NATO is emerging prominently as part of America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy for handling China, backed by 30 members across Europe and North America and a longtime Western military alliance with established mechanisms, multilayered political and security operations and an increasing interest in global involvement — including in Asia.
Under NATO’s new Strategic Concept, which was unveiled in June, China is formally designated a strategic focus, along with Russia. As described by Jens Stoltenberg, the organization’s secretary-general, this represents a “paradigm shift.”
Historically, it is by no means new that NATO would get involved in Asian affairs. It has pursued broad goals since the end of the Cold War, when its strategic focus was said to be transformed from one wholly targeting the Soviet Union to one ensuring regional peace and stability. It claims to have pursued crisis management, cooperative security and military deterrence as its triple pillars.
At the same time, NATO has never been free from U.S. influence. As NATO’s largest contributor and the West's predominant power, the United States has always considered NATO a fundamental tool for carrying out its military and political objectives, often disguised as collective security.
Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has sought to reach beyond Europe and the North Atlantic region — its original sphere — and to expand its influence globally. It has found it can be a factor in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. In Asia, its agenda aligns with the three pillars.
In military deterrence, NATO had shifted its target from the former Soviet Union toward new types of challenges at the post-Cold War era. After 9/11, NATO declared terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, hybrid warfare and emerging and disruptive technologies as its challenges.
Since 2010 — and especially since 2014 and the Crimea incident — NATO began to think that “the pattern of growing Russian aggression, as well as the rise of China, has ushered in a new geostrategic landscape characterized by renewed strategic competition.” (nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics)
In 2017, the U.S. formally stated in its National Security Strategy that China is its foremost adversary. Correspondingly NATO hastened its steps to coordinate by redeploying troops on its eastern and southeastern flank. While it claimed its main purpose was deterring Russia, it included China by implication, since both NATO and the U.S. intend to link Russia with China as a bloc and strengthening defense of the Eurasian landmass would help compromise it.
Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, NATO has agreed to significantly reinforce its deterrence and defense capabilities. According to its new Strategic Concept, “the Euro-Atlantic area is not at peace. … The People’s Republic of China’s stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.” In an environment of strategic competition, NATO said it will “enhance global awareness and reach to deter, defend, contest and deny across all domains and directions, in line with its 360-degree approach.”
Apart from traditional nuclear, conventional and missile defense capabilities, NATO also incorporated space, cyber and hybrid attacks as additional domains that may trigger collective defense. In May and November this year, respectively, South Korea and Japan were admitted to NATO’s Cyber Defense Center. NATO also enhanced coordination with its Indo-Pacific partners in countering a so-called hybrid threat.
Given this, NATO’s current deterrence is not only aimed at Russia but also at China. And this deterrence is no longer geographically defined, especially when it comes to the cyber and space domains, and in hybrid areas. NATO can deter China without expanding physically into the region.
In crisis management, Asia is not devoid of a NATO footprint either. Immediately after 9/11, NATO decided it met the condition of resorting to war under Article 5. Then it sent troops to Afghanistan and stayed there for almost two decades. This was the first time it had engaged in war in Asia.
After the Cold War, NATO developed a whole set of crisis management theories and also committed itself many times outside of Europe, including in the Mediterranean, Cape of Africa and Middle East. NATO is highly interested in the Korean Peninsula and the nuclear issue, and it follows closely in line with U.S. in this regard. It has also demonstrated its “obligations” in safeguarding “freedom of navigation,” — the same narrative the U.S. uses — implying an increasing interest in getting involved in issues regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea. As a matter of fact, military maneuvers in the region by countries such as Britain, France and Germany have provided a preliminary test already. Recently, in its newly published India-Pacific strategy, Canada condemned China as “a disruptive global power” and would like to “challenge it” if necessary, symbolizing a more concerted approach within NATO countries.
Last comes the cooperative security pillar, which has been the most important style of engagement in the region by NATO over the years through a “global partnership” program. Japan became its first partner during the 1990s, then came the Republic of Korea, Australia and New Zealand, known as the AP4. In the future, they will not only strengthen military interoperability but also direct more energy toward matching the U.S. strategy in such areas as supply chain reshuffling and competition in emerging and disruptive technologies.
Under the new U.S. attempts to merge Europe and Asia into a systemic whole, strategically, for the purpose of more efficiently dealing simultaneously with China and Russia, much more concerted activity can be expected in the future as the U.S. and NATO attempt to align their policies. But as historian Paul Kennedy has cautioned, there is danger of failure in overextending empire. The U.S. should keep this in mind as a warning siren.