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NATO goes on manoeuvres in the Indo-Pacific

Jens Stoltenberg, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Secretary General, visited the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan from January 29th to February 2nd. Over the course of his trip, despite all the pledges made to abstractions like the rules based order, there was little new to report in terms of practical commitments or activities. It is possible more progress was made in talks behind closed doors, but in terms of what the public saw, both stops delivered more on symbolism than substance.

Ties between NATO and its East Asian partners may be nothing new, yet the context of war in Europe and rising tension in East Asia gives the visit special salience, and offers some useful pointers about expectations for the relationship in an era of sharper global competition. Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe started visiting NATO over a decade ago. Yoon Suk Yeol, ROK’s President, was the first South Korean leader to attend a NATO summit in June last year, but he seems to be catching up fast. In November 2022 ROK established a permanent mission to NATO. South Korea is also part of the NATO Centre of Excellence on cybersecurity and participates in a cyber coalition exercise that is the world’s biggest on cybersecurity and cyber defence. 

In all the speeches and statements on this visit, the importance of solidarity was emphasised with reference to a common threat menacing shared values, with the logic of reciprocity connecting Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security interests. Stoltenberg told an audience at Japan’s Keio University: ‘We may be oceans apart. But our security is closely connected. And we share the same values, interests and concerns…Beijing is watching closely. And learning lessons that may influence its future decisions.’ Speaking to students at the CHEY Institute for Advanced Studies in South Korea, Stoltenberg stressed that ‘what happens in Europe matters to the Indo-Pacific, and what happens in Asia matters to NATO’, drawing attention to the alignment of Russia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and North Korea by way of illustration. In his meeting with Park Jin, the Korean Foreign Minister, Stoltenberg said ‘we also know that North Korea is providing military support to the Russian war efforts with rockets and missiles. And this just highlights how we are interconnected.’ The language was sometimes blunt: ‘Beijing and Moscow are leading an authoritarian pushback against the international rules-based order.’ 

The main message of the trip that more – including lethal – support for Ukraine would be welcome, was sensitively delivered. The symbolism began at the first visit to Iruma Air Base, Japan, where Stoltenberg delivered a speech in front of an Air Self-Defence Force C-2 cargo plane, which had transported non-lethal supplies for Ukraine. Despite headlines suggesting the Secretary General had urged Korea to ‘step up’ and provide military assistance to Ukraine, public comments were carefully worded to emphasise the choice to provide arms was one for Korea to make. However, Stoltenberg pointedly listed European countries that had made exceptions to their rules against providing arms to a country in conflict. Since both Japan and South Korea observe rules against providing lethal arms directly to Ukraine, it is curious that he put Yoon on the spot more than Fumio Kishida, Japan’s Prime Minister.

Concentrating on what partners are offering Ukraine while saying less about what NATO can offer to do in the region may leave an impression that the alliance wants more from Asia than it is willing to give.

Considering long standing difficulties in Japan-ROK relations, the visit to both invites comparisons. The message in Seoul was more one of expectation, compared to a more congratulatory tone in Japan; Stoltenberg was pictured posing in the cockpit of a Japanese fighter jet. The joint statement prepared for the stop in Tokyo (there was not one in Korea) promised to ‘elevate current Japan-NATO cooperation to new heights that reflect the challenges of a new era’, and mentioned cooperation in areas such as cyber, space, and countering disinformation. The equivalent list with Korea included cyber, technology, and arms control. 

In the context of war on NATO borders, esteem for Korea’s defence production and export endowments are balanced against Seoul’s inhibitions against provoking the PRC and Russia, given both can make difficulties for it via support for Pyongyang. Conversely, Japan has a weaker capacity to deliver, and stronger inhibitions on arms exports, but can be more outspoken against the common adversaries in Beijing, the Kremlin, and Pyongyang.

On the positive side, evidence of differentiated expectations testifies to NATO’s awareness of regional sensibilities and differences on security priorities. But concentrating on what partners are offering Ukraine while saying less about what NATO can offer to do in the region may leave an impression that the alliance wants more from Asia than it is willing to give. Expectations raised by the creation at the last June 2022 NATO summit of an ‘Asia-Pacific four’ (AP4), including also Australia and New Zealand, may be cast into some doubt now only Japan and South Korea merited a spot on Stoltenberg’s itinerary. The AP4 format – always awkward in terms of interests shared among the members – is yet to show a convincing level of stability and purpose.

Dr Philip Shetler-Jones is a James Cook Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He works in the field of Europe-Asia security cooperation, with a personal focus on United Kingdom-Japan defence and security relations.

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