The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was an international organization for collective defence in Southeast Asia created by the Southeast Asia Collective Defence Treaty, or Manila Pact, signed in September 1954 in Manila, Philippines. The formal institution of SEATO was established on 19 February 1955 at a meeting of treaty partners in Bangkok, Thailand. The organization’s headquarters were also in Bangkok. Eight members joined the 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 many members lost interest and withdrew.
SEATO was intended to be a Southeast Asian version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in which the military forces of each member would be coordinated to provide for the collective defence of the members’ country. Organizationally, SEATO was headed by the Secretary General, whose office was created in 1957 at a meeting in Canberra, with a council of representatives from member nations and an international staff. Also present were committees for economics, security, and information. Unlike the NATO alliance, SEATO had no joint commands with standing forces. In addition, SEATO’s response protocol in the event of communism presenting a “common danger” to the member nations was vague and ineffective, though membership in the SEATO alliance did provide a rationale for a large-scale U.S. military intervention in the region during the Vietnam war. (1955–1975).
Despite its name, SEATO mostly included countries located outside of the region but with an interest either in the region or the organization itself. They were Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan (including East Pakistan, now Bangladesh), the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The majority of SEATO members were not located in Southeast Asia. To Australia and New Zealand, SEATO was seen as a more satisfying organization than ANZUS – a collective defence organization with the U.S. The United Kingdom and France joined partly due to having long maintained colonies in the region, and partly due to concerns over developments in Indochina. Pakistan, however, was simply interested in joining over the appeal of potential support for its long struggle against India. Last but not least, the U.S. upon perceiving Southeast Asia to be a pivotal frontier for Cold War geopolitics saw the establishment of SEATO as essential to its Cold War Containment Policy.
After its creation, SEATO quickly became insignificant militarily, as most of its member nations contributed very little to the alliance. While SEATO military forces held joint military training, they were never employed because of internal disagreements. SEATO was unable to intervene in conflicts in Laos because France and the United Kingdom rejected use of military action. As a result, the U.S. provided unilateral support for Laos after 1962.
Though sought by the U.S., involvement of SEATO in the Vietnam War was denied because of lack of British and French cooperation. Both the United States and Australia cited the alliance as justification for involvement in Vietnam. U.S. membership in SEATO provided the United States with a rationale for a large-scale U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia. Other countries, such as the UK and key nations in Asia, accepted the rationale.
In addition to joint military training, SEATO member states worked on improving mutual social and economic issues. Such activities were overseen by SEATO’s Committee of Information, Culture, Education, and Labour Activities, and proved to be some of SEATO’s greatest successes.
In 1959, SEATO’s first Secretary General, Pote Sarasin, created the SEATO Graduate School of Engineering (currently the Asian Institute of Technology) in Thailand to train engineers. SEATO also sponsored the creation of the Teacher Development Center in Bangkok, as well as the Thai Military Technical Training School, which offered technical programs for supervisors and workmen. SEATO’s Skilled Labour Project (SLP) created artisan training facilities, especially in Thailand, where ninety-one training workshops were established. SEATO was also interested in literature, and a SEATO Literature Award was created and given to writers from member states.
Average of contributions to civil and military budgets between 1958 and 1973 :
- United States: 25%
- United Kingdom: 16%
- France: 13.5%
- Australia: 13.5%
- Pakistan: 8%
- Philippines: 8%
- Thailand: 8%
- New Zealand: 8%
Though Secretary of State Dulles considered SEATO an essential element in U.S. foreign policy in Asia, historians have considered the Manila Pact a failure and the pact is rarely mentioned in history books. Consequently, questions of dissolving the organization arose. Pakistan withdrew in 1972, after East Pakistan seceded and became Bangladesh on 26 March 1971. France withdrew financial support in 1975, and the SEATO council agreed to the phasing out of the organization. After a final exercise on 20 February 1976, the organization was formally dissolved on 30 June 1977. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations was founded on the structure and membership of the original SEATO members in Southeast Asia to later include Communist states.