Sweden Joins NATO: Implications for the Indo-Pacific

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Sweden Joins NATO: Implications for the Indo-Pacific

As NATO looks eastward with an eye on China, Sweden’s accession will also impact Indo-Pacific countries.

Sweden Joins NATO: Implications for the Indo-Pacific
Credit: Depositphotos

On March 7, almost two years after it first submitted its application and a year after Finland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Sweden officially became NATO’s 32nd member. Sweden’s accession, which was held up by Turkey and Hungary since it first submitted its application in May 2022, soon after Russia’s Ukraine invasion, has catalyzed changes in the European security framework, with implications for Indo-Pacific security. 

This historic development categorically ends Sweden’s national and international identity as a neutral and non-aligned state, even though it has been often highlighted that Sweden in practice moved away from neutrality a few years after joining the European Union (EU). Moreover, the shift marks NATO’s firm hold over not only the Baltic Sea region but also the Arctic, a strategically important area of dominance for Russia where China, too, seeks access as part of its humongous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

Sweden’s new status as a full-fledged NATO member has certainly bolstered the alliance in face of the Russian challenge; as Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general lauded, it will make “NATO stronger, Sweden safer, and the whole alliance more secure.” However, as NATO looks eastward with an eye on China and partnering with Indo-Pacific countries to uphold global norms, Sweden’s accession also has notable implications for the Indo-Pacific. 

Could NATO membership facilitate Sweden’s greater embrace of the Indo-Pacific construct, perhaps by issuing its very own strategy for the region in the future? Does the event foreshadow a strengthening of bipolarity? How will it impact India, if at all?

Looking Back: An Overview of Sweden’s Diminishing Neutrality 

Although Sweden has been a “partner for peace” of NATO since 1994, its cooperation with the alliance has always been shaped by its perception of the Russia threat. During the Cold War, Sweden followed the dictum, “non-aligned in peacetime with the purpose of maintaining neutrality in the case of war,” which gradually became more a narrative than actual reality. First with its EU integration and later with the 2007 Lisbon Treaty and 2009 adoption of the “Declaration of Solidarity,” Sweden’s “passive” position was revoked, although the skepticism and concept of a “militarily non-aligned” state persisted. 

However, increasing tensions with Russia following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 prompted Sweden to deepen cooperation by becoming an “Enhanced Opportunities Partner” of NATO. This focused on political dialogues, joint training and exercises, and more open sharing of information. 

Additionally, Sweden’s military weakness had already been exposed in 2013, when Russian bomber planes simulated an attack on Stockholm that Sweden could not independently repel. A year later, reports of a Russian submarine lingering in the Stockholm archipelago of the Baltic Sea caused further concern. Following this, in 2016, Sweden signed a Host Nation Support Agreement with NATO, allowing it to receive civilian and military support. 

These strong security measures notwithstanding, Sweden’s doctrine of military non-alignment did not help in overcoming European security lacunae, nor facilitated constructive bridge-building agenda. Especially in the era of volatile, divisive geopolitics, it has only added to the security paranoia. In 2022, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine shattered Stockholm’s sense of security and stability, as well as traditional notions of defense. 

Beyond the Russia Threat: Looking Toward China

While the war in Ukraine prompted Sweden’s alignment with NATO, Stockholm’s engagement as a member will be shaped, at least in part, by China. NATO has emerged as a crucial vector in transatlantic cooperation on China. In 2019 NATO officially recognized Beijing’s growing influence as a simultaneous opportunity and challenge, nut it was not yet seen as a threat to security alongside Russia. 

Following the pandemic, in 2022, the long overdue updated version of NATO’s Strategic Concept brought to the fore the change in the global geopolitical landscape: Not only was the convergence between China and Russia highlighted, but China’s diplomatic, technological, and economic coercive tactics that seek to constrain its partners’ values and interests, and in turn, undermine the rules-based order were openly targeted. While the Euro-Atlantic remains NATO’s core mandate, it now identifies the importance of tacking the geopolitical and ideological competition that China poses – primarily through deeper security partnerships with like-minded Indo-Pacific states. Yet this is still done within the confines of engagement, which has not been forsaken. 

Historically, Sweden was the first Western country to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1950, even as trade and exchanges were limited. Sweden’s official framing of a China policy in 2019 has coincided with the EU’s (and NATO’s) change in approach to China. In other words, it has involved a delicate balance between the partner-rival equation or balancing political differences and commercial objectives. And in recent years, concerns about human rights violations by China and Chinese attempts at collecting intelligence about Sweden’s capabilities, including technology and defense planning, amid other factors, have hampered bilateral cooperation.  

Moreover, China’s adoption of heavy-handed “wolf warrior” diplomacy has also heightened tensions. Events like the abduction of Swedish national Gui Minhai in 2015; the subsequent diplomatic clash; and the Russian-Chinese collusion after 2022 have pushed a politically “naïve” Sweden to move away from its non-alignment and neutrality stance and consider the threat of an authoritarian China (together with its partner Russia) more seriously.

Deteriorating Sino-Swedish relations also encouraged Sweden to pursue a China policy that is more closely aligned with the EU, which is still hedging between engagement and the need to be cautious. Now, as part of NATO, Sweden’s China policy will no doubt shift closer to its security partners, especially the United States. 

Already, a poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in 2023 found that the country has one of the most hawkish popular views of China (56 percent of Swedes were in favor of sanctioning China if it supported Russia’s Ukraine invasion). The Swedish security strategy identifies China only as a threat – not a competitor – which is harsher than Europe’s overall stance and aligns more with the U.S. position. 

As a NATO member, Sweden will likely influence its eastward mission by supporting a more hawkish stance on China, which could include reworking political caveats that prevent NATO from framing China as a security threat to European security.

New Opportunities in the Indo-Pacific?

How can such a position on China manifest via NATO? Traditionally, under a position of neutrality, Sweden has focused on acting as a mediator and positioning itself as a valuable power in conflict resolution. Considering its history, it seems unlikely that we will see a Swedish foreign policy that entirely ignores fostering dialogues and prioritizing peace for a reactive approach focused on countering China and provoking (even if inadvertently) a confrontation. 

Rather, Sweden will add weight to NATO’s current strategy of building stronger inroads in the Indo-Pacific through security partnerships. Sweden’s NATO accession shows, more than anything else, that it does not want to remain isolated in the emerging security architecture of the world. In this context, Stockholm will look to boost NATO’s tailor-made programs with partner-states in the Indo-Pacific, namely South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. This will also bolster the strategic orientation of Sweden’s bilaterals with these states, all four of which have specific Indo-Pacific strategies or policies that ultimately cater to a rules-based global democratic order. 

Moreover, Sweden’s growing bonhomie with India, which is again a state that has refused to participate in military alliances but has managed to effectively raise its security partnerships nonetheless primarily to counter its China’s hostilities, will become extremely vital. In this context, Sweden’s NATO entry will not directly impact its relations with India, but the NATO link will certainly enhance convergence on China as a common threat. The new NATO membership will also add to Sweden’s awareness about the Indo-Pacific through distinct local voices from East Asia, South Asia, Oceania or the Pacific.

In areas like maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, Sweden has immediate concerns – much like other European states (France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Czechia) that have established their own Indo-Pacific strategies – due to the economic security impact of threats to sea lines of communication: China’s aggression in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, as well as China’s growing footprint in the Indian Ocean region, is of global concern. 

In a scenario where a blockade becomes part of China’s so-called “new normal tactics,” even though NATO is primarily focused on Euro-Atlantic security, the complicated interconnectedness of global energy or goods trade, for example, will necessitate NATO member Sweden to have a concrete security policy for the Indo-Pacific. In this context, NATO’s already solid local partnerships with the afore-mentioned four in tandem with Sweden’s individual ties with India could facilitate a greater involvement in the Indo-Pacific construct in the longer term.

A Push for Arms Deals?

An ongoing discussion about Sweden’s entry into NATO involves Sweden’s “competent and competitive” defense-industrial complex, which is one the largest in Europe including big defense contractors based in Sweden like Saab – one of the world’s top 100 arms-producing and military services companies – and BAE Systems Hägglunds. As the record sales for defense equipment after Russia’s Ukraine’s invasion in 2022 have highlighted, this would be a big draw for NATO – not just for security against permanent adversary Russia, but also against the increasing threat scenario in the Indo-Pacific. 

On the other hand, Sweden’s greater access to operational matters, including to sensitive information and intelligence sharing, will create more opportunities for its defense industry, and in turn boost its defense exports. 

For example, Saab’s Gripen, which has been marketed as the “most cost-effective” fighter today, has garnered attention in the Indo-Pacific. Reportedly, amid an escalating situation with China in the South China Sea the Philippines is considering procuring the Swedish JAS 39 Gripen multirole jet fighters in place of the F-16 Fighting Falcons.

At the same time, Sweden as a NATO member supplying military equipment to the region, in tandem with NATO’s greater outreach to the East Asian states like Japan and South Korea, will add to China’s (as also North Korea’s) narrative against the NATO: that the U.S. policy is to bring NATO in some form to the Indo-Pacific, the so-called “eastward expansion.” China has always accused the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad, which comprises Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.) of being an “Asia-Pacific NATO.” Such a scenario will not only increase the regional arms race but also further destabilize the Indo-Pacific.

Déjà vu, Bipolarity?

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, middle powers like India and Japan have been showcasing tremendous diplomatic adroitness and a global profile that has continued to blossom. Such changes have been accompanied by strong assessments in favor of the rise of “asymmetric multipolarity.” However, as Sweden and Finland enter into the U.S.-led NATO amid rising strategic cooperation between authoritarian states like Russia, Iran, and North Korea, among others, led by China, the return to bipolarity is again under the lens. As such, the prospects of a true multipolarity emerging are not too convincing due to the persistent power imbalance between great powers and the middle powers, as well as the continuing relevance and power of the United States.

These debates notwithstanding, it is clear that international governance, which is in disarray, must be now the focus of European and global attention. Therefore, changes necessary to improve national or regional defense, like Sweden’s NATO entry, must be accompanied by redoubled efforts toward revitalizing multilateral institutions for enabling a semblance of true peace and stability.