NATO’s Pivot To Indo-Pacific: Focus On Japan And South Korea – Analysis


By Abhishek Sharma

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made NATO hyper-aware of the grave risks such events present to the stability of the international rules-based order. Furthermore, it is now looking into Chinese actions that go against the rules-based order in the West Philippine Sea and Taiwan Strait. These regional events have prompted NATO to elevate its strategic partnerships with its Indo-Pacific four (or IP4)—Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand—to address these issues. However, in its pivot to the Indo-Pacific, NATO preferably sees developing strategic ties with its Northeast Asian partners, Japan and South Korea, as the first important step in its long-term plans for the region. 

Evolution of NATO’s relations with Japan and South Korea

NATO’s relations with South Korea and Japan have advanced fast in the last few years, even though they have moved along different trajectories. The relations have progressed with Japan since the 1990s; however, the ties with South Korea developed only in the late 2010s. Japan’s relations with NATO have developed incrementally, however, with Russia’s invasion, this partnership has achieved a new pace of momentum, driven by Tokyo’s indivisible security outlook, which sees the geopolitical developments interlinked in the Eurasian and Indo-Pacific region.

This was evident in the Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s speech at the G7 Hiroshima Summit when he stated, “Ukraine may be the East Asia of tomorrow.” Similarly, during the 2023 NATO Summit, Kishida said that “[S]ecurity of the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific are inseparable” and added that he “welcome[s] the further increase in interest and engagement in the Indo-Pacific among our like-minded countries of the Euro-Atlantic area.” Although this strategic thinking is not new and can be traced back to the early 1980s when attempts were made to create institutional linkages, it is clear that Tokyo is attempting to diversify and deepen its security relations with NATO to deal with emerging security threats in the region.  

Under President Yoon Suk-yeol’s Global Pivotal State (GPS) vision, South Korea started pivoting towards the European Union (EU) to develop strategic, economic, and security partnerships with actors beyond its immediate periphery. This pivot has led to Seoul’s increasing interest in developing stronger relations with NATO and its members. In 2023, during the NATO summit at Vilnius, Yoon expressed his agreement with the indivisible security outlook: “In this hyper-connected era, the security of Europe and Asia cannot be separated.” Although much credit is attributed only to situational factors like the Russian invasion, scholars like Bence Nemeth and Saeme Kim have identified structural and situational factors contributing to fastening relations with NATO. However, unlike Japan, Seoul’s strategic outlook is narrow, focused on Northeast Asia and the challenges posed by North Korea. Although concerns regarding China exist, it remains cautious, avoiding the possibility of strategic association and Beijing’s undue attention.

In the last few years, Seoul and Tokyo have identified new areas like climate change, information operations, and military intelligence sharing with NATO as critical areas of cooperation, adding to the earlier list of cyber, space, emerging, and critical technologies. This expansion has been possible due to an upgrade in their strategic partnership framework, which was elevated from the Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme (IPCP) to the Individually Tailored Partnership Programme(ITPP). The latter is a more ‘strategic and goal-oriented framework’—comprehensive, detailed and long-term (four-year period) as compared to the former, which is general and short (two-year period). This upgraded partnership framework attempts to establish greater strategic alignment between NATO and its Northeast Asian partners. Besides, this signals a clear political will to expand and deepen their security partnership with NATO and its members. 

Under the ITTP framework, the IP4 partnership is now institutionalised and is expected to grow further with the upcoming NATO summit in Washington, D.C.

NATO’s North-eastward move: What is the strategic rationale? 

NATO’s strengthening relations with Japan and South Korea must be viewed through strategic lens based on changing global alignments and the polarised security environment in Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific, which poses a significant threat to NATO and its members’ security. This increasing threat perception was clearly stated in NATO’s 2022 strategic posture, which noted the linkages between the security of the two regions. NATO understands that with increasing coordination between Beijing, Moscow, and its other like-minded partners across the region, it needs a strategy that is comprehensive and efficient in addressing these threats.

For instance, NATO sees increasing cooperation between Moscow and its friends—North Korea and Iran, both of whom have supplied critical weaponry as detrimental to its plans. Thus, it sees the benefits of forming closer cooperation with like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific, like South Korea and Japan, who have given Ukraine substantial military and economic assistance, demonstrating the vital importance of partners, even based in other regions. Sharing his support for the ties with Japan and South Korea, the NATO secretary general said, “Our growing ties send a powerful signal at a critical time: when countries like Russia try to rip up the global rules and laws, we stand united and strong to protect our way of life and prosperity.” 

On the other hand, for Seoul and Tokyo, developing comprehensive relations with NATO is critical to ensure that developments in Ukraine are not repeated in the Indo-Pacific. This partnership aims to create linkages across sectors, economy, technology, and military, and it seeks to develop effective deterrence against regional threats. While attributing, Russia is often cited as the sole factor. However, that is not the case. Scholars like Yu Koizumi have argued that Russia-Japan ties are not inherently adversarial, and the same could be said for South Korea. Even though the Ukraine situation is concerning for both states as liberal democracies, it does not present an existential threat to either.

However, this cannot be said about Chinese action in the Taiwan Strait, which for Japan is an existential threat and for South Korea, it raises profoundnational security implications. In this context, the only significant concern for Japan and South Korea militarily in the region is China, not Russia. Therefore, NATO relations with Japan and South Korea are driven by a systemic factor: China’s rise, which is not a situational event. Thus, this partnership is an attempt to strengthen deterrence in the region and counter any likely belligerent actions by Beijing. 

Upcoming opportunities and impending challenges

In addition to counterterrorism, space, and arms reduction, South Korea and Japan will strengthen security and defence partnerships in areas such as military intelligence-sharing and cybersecurity. With continuousstrategic partnerships getting institutionalised under a more robust ITPP framework, it would be more accessible for partners to collaborate and cooperate on issue-specific regional and global challenges across domains.

Strengthening Seoul and Tokyo’s defence relations will further increase this partnership’s success, establishing strategic linkages between the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions. In this partnership, Seoul is particularly interested in working on cybersecurity with NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDOE) and Japan seeks to foster closer cooperation in countering hybrid threats such as information warfare and economic security. Conversely, NATO is also looking at building strategic ties, devoid of any military deployment, instead focusing on military-technological innovation, capacity building, and developing mechanisms for sharing situational awareness.  

With the attack on Ukraine, the threat to Taiwan now looms over NATO and its members when it comes to the Indo-Pacific. However, like in the case of Russia, where a broad consensus was reached in NATO, there is currently no explicit agreement between NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners regarding China. Similar inter-disagreements exist within the IP4 partners, particularly Japan and South Korea, regarding China.

In addition, ASEAN members remain suspicious of external interference, making this more complicated. These uncertainties emerge as an obstacle to further strengthening relations between the two partners when sharing common perceptions of strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific and acting on them. Thus, as we advance, even if we may not see NATO’s role expanding in the region militarily, we will likely see closer and deeper strategic partnerships between NATO members with Japan and South Korea to strengthen deterrence and uphold rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific. 

  • About the author: Abhishek Sharma is a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation.
  • Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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