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The Case for Enhanced NATO Engagement in the Asia-Pacific

By Arthur Chan, Transatlantic Security Analyst


It is no secret that the U.S. “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific has generated concern in Europe. One can imagine, then, what European leaders thought when U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, in a speech at King’s College London last month, urged NATO members to join the pivot through partnerships with relevant nations and security organizations. This proposal was not new; indeed, the outgoing Secretary of Defense echoed other calls for the Alliance to deepen its engagement in the region. While austerity and economic crisis may make such engagement appear unrealistic to European NATO members and would entail serious risks, they are right: the Alliance must act together in this region.   

Most NATO members’ defense budgets have shrunk since 2008, but the will for new endeavors has not vanished. Increasing resourcefulness through integrative initiatives like Smart Defense are slowly allowing NATO to “do more with less.” And, much as it expanded beyond its historical Western European borders after 1989, NATO has gradually increased its purview through partnerships with “out of area” countries, many located in the Asia-Pacific.

This will to forge partnerships is reciprocated. Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia, Mongolia, Australia, Singapore and South Korea have all contributed to ISAF, while the latter three have participated in Operation Ocean Shield – a NATO mission to combat piracy around the Horn of Africa. More recently, the newly reelected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrote a personal letter to NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, seeking closer ties because of rising tensions with China and North Korea. Meanwhile, Park Geun-hye, president-elect of South Korea, has sought Britain and France’s support against Pyongyang.    

From the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to the Liancourt Rocks/Dokdo/Takeshima, and the South and East China Seas more broadly, the region is host to multiple longstanding territorial disputes. Additionally, 2012 saw four countries usher in new leaders, who, to increase domestic support, resorted to nationalist rhetoric; perceptibly aggravating regional relations. This caused large-scale anti-Japan riots in China and much saber rattling on both sides. Meanwhile, North Korea by itself poses a threat extending far beyond the region because of its pursuit of nuclear arms.    

Given these security challenges, enhanced engagement on the part of NATO carries risks. First, it could create conflict. Much will depend on whether hard-line Chinese leaders view this initiative as an attempt at encirclement. This was, for example, the perception of Shinzo Abe’sdemocratic security diamond,” judging from several Chinese editorials. It could also split the Alliance internally as some European policymakers would see this as a hijacking of NATO –  turning its resources to more costly endeavors abroad.

Risks and uncertainty notwithstanding, engagement is necessary. As Secretary Panetta stated: “Europe’s economic and security future is – much like the United States – increasingly tied to Asia…the European Union is China’s largest trading partner, ASEAN’s second-largest trading partner, and ranks third and fourth with Japan and South Korea.” In the long-term, moreover, it is unclear that the U.S. will be able to act as a decisive guarantor of regional security. This is precisely why European NATO members cannot afford not to engage.

Essentially, NATO’s role could be twofold:  

In Northeast Asia, it could work to ameliorate regional relations, primarily through common projects. This would not be a far stretch: South Korea and China did both take part in Ocean Shield and, with Japan, see no benefit in an out-of-control North Korea. Furthermore, both Japan and South Korea have actively sought help from NATO or its members and have strong ties with the U.S., indicating respect for its capabilities and, perhaps, receptiveness to advice. Since election season, there have also been attempts at mending fences – again largely because of North Korea. As such, NATO could simply give Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing an extra push, getting them to cooperate, converse regularly and, eventually, resolve their disputes amicably. 

Within the wider Asia-Pacific, NATO can help create a common regional security framework to replace the current patchwork of alliances. Afterward, through sharing best practices on interoperability and/or Smart Defense, NATO could help these countries pool their resources to tackle issues too large to handle alone, such as piracy and nuclear proliferation. Simultaneously, they could draw in ASEAN and China, also getting them to cooperate on common projects. China’s involvement is not hard to imagine: as John Ikenberry has noted, the post-war international order is open and flexible enough to accommodate the aspirations of China, and it is already invested in security terms by virtue of membership on the UN Security Council. One may assume that China is similarly concerned with security in its own region. Together, these countries could even contain North Korea, if necessary. Overall, such a framework could help these countries work more effectively together, increasing regional security and stability. 

An initiative to enhance NATO engagement in the Asia-Pacific would entail risks. For European members in particular, the euro crisis presents a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to getting involved. Nevertheless, to wait until national economies are on the upswing again would be a mistake. Nor can the U.S. do this alone. Despite being NATO’s leading member, one country does not make an alliance. The support of all members, American and European, is needed to maximize impact and ensure that NATO remains relevant into the future as a global security hub. Countries in the Asia-Pacific have proved receptive to strengthening relations, so policymakers must seize this opportunity to bolster security in a region of growing economic significance. Only by doing so can they take the lead in guaranteeing – to borrow a phrase from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – a “pacific” century. 


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