NATO and Indo-Pacific Partners

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NATO and Indo-Pacific Partners

Insights from Mirna Galic. 

NATO and Indo-Pacific Partners

Left to right: Prime Minister of Australia Anthony Albanese; Prime Minister of Japan Kishida Fumio; NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg; then-Prime Minister of New Zealand Christopher Hipkins; and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol meet during the July 2023 NATO Vilnius Summit.

Credit: NATO

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Mirna Galic – senior policy analyst on China and East Asia at the United States Institute of Peace and chair of USIP Expert Study Group on NATO and Indo-Pacific Partners, which recently released its final report – is the 412th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.” 

Explain NATO’s interests in strengthening relations with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea bilaterally and through the IP4 format. 

A number of interests have motivated NATO’s pursuit of relations with its partner countries in the Indo-Pacific over time, starting with the nature of the countries themselves. These countries are all democracies that support human rights and individual freedoms, maintain sophisticated and capable militaries, have stable and open economies, and are allies (or close partners in the case of New Zealand) of the United States. 

In the wake of the Cold War and 9/11, as NATO began to undertake missions outside of its traditional European area of focus, like in Afghanistan or with its counter-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean, having countries to partner with that were also outside of the European area was seen as an asset. Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and New Zealand all provided military and/or financial assistance for Afghanistan.

These four countries – along with China, incidentally – all also coordinated with NATO on counter-piracy in the Indian Ocean. Piracy was an example of another type of challenge on which NATO was interested in cooperating with its Indo-Pacific and other global partners after 9/11 – “transnational threats,” which include such non-geographically specific concerns as cyberattacks, terrorism, and climate change. 

NATO began its engagement with the various Indo-Pacific partners between the 1990s and the early 2000s and signed formal partnership agreements with all four of them in the early 2010s. Notably, NATO also began military-to-military staff talks with China in 2010, which continue to the present day. The nature and goals of NATO’s bilateral relations with each of the Indo-Pacific partners is described in these partnership agreements. 

NATO’s engagement of the Indo-Pacific partners as a group of four, the IP4 format, began in 2016, with a focus on North Korea, whose military and nuclear developments worried NATO nations as well as the Indo-Pacific partners. North Korea has featured in NATO summit declarations and other official statements since 2006. In contrast, NATO doesn’t mention China in a high-level public document until 2019, where it first recognizes that “China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance,” after a period of internal reckoning in Europe. 

So, NATO has a long history of engaging on the region and with its partners there, one that certainly precedes NATO’s awareness of security challenges from China. Now that NATO does have concerns about China, its engagement with its Indo-Pacific partners, including in the IP4 format, does include China, although it also includes Russia and Ukraine, and a host of transnational threats of particular salience to the Indo-Pacific partners, such as climate change, cyber, and space. 

Russia’s war against Ukraine has been a big concern for all the Indo-Pacific partner countries. It has changed perceptions about Russia’s international role, undermines the rules-based international order on which these countries’ security and prosperity rests, and raises the specter of what China could do in the Indo-Pacific region vis-à-vis Taiwan, which could have significant costs for the Indo-Pacific partners, the rest of the region, and Europe, just as the Ukraine war has. This fact underlines a growing realization at both NATO and among the Indo-Pacific partners of the impact actions by a great power in one region can have on the other region, a realization that again speaks to the need to be in touch with one another.

Compare and contrast the IP4’s respective agendas in NATO engagement. 

In the Report of the USIP Expert Study Group on NATO and Indo-Pacific Partners, we take a look at each country’s main interests in and perceptions of its partnership with NATO. Some of these are similar among the countries and some are unique, as one would expect. In addition to shared interests and concerns, such as the ones discussed above in the context of NATO’s engagement with the four countries, the partners also benefit from such things as gaining interoperability with NATO militaries, learning from NATO expertise in certain areas, information exchange, and the platform that NATO provides for engaging with Europe and the United States simultaneously, among others.

What finding from the report was of particular interest to you? 

What I think is perhaps most interesting, and which we highlight in the report, is what all of the Indo-Pacific partner countries seem to agree that they expect from NATO regarding the region. Rather than expecting NATO to be a significant direct actor on the Indo-Pacific, the partners expect the alliance to coordinate with them on issues of mutual concern in, stemming from, or affecting the region, what the study group characterized as “NATO with the Indo-Pacific not in the Indo-Pacific.” And this is important given some of the misleading allegations about NATO’s ambitions from China, which we’ll discuss below. 

Examine the ways in which Russia and China are attempting to undermine perceptions of NATO in the Indo-Pacific region. 

China and Russia have used similar talking points on NATO, including in regard to the dangers of so-called NATO expansion, which is one of Russia’s excuses for its invasion of Ukraine and which both Russia and China assert with regard to the Indo-Pacific. In reality, NATO does not seek a presence in the Indo-Pacific, but rather recognizes the region as dynamic and strategically important and therefore seeks to understand and be aware of the security situation there and to deepen relations with its regional partners. 

Moreover, these countries do not seek to be NATO member states, nor could they be given geographic regulations on NATO membership, which specify that any additional members be European states. What’s instead at play is that these countries want to coordinate with like-minded states in the Euro-Atlantic region on a host of issues both in and beyond the region, including climate change, cybersecurity, space, arms control, and non-proliferation, and yes, China, Russia, and North Korea. 

And why shouldn’t they? Choosing its diplomatic associations and alignments is a sovereign right of every state and to suggest otherwise would be “not in line with mutual respect,” as Republic of Korea Prime Minister Han Duck-soo noted when asked about China’s opposition to his president’s participation in a NATO summit. 

Assess how NATO and the IP4 could coordinate in a plausible Taiwan Strait conflict scenario. 

It is relevant to note that NATO as an organization being involved militarily in a Taiwan Strait conflict is unlikely. It is true that NATO has led military missions outside of Europe before, as it did in Afghanistan, where it led the International Security Assistance (ISAF) mission from 2003-2014, but ISAF was based on a U.N. Security Council resolution, and we would not be likely to get a similar resolution on a Taiwan conflict, given the composition of the Security Council. Allies would also have to approve any such mission and there is not a consensus among them on how to approach a Taiwan scenario, as President Macron of France has made clear in his comments on the issue

As Russia’s war against Ukraine has shown, however, military involvement is certainly not the only way to assist a people facing external aggression. On Ukraine, countries have coordinated political messaging, economic actions, and the provision of military assistance with Europe and NATO, including the IP4 countries, each of which has provided non-lethal military assistance to Ukraine through NATO, in addition to speaking out against the conflict and placing sanctions on Russia. Similar coordination could also be possible for a Taiwan conflict. 

Also worth noting, is that a response on Taiwan may depend on how a Taiwan scenario plays out – should China decide to pursue unification without the agreement of the Taiwanese people, it could move against Taiwan through a gray zone or quarantine situation in addition to an invasion or attack. In this regard, having European attention on the region and ensuring European awareness of the security situation in the Indo-Pacific is very important, and this is precisely what engagement between NATO and the IP4 countries, individually and as a group, facilitates. 

More generally, speaking out about the importance of peace across the Taiwan Strait, and keeping China on notice that the international community, including NATO nations, are keeping eyes on Taiwan may encourage some level of caution from Beijing about military adventurism.