revision of SEATO activity is no doubt meant to provide the Australian and New Zealand governments with a face-saving device whereby they can justify, to themselves and their constituencies the decision to continue with their membership of the treaty. In fact, very little will change in SEATO’S function or purpose. No formal alterations are to be made to the treaty. The so-called reforms may affect the size of the Secretariat, the military and civilian sections may be unified, military exercises may be reduced in size and frequency, more emphasis may be placed on the economic development of member countries. 

But the planned de-escalation in SEATO military activity is essentially a public relations exercise. In spite of the Sino-American détente and the Indochinese ceasefire, the US remains as committed as ever to the defence of the status quo. Even in the heyday of cold war policies, there is reason to believe that SEATO was directed not so much against China as against the revolutionary forces of Southeast Asia, ready to unleash a wave of radical social change and thereby threaten American interests. Significantly, the new SEATO arrangements emphasise the need to strengthen the capacity of member countries to handle so-called ‘internal subversive movements’. In other words the new SEATO approach is new as far as it accords with the low profile strategy of the Nixon Doctrine. It is not new in so far as it ties the United States and its allies to highly conservative military and economic elites more concerned with the preservation of their own privileged position than with the welfare of their own people. 

Whatever may be said by way of public justification, SEATO remains above all an instrument of American policy. Programmes for the economic development and internal security of member countries will simply serve to buttress the repressive regimes of two client states, the Philippines and Thailand which are now the only two Asian members of the organization. In maintaining its active links with SEATO Australia merely demonstrates its continuing inability to act independently of the United States, and the failure to appreciate the urgent need for radical social change in the Southeast Asian region.