Does NATO Have a Role in Asia?
from Asia Program

Does NATO Have a Role in Asia?

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The transatlantic alliance has begun to connect its traditional security interests in Europe with the geopolitical dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region, including tensions between China and Taiwan.

May 30, 2024 12:20 pm (EST)

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) marks its seventy-fifth birthday, the alliance is beginning to explore a larger role for itself in the Indo-Pacific, but members are divided on whether or to what extent it should do so.

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For some, with war raging in Europe, NATO’s only concerns should be supporting Ukraine and deterring Russia from attacking alliance members. Others, however, believe that NATO has a role to play in bolstering deterrence in the Indo-Pacific and preventing Chinese adventurism in the region. The path the alliance chooses in the coming years could have significant geopolitical consequences.

The China Challenge

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China used to be largely absent from NATO’s list of major geopolitical concerns, but in recent years the alliance has signaled its growing worry with China’s strategic direction and assertiveness. In 2019, NATO mentioned China in an official statement for the first time, noting in its London Declaration that “China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges” for the alliance. References to China have since become sharper, with the 2021 Brussels Summit Communiqué stating that China’s “ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.”

China’s support for Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 further increased concerns within NATO. At the Madrid Summit later that year, NATO adopted a new Strategic Concept [PDF], its first in over a decade, which said that China’s “ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values,” and called out the “deepening strategic partnership” between China and Russia and their collective attempts to “undercut the rules-based international order.” In addition, NATO invited leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea (informally known as the Asia-Pacific Four, or AP4) to join the summit, marking the first time all four leaders did so.

The Vilnius Summit Communiqué of 2023 further detailed the alliance’s major concerns with China, including its cyber and disinformation operations, attempts to control important industrial sectors and supply chains, and its growing alignment with Russia. Again, AP4 leaders attended the summit. NATO also announced a new partnership program with Japan.

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The Taiwan Contingency

Concerns that China will use force against Taiwan are also driving NATO’s focus on the Indo-Pacific. A major war over Taiwan that draws in the United States would not only force Washington to make difficult trade-offs that would compel its NATO allies to shoulder more of the burden in deterring Russia, but would also disrupt or sever supply chains across the continent, shaving up to $10 trillion off global GDP.

NATO has begun to express its stake in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and to make the case that what happens in the Indo-Pacific will have enormous ramifications for the future of Europe, and vice versa. Its hope is that further internationalizing the Taiwan issue will help deter China by signaling the high costs of aggression. When NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg visited Tokyo in 2023, his joint statement with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio asserted that “the security of the Euro-Atlantic and of the Indo-Pacific is closely connected.” The statement further stressed “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait as an indispensable element in security and prosperity in the international community.” A few months later, Stoltenberg separately noted that “the status quo in and around Taiwan should not be changed by force.”

More on:

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

Indo-Pacific

Defense and Security

Japan

South Korea

NATO Divisions

While NATO communiqués now explicitly discuss China, its members are divided on whether Beijing poses a threat to European security and, if so, how best to address it. On one end of the spectrum, Lithuania has been the target of severe Chinese economic coercion since it allowed Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius in 2021 and has called for a tougher approach toward Beijing. At the other end, Hungary continues to pursue closer relations with China, to now include law enforcement and security cooperation, as well as deeper trade and investment ties. Germany, while officially viewing China as a “partner, competitor, and systemic rival” [PDF], also continues to pursue closer economic ties with Beijing, which remains its top trading partner. France, for its part, has made clear its view that NATO should remain more narrowly focused on Europe [PDF] and thus strongly opposed the opening of a NATO liaison office in Tokyo.

A More Deliberate Approach

Amid Russia’s war against Ukraine and the ongoing threat Moscow poses to NATO, it would be a mistake for the alliance to spread its military power even thinner by pursuing largely symbolic deployments and activities in the Indo-Pacific. Instead, a far more constructive task would be to begin to reckon with the potential that a conflict in the Indo-Pacific could force the United States to shift military assets from Europe to the Pacific, pushing European NATO members to shoulder the burden of conventional deterrence and defense. As a practical matter, this would entail NATO members urgently boosting defense spending, rebuilding their defense industrial bases, and conducting operational planning for contingencies that could occur while the United States is engaged in a conflict in the Indo-Pacific.

That being said, there remain multiple ways NATO can partner with countries in the Indo-Pacific to bolster security that do not distract from its core mission of maintaining European security. NATO members and Indo-Pacific partners, having been the target of Russian and Chinese cyber and disinformation operations, can share best practices and lessons learned. Countries in NATO and the Indo-Pacific that have been victims of Chinese economic coercion can also share ideas on how to combat such activities. There is also the potential for more defense industrial cooperation between NATO and countries in the Indo-Pacific.

While pursuing such cooperation, NATO should be cognizant that China will use deepening linkages between NATO and the Indo-Pacific to promote its narrative that the alliance is fomenting conflict in the region. In April 2024, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency published an article that argued NATO was “fanning flames beyond its scope” and “where NATO goes, war is most likely.” This followed similar official Chinese statements in recent years that have sought to link a greater NATO presence in the region with the growing likelihood of confrontation and conflict.

To counter such a narrative, NATO should make clear that although it is open to increasing cooperation with partners in the Indo-Pacific, it will not expand the alliance to formally include countries in the region. Meanwhile, NATO’s secretary-general should regularly meet with senior Chinese foreign policy officials and explain NATO’s concerns with Chinese behavior and the alliance’s activities in the Indo-Pacific.

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