Fractured NATO Politics: Sweden and Japan in Focus
Prof Rajaram Panda
Introduction

The Ukraine crisis has dramatically reoriented the strategic outlook of major stakeholders. Though the crisis has increased the hiatus between Russia and the West, it has also brought Russia and China closer. The most significant reorientation in focus as a fallout of the Ukraine crisis is reflected in the NATO and how this grouping of alliance has begun to view the new world events that have unfolded. In this context, two developments centring NATO that has hogged world attention need special mention and in-depth analysis: expansion of the NATO with the accession of Finland and likely accession of Sweden into the grouping, and likely opening of a liaison office of NATO in Tokyo. This article shall examine these two issues in two different segments for a holistic view of how the world events are likely to unfold in the coming months and years.

Case of Finland and Sweden in NATO grouping

When NATO welcomed Finland as its 31st member in April 2023 after considerable delay over Turkey’s reservations, the prospects for another Baltic state, Sweden, brightened.[1] Finland’s leaders had been lobbying for quite some time to join the NATO alliance when it finally succeeded in joining the alliance seen as a counterpoint to Russia’s military operation in Ukraine that posed a security threat to the Baltic state. Since May 2022, Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin had been working hard to fulfil the conditions set by certain NATO member that finally facilitated Finland’s entry into the grouping. [2]

While Finland’s membership of NATO shall strengthen its security, it has to deal with Russia as the latter reacted with a warning that it would “inflict serious damage to Russian-Finnish relations as well as stability and security in Northern Europe”. Since Finland has the longest border with Russia out of all the European Union’s 27 members, it felt its security is vulnerable in the wake of Russian aggression in Ukraine. This led Finland to join the NATO alliance.

When the then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited both Finland and Sweden in May 2022, he signed a military cooperation agreement. The offer of security assurances was more than a piece of symbolism designed to nudge the two countries over the line into making a joint application for NATO. Johnson’s key guarantee was a political declaration as opposed to an international treaty guarantee as of high value at the time when tensions had heightened over the Ukraine crisis.

Boris Johnson also pledged to come to the aid of Sweden and Finland if the two Baltic nations came under attack or come under Russian intimidation at least bilaterally if not collectively.[3] Finland President Niinisto blamed Russia as the cause for his nation of 5.5 million people seeking membership of NATO. In fact, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine prompted Finland and Sweden to reconsider their traditions of military nonalignment and contemplate joining NATO. Public opinion in the two countries quickly shifted toward favouring membership, first in Finland and a bit later in Sweden, after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022. When finally Finland became a NATO member in April 2023, it represented the biggest change in the Nordic country’s defence and security policy since World War II, when it fought against the Soviet Union.

Turkey is an influential member of the NATO alliance. It had reservations over Finland and Sweden joining the alliance. After protracted negotiations, Turkey agreed to lift its opposition, paving the way for the two Baltic States to join NATO. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called it “a historic decision”.[4] Both these two Baltic States decided to abandon their long-held nonaligned status and apply to join NATO as protection against an increasingly aggressive and unpredictable Russia after its military operation in Ukraine. The reason that drove both Finland and Sweden was because of the awareness that under NATO treaties, an attack on any member would be considered an attack against all and trigger a military response by the entire alliance.

Since NATO operates by consensus, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan played his cards by threatening to block the Nordic pair by putting pressure to change their stance on Kurdish rebel groups that Turkey considers terrorists and therefore national security threats. Finally diplomacy prevailed and leaders of the three countries signed a joint agreement to break the logjam. The decision to induct the two Baltic pair needed to be ratified by all individual members. While welcoming the agreement, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson promised to crack down on groups, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, and its Syrian extension. She also agreed not to impose embargo/restrictions in the field of defence industry on Turkey and also take “concrete steps on the extradition of terrorist criminals”. It may be recalled that the Baltic States had imposed restrictions on arms exports after Turkey’s 2019 military incursion into northeast Syria. Though Andersson came under flak at home by not revealing the details of the agreement, national security concerns overrode every other consideration.

Though Finland’s accession was smooth, Turkey still retained reservation about Sweden as it felt that Sweden was too lenient on terrorist organisations and security threats, including militant Kurdish group and people associated with a 2016 coup attempt. Sweden had the support of the rest of the NATO members. It pressed Turkey to drop objections to Sweden’s membership. In Particular Joe Biden was keen that the issue is resolved before the NATO’s 11-12 July summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. On its part, Sweden’s national security concern was too important and it was keen to secure protection under NATO’s security umbrella as soon as possible. Hungary has also delayed its approval but the reasons are not revealed.[5] Stoltenberg is likely to travel to Ankara soon and facilitate Sweden’s accession soon and was also confident that Hungary will ratify the accession protocol. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock extended Berlin’s full support and ready to welcome Sweden as the 32nd member of the organisation.

With a view to address Ankara’s concerns, Sweden tightened its anti-terrorism laws. Hereafter, it is now illegal to finance, recruit for or publicly encourage “a terrorist organisation”, or to travel abroad with the intention of joining such groups. Biden too promised to deliver upgraded US fighter jets, which President Erdogan has been seeking for quite some time. It is unclear if his decision is a quid pro quo for Ankara’s endorsement to Sweden to the NATO fold is unclear. Though US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rubbished such linkage, what remains true is completion of both – Sweden’s accession to NATO and F-16 package by the US to Ankara - would dramatically strengthen European security. That is the larger picture.

Being optimistic that Turkey will approve Sweden’s membership before or soon after the NATO Summit in Lithuania in July 2023, Sweden announced it will allow NATO troops on its soil even before formally joining the alliance.[6] In an article for the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, and quoted in the New York Times, Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and Defence Minister Pal Jonson wrote that Swedish Armed Forces shall undertake preparations with NATO and NATO countries to enable future operations. The article further observed that the decision sends a clear signal to Russia and strengthens Sweden’s defence. There is high optimism that since Erdogan has been re-elected for another five-year term, Sweden’s accession to the NATO fold is a given.

Controversy over a NATO office in Tokyo

The other significant development as an upshot of the Ukraine crisis is the talk of opening NATO liaison office in Tokyo. Speaking a week ahead of the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi announced that Japan is in talks to open a NATO liaison office, justifying that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made the world less stable.[7] If this happens, it will be of first of its king in Asia. Hayashi justified that the events in East Europe has repercussions far beyond Europe’s borders and affects directly East Asia and therefore greater cooperation between Japan and NATO is increasingly important.

Japan is already troubled by the deteriorating security environment in its neighbourhood. North Korea’s missile launches over Japan’s territory keeps Japan’s security always vulnerable. It has plenty of issues with China, prominent of which centres is territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited Japanese-controlled chain in the East China Sea. At bilateral level, its territorial disputes with Russia over the Kurile Islands (Northern Territories) remain unresolved despite multiple efforts. The new bonhomie between Russia and China in the wake of the Ukraine crisis is another headache for Japan’s political leaders. Therefore, NATO’s presence in Tokyo could be a temptation for Japan from the perspective of ensuring its security. This is not to say that its security alliance relationship with the US is rendered ineffective but the presence of NATO office could be an add-on in Japan’s national and regional security matrix. In order to beef up its defence capabilities Japan announced plans for its biggest military build-up since World War II and aims to spend 2 per cent of the GDP, thereby matching with NATO standard.

Though Japan is not a treaty member of NATO but the liaison office proposal sends a message the bloc’s Asia-Pacific partners about Japan’s readiness to engage with NATO closely. The proposal marks a significant development for the Western alliance amid deepening geopolitical fault lines.

The opening of a NATO liaison office in Japan would mark a significant development for the Western alliance amid deepening geopolitical fault lines, and is likely to attract criticism from the Chinese government, which has previously warned against such a move. NATO has already liaison offices in other places including Ukraine and Vienna. If a liaison office is established in Tokyo, it will enable discussions with NATO’s security partners, such as South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, on geopolitical challenges, emerging and disruptive technologies, and cyber threats.

China’s Reaction

China has previously warned against NATO expanding its reach into Asia. As expected, it responded angrily to reports on the possible NATO office in Tokyo. It warned the West that Asia should not be a platform for seeking geopolitical fights. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning cautioned that NATO’s eastward push and interference in the Asia-Pacific matters will undermine regional peace and stability. China claims impartiality in Russia’s Ukraine war and refused to condemn but endorsed Kremlin’s position that NATO is responsible for provoking the conflict. Hayashi played down Beijing’s concern arguing that it maintains a pacifist constitution and has constraints to get entangled in any conflict.

China accused NATO in spreading its reach into the Asian region beyond the geographical scope of the North Atlantic and interfering in regional affairs and inciting bloc confrontation.

Hyashi’s remarks was followed by statement by Japanese ambassador to the US Koji Tomita in which he said that Japan was working towards opening a liaison office in Tokyo.[8] This was the strongest hint on Japan’s proposal to host a liaison office for NATO. Tomita’s remarks came after Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida became the first Japanese leader to attend a NATO summit in June 2022. When NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg visited Japan in January 2023, the talk to deepen their partnership was probably the origin of the liaison office idea. Kishida too admitted that the security alliance plans to open a liaison office in Japan but also said that his country had no plans to become a NATO member or semi-member state. [9] In a joint statement Kishida and Stoltenberg warned that the free and open rules-based international order was at stake amid changes in the power balance and intensifying geopolitical competition. [10] The two leaders said that the world is at a historical inflection point in the most severe and complex security environment since the end of World War II, emphasizing the need to strengthen cooperation as the security of Europe, the United States and Asia is “closely connected.”

Opposition by France to Tokyo Liaison Office Idea

France is unenthusiastic to the idea of opening a NATO liaison office in Tokyo. French President Emmanuel Macron personally objected to the idea and said the move would be a “big mistake”. Macron argues that both Article V and Article VI in NATO statute ‘clearly limit the scope to North Atlantic’. Macron is aware that there have been calls to work more closely with allies in north-east Asia but is still reluctant to support anything that fuels tensions between the alliance and China.[11] France argues that there is no NATO liaison office in any country in the region and if NATO needs situational awareness in the region it can use the embassies designated as point of contact.

There is a requirement of unanimous approval of the North Atlantic Council if the idea of opening a liaison office in Tokyo is mooted. France can use its veto to scupper the plan.

Originally, NATO was designed as a transatlantic security organisation against the Soviet-era Communist bloc. In the changed situation now, NATO is attempting to define its role in the face of a rising China and supports Ukraine against the Russian invasion. Even Stoltenberg argues that “what happens in Asia matters for Europe and what happens in Europe matters for Asia”. This makes compelling reason, he argues, for the NATO to strengthen its partnership with the Indo-Pacific allies. Macron remains unconvinced, however. France refused to appreciate that the issue appeared in the press before there were full consultations between NATO members.

It may be remembered that Macron made a high-profile state visit to China in April 2023 where a lavish reception was awaiting him. He wanted to boost relations with China under President Xi Jinping. His remarks upon return that Europe should keep a distance from China-US tensions over Taiwan became controversial. Macron was thus not favourable to the NATO liaison office idea in Tokyo. Hinting that France seeks strategic autonomy, Macron asserted that Europe must not become an American “vassal”. This must have pleased Xi Jinping.

In conclusion, it can be said that NATO now finds itself at a crossroads and confused to carve the right path to determine its policy on global issue. There are many imponderables and NATO at the crossroads finds itself in a difficult situation to choose the right path. Every nation in every continent has its own compulsions that determine the nation’s policies and there cannot be a single parameter that can apply to all stakeholders. In a globalised world where nations are interconnected economically, consensus building shall always be a herculean task. Therefore, whether the issue of Sweden’s accession to the NATO or opening of a liaison office in Tokyo is raised, these cannot be dealt in silos and therefore consensus building becomes difficult. This is the real challenge to leaders of the world in dealing with world affairs.

References

[1]See, Rajaram Panda, “NATO welcomes Finland as its 31st Member, Sweden to Follow soon”, 11 April 2023, https://www.vifindia.org/article/2023/april/11/nato-welcomes-finland-as-its-31-member-sweden-to-follow-soon
[2] “Finland’s leaders call for NATO membership ‘without delay’”, Asahi Shimbun, 13 May 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14619873
[3]Patrick Wintour, “UK goes further than any other Nato country in Sweden and Finland pledge”, The Guardian, 11 May 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/11/johnson-security-assurances-sweden-and-finland-not-just-symbolic
[4] “Turkey lifts its objections to Sweden, Finland joining NATO”, Asahi Shimbun,
29 June 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14656891
[5]Matthew Lee and Lorne Cook, “NATO presses Turkey to drop objections to Sweden’s membership as summit looms”, 1 June 2023, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/nato-presses-turkey-to-drop-objections-to-swedens-membership-as-summit-looms/ar-AA1bYIw1
[6]Steven Erlanger, “Sweden says it will allow NATO troops on its soil even before joining the alliance”, New York Times, 9 June 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/06/09/world/europe/nato-sweden.html
[7]Jessie Yeung and Marc Stewart, “Japan is in talks to open a NATO office as Ukraine war makes world less stable, foreign minister says”, 10 May 2023, https://edition.cnn.com/2023/05/10/asia/japan-foreign-minister-hayashi-nato-intl-hnk/index.html
[8]Jesse Johnson, “NATO planning to open office in Tokyo, Japan’s envoy to US says”, Japan Times, 10 May 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/05/10/national/politics-diplomacy/japan-nato-office/
[9] “Japan won’t join NATO, but local office considered, PM Kishida says”, Asahi Shimbun, 24 May 2023, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14915691
[10]Gabriel Dominguez, “Japan and NATO agree to deepen partnership, saying rules-based order ‘at stake’”, Japan Times, 31 January 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/01/31/national/politics-diplomacy/nato-jens-stoltenberg-fumio-kishida/
[11]Justin McCurry, “France opposed to opening of Nato liaison office in Japan, official says”, The Guardian, 7 June 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/jun/07/france-opposed-to-opening-of-nato-liaison-office-in-japan-official-says

(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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