NATO’s Outreach into the Indo-Pacific – Part I
Prof Rajaram Panda

In the great power contestation with the United States and China as the main two protagonists with satellite powers either endorsing stance or outright standing behind either of the two has turned global politics upside down. Whether the glass is half full or half empty, the truism is that global security scenario has turned more complex now than ever before. Even when the two global powers seem determined to turn the world from a uni-polar to bi-polar one, the middle powers and aspiring powers in catching up game find themselves with critical choices on how they navigate through the turbulent currents. The issue becomes more complicated as the existing institutional architectures such as the United Nations and other regional bodies have proved to be either inadequate or ineffective to address the issues stemming from the great power contestation. The search has been therefore to create new institutional architecture that can address to the emerging challenges. While in Europe, the NATO has evolved and emerged strong, Asia does not have any such counterpart mechanism that can address regional issues affecting the nations. In this context, the formation of QUAD and AUKUS come to mind. The Ukraine crisis has injected a new dynamism to such endeavour. These are weighty questions. This essay makes an attempt to examine some of these issues and try to envision what future may be in store as economic and security interests of many coalesce.

Much has been spoken and written about the Quad. This aspect is skipped by choice from the discussion here. The article shall dwell mainly on NATO’s outreach or talks of outreach in the Indo-Pacific through opening of a liaison office in Tokyo (controversial at the moment) and on what went behind the formation of the AUKUS when two members – the US and Australia - are already members of the four-member Quad organisation. The other two members of the Quad – India and Japan – were not consulted when its formation was announced. These two issues shall be discussed in separate segments in two parts. Part I of the essay shall examine what NATO’s policy towards Asia has been and what kind of response it expects from the leading Asian countries such as India and Japan as the Ukraine crisis shows no sign of abating. The talks of opening a NATO liaison office in Tokyo, its necessity, feasibility and desirability shall also be discussed as the reactions from the other side of the fence could be harsh.

Idea of NATO Liaison Office in Tokyo

Amid talks of opening of a NATO liaison office in Tokyo, there have been conflicting opinions aired by top Japanese political leaders regarding this. The topic assumed greater salience when Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed to attend a two-day NATO summit meeting in Spain, becoming the first Japanese leader to do so, as the trans-Atlantic alliance seeks to deepen ties with Asia-Pacific partners amid China’s rise. Just before, the Group of Seven leaders had met in Germany. Both these meetings saw members commit to bolstering defences in the wake of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine. The leaders also endorsed a new Strategic Concept, the alliance’s guiding document for the next decade. In an unprecedented move, the Brussels-based organisation NATO invited the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, all of which are Asia-Pacific partner countries to the summit in Vilnius, Lithuania on 11-12 July 2023.

Japan’s PM Kishida did admit NATO’s plan to open a liaison office in Tokyo but was categorical in saying that Japan has no intention to be a NATO member. First, it was the Japanese ambassador to the US Koji Tomita who said first that the US-led military alliance was planning a Tokyo office, the first in Asia, to facilitate consultations in the region. Sensing the strong reactions from China and Russia, Kishida doused the flames in the Diet session by rubbishing any such plan to join NATO as a member or semi-member state. This did not prevent Beijing from issuing a sharp rebuke saying that Tokyo should be “extra cautious on the issue of military security” given its “history of aggression”. Reminding what transpired at the G-7 summit in Hiroshima that the leaders agreed to “de-risk, not decouple” economic engagement with China and reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

Though the war in Ukraine may be pushing Japan closer to NATO, Japan’s position in the world is complicated. Its pacifist Constitution, particularly Article 9, prevents Japan to be a military power, manufacture and export arms and armament. As having an army is illegal, Japan’s military is called Self-Defence Forces (SDF) with three wings of army, navy and air force. It has a cap in military expenditure not exceeding one per cent of the annual GDP. Japan however intends to raise it to 2 per cent of the GDP in next 3-4 years to match with the NATO standard. The SDF is one of the largest in Asia, surpassed only by China, Russia, North Korea, India and the US. Such change in the thinking among Japanese leadership is in response to the stressed security environment in the region and perceived threat to its security.

Interestingly, there could be unease if Japan starts flexing its military muscle to deter a potential aggressor among the countries that had experienced Japan’s military excesses during World War II. The influence of the pacifist Constitution is so huge and the Japanese people experiencing the affluence and material comfort during the past seven decades in peace time that they themselves are the biggest critics of increased military spending that the leadership is planning. While the liberal left argue that Japan is spending already too much on defence, the conservative right feel Japan spends too little. The issue is thus complicated.

The Japanese people are comfortable living protected by the US nuclear umbrella and the security alliance relationship from external enemies. For them, the debate over military spending remains merely theoretical. But now following the war in Ukraine, many nations in the region are circumscribed to make critical choices of their positions. Japan finds itself difficult to extricate itself from this rigmarole, which is why Kishida made a sudden pilgrimage to Kyiv in March 2023 to pledge support for Ukraine after his trip to India was over.

For Japan’s main alliance partner the US, Russia is the main adversary. Its relations with China have also nosedived over a host of issues. For Japan, it faces threats and missile launches from North Korea on a regular basis. China is another threat because of its aggressive stances in many regional issues. Yet, both Japan and China cannot do without the other as their economic interests at bilateral and regional level are intrinsically tied. On the other hand, the US perception of China is different as it sees mainly in strategic and political terms. Japan cannot afford to take such a position as it cannot avoid seeing China from the economic perspectives.

As regards threats from North Korea, Japan hopes to use the China card to keep Pyongyang calm. As Japan wants to live in peace Kishida is not deterred from seeking a summit with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Given that China is North Korea’s main patron, Kishida can use the economic card with China to facilitate such a summit. It is a different matter whether that strategy works out but the strategy itself is laudable.

As it transpires, Japan finds itself caught in a tricky situation in balancing ties with the US and China differently. While it cannot abandon the US, it cannot provoke China either into a conflict over the North Korean issue or Senkaku islands issue despite the fact that China’s approaches to both are unlikely to be altered.

If this is Japan’s dilemma, can Japan feel safer if it joins the NATO as a full-fledged member? Is Japan ready to take such a step? France has already raised objection when talks surfaced about the opening of a NATO liaison office in Tokyo. French President Emmanuel Marcon argues that NATO should remain focussed on its own region. Like Turkey stood in Sweden’s way to join NATO and gave conditional consent during the summit, France shall surely block Japan’s entry if it decides to join. Though Germany might be happy or even plead Japan’s case to join NATO, it is unlikely to succeed as NATO functions on the basis of consensus and France can veto the plan if mooted. If Japan falls into the US trap of creating an anti-China lobby and join somehow NATO, Japan could be making a huge mistake. Japan needs to rethink seriously if such a strategy is being considered.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited France from 13 to 14 July, a day after the NATO summit at Vilnius ended. It was speculated that Marcon would raise the Japan issue during his talks with Modi, it was not revealed if that was the case. In any case India would not take any position as India’s interests are not aligned with the NATO and would not be influenced by either the US or Japan. That line of approach remains consistent with its long-held foreign policy. On the contrary, talks focussed on defence and entirely bilateral issues.

South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, known as Asia-Pacific Four, are a part of NATO’s “global partners” group since the early 2010s. By attending the Vilnius summit in Lithuania, these four countries expected to deepen partnerships with the trans-Atlantic alliance. Thus it transpires that NATO’s planned new Individually Tailored Partnership Program (ITPP), already negotiated and approved at the ambassador level, has made considerable advance. The leaders’ attendance at Vilnius summit was seen as an endorsement of the proposal. France still holds the wild card. France that can veto needs to be persuaded that a NATO liaison office in Tokyo could be critical to implementing the ITPP. If however France is persuaded to accept the argument that a NATO liaison office in Tokyo shall be only linked to coordinate the ITPP with local partners, France might be inclined to accept and drop its opposition.

While the details of what ITPP means are not clear, some details of these engagement frameworks based on the partner’s individual capacities, needs and interests suggest that this shall provide opportunities to develop interoperability with NATO militaries as well as a platform for engaging and sharing information about a variety of security issues. Seen at the moment as a bureaucratic innovation, ITPP aims to strengthen deterrence by forging closer strategic ties and interoperability. With no clarity at the moment, these frameworks might end up as mere talking shops with no defined direction.

Ukraine’s ambition to join the NATO alliance shall remain a pipedream for now as the NATO members would be reluctant to escalate the war in Ukraine into a larger conflict. Ahead of the NATO summit, President Biden was categorical in saying that Ukraine is not ready for membership, and Ukraine’s accession into the alliance would mean war with Russia. At the same time the allies cannot leave Ukraine defenceless and therefore promised support. While the Biden administration agreed to send cluster bombs to Ukraine to combat the Russian invasion, France and Britain agreed to send long-range cruise missiles. Britain also announced to provide more than 70 combat and logistic vehicles, rounds of ammunitions for Challenger 2 tanks, and a $65m support package for equipment repair. Germany also decided to send a $77m military aid package, which includes 2 Patriot launchers, 40 additional Marder infantry fighting vehicles. Norway also is to send $10 m military aid. While the war continues, Ukraine’s wish to join the NATO alliance must wait as under the alliance’s Article 5 this would commit the allies to entering the war against Russia. NATO cannot afford that luxury.

The issue of Japan’s possible entry into NATO at the moment remains a will’-o-the-wisp as the issue is too complicated. True, Japan’s response to the Ukraine conflict has been swift and comprehensive. As a pacifist Japan, it could not deliver weapons due to guidelines that effectively ban arms export but Japan did provide Kyiv with a mix of humanitarian, financial and nonlethal military aid in the form of surveillance drones, bulletproof vests, helmets, transport vehicles, tents and medical supplies. The Kishida government is labouring hard to dilute the spirit of the limitations put by the Constitution and modify the guidelines on the export of lethal weapons. Such intentions are aimed at a closer participation with the NATO. Earlier Shinzo Abe tried and moderately succeeded with his collective self-defence concept. Kishida plans to go further. However, given the complexity of Japanese politics the path is full of thorns and Kishida is unlikely to realise his dream.

The new complexity in the security matrix however has compelled Japan to see the world politics from a different prism. Japan does realise that it may not be located in the North Atlantic, but finds itself aligned with NATO as natural partners with increasingly overlapping interests and with much to offer each other. That’s why in a chilling statement, Kishida remarked at the Shangri-La Security summit on 11-12 June 2022 in Singapore that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow”, which encapsulates the growing sense of urgency over the security situation in Japan. Japan’s dilemma is thus of gigantic proportion.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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