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NATO’s Pivot to the Asia-Pacific

Feb 07, 2023
  • Chen Jimin

    Guest Researcher, Center for Peace and Development Studies, China Association for International Friendly Contact

On Jan. 30, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg visited the Republic of Korea and met with President Yun Seok-yeol. Stoltenberg stressed the importance of like-minded democracies standing together to protect the international rules-based order, as transatlantic and Indo-Pacific security are deeply interconnected.

In a speech at the CHEY Institute for Advanced Studies on the day of his arrival, Stoltenberg said that what happens in Europe matters to the Indo-Pacific region, and what happens in Asia matters to NATO.

In a joint statement issued after his visit to Japan, where he met with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Jan. 31, Stoltenberg stated his position on security issues in the Asia-Pacific, including the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and the situation in the Taiwan Strait. Both sides emphasized the need for strengthened cooperation between Japan and NATO in light of the changing strategic environment.

Stoltenberg’s visit to South Korea and Japan is a microcosm of the latest development in NATO’s Asia-Pacific pivot in recent years. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has gained new momentum through the extension and transformation of strategic functions and shaping external threats. NATO’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific can be seen as a manifestation of its quest for legitimacy.

In addition to the internal drivers of NATO’s quest for a legitimate raison d’être, the rapid rise of China and the changing dynamics in strategic competition between the United States and China arising from shifts in U.S. strategy underpin the external drivers in its pivot to the Asia-Pacific. This has been further accelerated by the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

In April 2019, at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the alliance, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence played up the “China threat” and proclaimed that the biggest challenge for NATO in the decades ahead would be how to adjust to a rising China. On Dec. 4, 2019 that year the London Declaration adopted at the NATO summit stated that China’s growing influence and its international policies represent both opportunities and challenges for NATO and require a joint response from NATO as an alliance. On Nov. 25, 2022, the NATO 2030 report again identified China as a “full-spectrum systemic rival,” which set the scene for NATO’s China-related statements thereafter.

The U.S. administration under President Joe Biden has made strengthening the alliance system an important means for handling major power strategic competition. One of the key movements is to break down geographical boundaries, align the U.S. alliance system in the Asia-Pacific region with the one in the transatlantic region and promoting interaction between the two.

In June 2021, NATO released a communique at the Brussels summit stating, “We will also seek to further develop relations with our partners across the globe. We are enhancing political dialogue and practical cooperation with our longstanding Asia-Pacific partners — Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea — to promote cooperative security and support the rules-based international order.”

In February last year, the White House released its Indo-Pacific Report stating that the European Union and NATO are increasingly turning their attention to the region and will harness this opportunity to align approaches and implement initiatives in coordination, thereby multiplying their effectiveness. The United States will build bridges between the Indo-Pacific and the Euro-Atlantic and, increasingly with other regions, by taking the lead on shared agendas that drive collective action.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has further accelerated NATO’s Asia-Pacific turn, prompting NATO and U.S. allies in the region to regard European and Asian continents as an integrated whole and to pursue more cooperation horizontally. On March 10, 2022, in a speech to the Atlantic Council, then-British Foreign Secretary Tony Truss said, “Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security are indivisible. We should be ready to do whatever it takes to respond to the challenges of today and tomorrow.”

Japanese Prime Minister Kishida has on several occasions spread the idea that “today’s Ukraine could be tomorrow’s East Asia,” in order to promote Japan’s interaction and cooperation with NATO. On April 6, four Asia-Pacific foreign ministers — from Japan, the ROK, Australia and New Zealand — were invited for the first time to the NATO Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Brussels. On June 29 and 30, the 2022 NATO Summit was held in Madrid, Spain, and for the first time four heads of state from the Asia-Pacific region — Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand — were invited to attend. It is predicted that the interaction between NATO and Asia-Pacific countries will become more frequent and institutionalized.

However, NATO’s shift to the Asia-Pacific region has its limits. First are the constraints of NATO’s own strategic positioning. It is a military alliance between the U.S. and Europe to safeguard security interests in the European region. Its main target was initially the Soviet Union, and then Russia in the post-Soviet era. Although the U.S. hopes to expand NATO as an important actor in global affairs, NATO’s European orientation will not likely change in the context of a complex European security environment.  

Second are the constraints of NATO’s strategic identity. As a regional military organization, NATO’s over-expansion will not only hinder policy coordination among its members but will also erode NATO’s own strategic identity.

Brent Scowcroft, U.S. national security adviser under President George H.W. Bush, said, “I’m not too keen on NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe because I fear it will dilute the unity of purpose of NATO.”

Also, NATO’s Asia-Pacific turn would probably not be well received by most countries in the region. After the Cold War, compared with other regions, the Asia-Pacific has maintained a generally peaceful and stable environment despite some security hotspots. As a military alliance, NATO’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific complicates the security situation in the region, even to the point of confrontation, which runs counter to the interests of most countries there. In addition, the policy shift could lead to a more intense nationalist resistance from countries in the region, as the painful memories of their colonial past at the hands of the West remain raw.

NATO’s Asia-Pacific turn clearly intends to target China, which brings certain geopolitical and security pressures on China, such as drawing international attention to the Taiwan question and issues related dto the South China Sea. However, given the limited nature of NATO’s pivot to Asia-Pacific so far, China does not need to overreact, though it should closely monitor where it is heading. In fact, NATO’s Asia-Pacific turn is largely a dynamic process that China can hardly control or influence.

In this context, the best way to deal with NATO’s Asia-Pacific turn is for China to run its own affairs well and buttress its ability to rise above external shocks and challenges.

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