Tailored partnerships, a potential new liaison office, enhanced information-sharing — NATO is rapidly deepening engagement with its four Asia-Pacific partners, arguing that the security of Europe is inseparable from that of the Indo-Pacific, as conflict rages in Europe and the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies in Asia.
But with the U.S.-led military alliance unlikely to intervene directly in an Asian conflict, does its outreach help deter Chinese aggression or further fuel regional tensions? Experts are divided over the issue.
Last week, confirmation emerged that Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, which are informally known as the “Asia-Pacific Four,” or AP4, will transition to NATO’s new Individually Tailored Partnership Program (ITPP) once their existing tie-up arrangements are due for renewal. Since the early 2010s, these countries have been part of a NATO group called “partners across the globe.”
The move, which Japan has described as elevating the current cooperation to “new heights that reflect the challenges of a new era,” reflects a deeper form of partnership. The ITPPs are engagement frameworks with NATO based on a partner’s individual capacities, needs and interests and involve administrative, financial and practical involvement in various working groups and initiatives.
“These ITPPs are meant to help NATO and its partners cooperate more efficiently and effectively and to maximize the potential benefits of their partnership,” said Mirna Galic, a senior policy analyst for China and East Asia at the United States Institute of Peace.
In general, the arrangements, which are part of a new NATO format for global partners, provide opportunities to develop interoperability with NATO militaries as well as a platform for engaging, sharing information and improving situational awareness about various issues. They also facilitate cooperation on transnational issues that span regional borders, such as freedom of navigation.
What the ITPPs will exactly mean for each AP4 country is not entirely clear, as the details are still being worked out, but NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg mentioned last year that the alliance’s intention is to step up cooperation in areas such as cyberdefense, new technologies, maritime security, climate change and countering disinformation.
The alliance’s willingness to deepen ties was highlighted last June when it invited the AP4 leaders to take part in their first-ever NATO summit. The leaders, including Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, are also expected to attend this year’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11 and 12.
There are also plans to open a NATO liaison office in Tokyo, the alliance’s first such station in Asia. However, resistance from France has complicated the move, with Paris saying the trans-Atlantic alliance should remain focused on its own region.
To try and persuade France, which could veto the plan, it is believed other member states will argue that setting up the office will be critical to implementing the ITPPs. Japan’s offer to host the office should come as no surprise. Tokyo has been keen on deepening ties with NATO as part of efforts to expand its network of international security partners amid recent changes to its national defense strategy.
Some even see Japan, which has described NATO as a “reliable and necessary partner to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific,” as being more proactive in the alliance’s growing regional engagement than the U.S. Tokyo’s alliance with the United States remains the cornerstone of Japanese security policy. But Japan may not want to keep all its eggs in one basket.
“For at least a decade, there has been the view within security circles in Tokyo that the United States is no longer enough,” said James D.J. Brown, a political science professor at Temple University. “This means the alliance with the U.S. needs to be supplemented with closer security ties with other like-minded states, and in this respect, NATO countries make logical partners.”
Japan, which has joined NATO in several cyber, air and naval exercises, has also expressed its intention to enhance information-sharing with the alliance and regularly participate in the North Atlantic Council — NATO’s principal political decision-making body — and NATO defense chiefs meetings.
But while Tokyo’s outreach has been welcomed by the alliance — Stoltenberg said in January that “no other partner is closer and more capable than Japan” — the move has also raised concerns in Beijing and Pyongyang about NATO’s intentions and the extent it would get involved in Asia.
An important factor behind these concerns is the role played by Washington, which is allied with all AP4 countries.
“It is difficult to speak of NATO’s intentions in Asia, as the alliance is not itself an international actor,” said Joshua Shifrinson, an associate professor at the University of Maryland.
Instead, we can gain some insight into what the different NATO members may want, he said, arguing that the U.S. — its largest member — wants further alliance involvement in Asia as American defense planners increasingly focus on China.
The move seems part of a U.S. effort to knit together its defensive efforts in Europe and Asia to address what it describes as China’s “pacing challenge” across multiple domains and partners.
“The U.S. has been deepening cooperation, coordination and interoperability with its allies not only bilaterally, but also through various ‘minilateral’ frameworks such as AUKUS in recent years,” said Eva Pejsova, Japan Chair at the Brussels School of Governance’s Center for Security, Diplomacy and Strategy, referring to the security pact between Washington, London and Canberra. “NATO’s deepening engagement with Asia can be seen as an additional channel.”
Indeed, cooperation can take place on many levels, including expertise sharing. For instance, while the AP4 can share insights about China, NATO members can contribute their understanding of Sino-Russian ties and the threat posed by Moscow. By doing so, the two sides aim to boost situational awareness, Galic said.
“Just as the war in Ukraine is impacting the Indo-Pacific, a conflict in the region would impact Europe, so I think there is a growing realization on both sides that what happens in each other’s regions security-wise matters, and that they need to stay synced up on such issues,” she said.
NATO itself has stated it has no interest in making the AP4 into members and that there is also currently no formal way to do so under Article 10, which sets out the conditions for alliance enlargement.
Indeed, the likelihood of NATO taking any sort of joint action in case of conflict in the Indo-Pacific is “close to zero,” Pejsova said, arguing that its collective defense clause applies only to attacks in Europe and North America and does not cover Hawaii or Guam.
There are, however, potential involvement scenarios.
Although unlikely, an Asian conflict could theoretically escalate to involve NATO if, say, a conflict with North Korea or China resulted in either of them launching strikes on the continental United States.
That said, Michito Tsuruoka, an international security expert and associate professor at Keio University, said NATO has “no intention whatsoever” of becoming a global alliance. While NATO recognizes that its security is increasingly affected by what happens in the Indo-Pacific, “the alliance does not seem to have a clear idea of what it is prepared to do in the region.”
It is one thing for NATO to say in its Strategic Concept document that China’s ambitions challenge alliance interests, but taking concrete actions is another, Tsuruoka said, pointing out that France’s opposition to the Tokyo liaison office reflects “the lack of consensus among NATO members about their engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.”
There are also doubts as to whether all 30 NATO member states would be willing or even capable of getting involved militarily in an Asian conflict.
“Despite their disagreements with China, it is not immediately obvious every member would feel compelled to risk their blood and treasure for a conflict that, at the end of the day, would be thousands of miles away and unlikely to directly imperil their vital interests or survival,” Shifrinson said.
Nevertheless, some say greater NATO engagement with the region may prompt the European alliance members to mobilize politically and economically — if not militarily — in case of a conflict.
Indeed, some have raised the possibility that individual member states could decide to provide some level of military support, while others would likely provide significant diplomatic and economic assistance, and perhaps even weapons and nonlethal military aid — similar to the support provided to Ukraine by some AP4 nations.
Experts’ views differ, however, on Beijing’s claim that deeper NATO engagement in the region will ultimately fuel regional tensions and increase the likelihood of conflict. Some argue it is China’s actions and ambitions that are causing concern among regional countries, pointing to NATO’s focus on enhancing resilience to help “counter malign interference and aggression.” Others, however, warn of miscalculations.
“Deeper engagement in Asia means China may believe it faces greater Western opposition than it actually does, thus providing Beijing incentives to lash out preventively,” said Shifrinson.
Alternatively, he added, the U.S. or others may believe they have a stronger coalition to confront Beijing than they may do in practice, thus leading Washington to resist some Chinese demands more intensely than would otherwise be advisable.
In either case, NATO seems determined to deepen engagement and has kept the door open for new regional partners. Indeed, experts don’t rule out that other U.S. allies and like-minded countries in Asia may eventually consider a NATO partnership after examining the benefits of cooperation with the alliance as well as the costs from China’s reaction.