South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO)

SEATO's flag
SEATO's flag
The South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), or the Manila Pact, was formed in Manila on September 8, 1954, by the United States, Great Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Thailand, and the Philippines.

A special protocol added Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam to the protection of SEATO. The main reason behind the formation of a collective defense treaty in Southeast Asia was the containment of communism. The United States in the cold war period wanted to prevent communism from spreading.

After the defeat of the French in Indochina the Geneva Conference had been called in 1954. While the peacemaking process was going on in Geneva, the United States initiated SEATO. The main architect was the U.S. secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who wanted collective defense against communist aggression.

After the establishment of communism in China, there was apprehension in the United States that South and Southeast Asia faced a threat from communists. North Vietnam had become communist, and in Laos the Pathet Lao had become powerful.

Bangkok was the headquarters of SEATO. The post of secretary-general was instituted in 1957, and a Thai diplomat named Pote Sarasin was the first person to hold the post. The articles of the treaty spelled out the motives, principles, and functioning of SEATO.

In the preamble, the sovereign equality of states was recognized. The members pledged under the provisions of article I to settle disputes by peaceful means. Article III envisaged economic cooperation and social well-being. SEATO had a provision that all members should agree on intervention in case of a dispute.

This became an obstacle to intervening in the crises of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, as there was no unanimity among members for intervention. There were joint military exercises each year among the signatories. According to the provisions of the Geneva Conference Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam could not join a military alliance.

The leaders of some of the SEATO nations in front of the Congress Building in Manila
The leaders of some of the SEATO nations in front of the Congress Building in Manila

A Pacific Charter was added to the treaty at the insistence of the Philippines, calling for the upholding of the principles of self-determination and equal rights. Any attempt to destroy the sovereignty and territorial integrity of member states would be checked. There would also be cooperation in economic development and social welfare among signatories.

The treaty was viewed as another attempt to bring the cold war to South and Southeast Asia. Only three Asian states, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand, had joined it. India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar were in favor of a policy of nonalignment. In its ongoing conflict with India, Pakistan thought SEATO might be helpful. It also had a dispute with another neighbor state, Afghanistan.

The Philippines and Thailand had close military cooperation with the United States. Manila was in favor of a multilateral pact due to the influence of the United States. The joining of the Philippines invited criticism from the Afro-Asian bloc, alleging that it was serving the designs of neocolonialism in the region. Thailand joined SEATO because of security concerns.

Great Britain wanted its presence felt in the region and was also concerned with the security of Hong Kong and Malaya. France lost interest after the debacle in Indochina but it considered SEATO a barrier to the expansion of communism. Australia and New Zealand were committed even though an alliance with the United States, the ANZUS pact, had been signed in 1951.

The Soviet Union, China, and North Vietnam condemned the treaty. They pointed out that the inclusion of Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam in the sphere of action of SEATO was contrary to the spirit of the Geneva Conference of 1954. China attacked SEATO for threatening peace in Asia.

SEATO was not helpful to the United States and Thailand in preventing ongoing communist victories in Indochina, including during the Vietnam War. Thailand and the Philippines helped the administration of the United States by providing air bases and sending troops, but in the civil war in Laos in 1961–62, it was more out of their close relations with the United States rather than an obligation under SEATO.

One of the factors was the clause that demanded unanimity before action could be taken. In the meeting of the SEATO Council of Ministers on March 27, 1961, multilateral intervention was not possible due to the French opposition. Great Britain also did not support intervention, lest it jeopardize the peace effort in Geneva in 1961 pertaining to Laos.

It was only a question of time before SEATO would end. The United States relied on its military might in the Vietnam War while Great Britain, France, Australia, and New Zealand did not want to get involved. Pakistan and France withdrew from SEATO in November 1973 and June 1974, respectively.

After the communist victory in the Indochinese states in 1975, SEATO became an anachronism in the region, and it was decided to disband the treaty in a meeting in September 1975 held in New York. SEATO was formally dissolved two years afterward.