Paris Plays Spoiler On NATO’s Deepening Indo-Pacific Ambitions – Analysis


By Shairee Malhotra and Pratnashree Basu

For two consecutive years, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) summits welcomed the leaders of the Indo-Pacific 4 (IP4) countries—Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand—who are considered NATO’s “partners across the globe”.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has emboldened cooperation both within NATO and its 31 members, but also with the IP4 based on the merging of security challenges in the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic theatres as well as common threat perceptions from China. As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg emphasised, “What happens in Europe matters for Asia, for the Indo-Pacific; and what happens in Asia and the Indo-Pacific matters for Europe.”

In this context, the Strategic Concept released during the 2022 NATO summit in Madrid mentioned China for the first time. The joint communiqué released at the recent summit in Vilnius went a lot further—with some 14 allusions to China, it accused the country of “creating strategic dependencies to enhance its influence” and using “coercive tactics”. The communiqué also expressed concerns about China’s intensifying relationship with Russia given the China-Russia ‘no-limits’ partnershipsigned just before Putin invaded Ukraine.

To formalise NATO’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific region and facilitate dialogue with other countries, plans to open a new NATO liaison office in Japan—akin to the dozen-odd small offices NATO has in countries such as Ukraine and Georgia—are under discussion. The office would contribute to raising awareness of security challenges in the different regions, and coordinate responses on areas ranging from cyber threats to disinformation, economic coercion to disruptive technologies—all of which transcend geographic confines.

Playing right into China’s hands? 

Yet, the bid to open a liaison office in Tokyo has encountered strong opposition from France based on concerns that this could aggravate tensions between China and NATO. Macron has urged NATO to remain focused on the North Atlantic, warning that expanding its reach would be “a big mistake”.

Some of this opposition has to do with French President Macron’s foreign policy ambitions and France’s adherence to the concept of European strategic autonomy—the ability and freedom to charter one’s own path based on one’s interests. France has certainly been a pioneer in European strategic thought; it was the first country to lay out an Indo-Pacific vision in 2018 long before the concept was trending, and has the most active European presence in the region given its status as a resident power with territories.

However, this often puts the country at odds with the United States (US), the most powerful country in the NATO alliance. Only recently, Macron stirred up controversy when, on a trip to Beijing, he urged Europe to distance itself from US-China tensions over Taiwan and resist becoming “America’s followers”. Macron would likely prefer to address issues in the Indo-Pacific through the European Union (EU) framework, where France is a dominant player rather than a US-led NATO where it is the junior partner. Besides, preserving economic interests with Beijing is often an added factor in Western European concerns over antagonising China. Predictably, Macron’s view found resonance in Beijing, where Foreign Ministry spokesman Weng Wenbin warned NATO against “interfering in regional affairs and inciting bloc confrontation”.

Analysts point out other concerns that are likely to impede NATO, and in particular European contribution to security in the Indo-Pacific, such as the lack of European military capacities, the immediate focus on the European continent and Ukraine support, and the need to still catch up on defence spending. These are coupled with differences amongst EU member states on their approach to China, with some countries such as Hungary aiming for closer relations.

Given how NATO decision-making is based around consensus, an opposition by one country is enough to impede the proposal. Thus, the final joint statement from Vilnius resulted in no reference to the liaison office.

Partnerships powering through 

For Japan, consolidating partnerships based on respect for the rules-based international order, coupled with strengthening security and addressing common global challenges, has been a cornerstone of its diplomatic engagements. Russia and China’s assertive actions in Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific respectively have raised concerns about regional and global stability. In this context, engaging with NATO allows Japan to bolster its deterrence capabilities by aligning with a grouping that has a collective defence commitment. Although Japan is not covered by NATO’s collective defence principle (Article 5), which guarantees mutual defence among member states, the alliance’s commitment to collective defence helps maintain stability and deterrence in various regions, including the Indo-Pacific.

Japan has been an active advocate for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) region, which aligns with NATO’s focus on safeguarding a rules-based international order. The meeting at Vilnius allows Japan a fresh opportunity to garner support for its FOIP vision and coordinate efforts with like-minded nations to ensure stability in the Indo-Pacific. Over the past two years, Tokyo and NATO have engaged regularly with the ambit of cooperation covering defence, emerging technologies, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, interoperability, and maritime security. Tokyo has also made significant contributions to NATO’s operations in third countries such as Afghanistan and the Balkans. These demonstrate that, despite China’s objections to the idea of a NATO office in Asia, Japan is neither a new nor a token partner for NATO. In fact, talks on an Asian liaison office go as far back as 2007 when former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited NATO headquarters in Brussels. In 2018, Japan set up a NATO office in Brussels. As Stoltenberg declared on his visit to Tokyo early this year, “No NATO partner is closer or more capable than Japan.”

Most partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, which are sans China, have drawn the ire of the latter at some point. Yet, irrespective of differences within Europe on the distance at which Beijing must be kept, the intention for Japan and NATO is clear—partnerships with the Indo-Pacific must be strengthened. Most of these partnerships focus on function-based collaboration across economic, social, scientific, digital and environmental concerns, while remaining grounded on their geopolitical foundations. This approach, which ensures the deepening of these partnerships, is the course for NATO-Japan collaboration as well.

More broadly, bilateral security cooperation and high-level consultations between countries from both groupings are already substantive. Significantly, NATO and the IP4 are deepening their engagement through Individually Tailored Partnership Programmes. There are plans to conduct joint military exercises as well as exchanges over disinformation and cyber threats flowing from China. Several European members such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have deployed warships to the Indo-Pacific to boost deterrence and defend a rules-based order. Besides, the IP4 has provided strong support to Ukraine through sanctions and humanitarian assistance. For what it’s worth, despite plans for a liaison office being on hold for now, NATO cooperation with the IP4 is likely to stay and deepen.

About the authors:

  • Shairee Malhotra is an Associate Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation. 
  • Pratnashree Basu is an Associate Fellow with the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy 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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