Is NATO setting a dangerous course foraying into Indo-Pacific? It depends

While for Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, the name of the game is alliance formation, for most of the rest of Asia, it is still called hedging — at least for now.

Endy Bayuni

Endy Bayuni

The Jakarta Post


Ahead of the Indo-Pacific Partners meeting during the NATO summit, (from left) Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and South Korea's President Yoon Suk-yeol pose for a group photograph at the Ifema congress center in Madrid on June 29. (AFP/Pierre-Philippe MARCOU )

July 5, 2022

JAKARTA – NATO may have agitated Beijing by inviting for the first time the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand to its summit in Madrid last week, but the response from most other Asian capital cities, which are caught up in the increasing United States-China rivalry, has been nonchalant, if not muted.

There is certainly a concern that NATO’s foray into the Indian and Pacific oceans would heighten tensions between the two big powers, but to suggest that this would trigger a war may be a little far-fetched — at least for now.

Instead, NATO’s latest move is seen more as part of the ongoing intensifying cold war. It’s not all that different from when Beijing signed a partnership pact with Moscow in February — which was clearly aimed at NATO — just a few weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.

The difference now, at least for most Asian countries, is that this is just getting too close to home for comfort. Their near silent response to the four Asian leaders attending the NATO summit speaks volumes about their attitude toward the ongoing cold war.

Not unexpectedly, China went on a tirade against NATO and the four allied Asian countries, calling the move highly dangerous. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin accused some NATO members of flexing their muscles in the Asia-Pacific region to replicate the kind of bloc confrontation seen in Europe.

“NATO has already disrupted stability in Europe. It should not try to do the same to the Asia-Pacific and the whole world,” Wang said in an apparent reference to the war in Ukraine.

Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are traditional allies of the United States in the region, and they have already taken part in NATO meetings in the past, but this is the first time that their leaders attended the summit.

Significantly, the summit unveiled NATO’s latest “Strategic Concept”, which lists China for the first time as one of its strategic priorities, saying that Beijing’s military ambitions, its confrontational rhetoric toward Taiwan and its increasingly close ties with Moscow posed “systemic challenges”.

“China is not our adversary […] but we must be clear-eyed about the serious challenges it represents,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters when he unveiled the concept.

The inclusion of the four Asian countries in NATO’s new security blueprint brings strategic linkages between European and Indo-Pacific theaters and inevitably puts China in focus.

Many in the region would inevitably have drawn an analogy to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Opinions are divided in many Asian countries, including Indonesia, about what caused the war. Some subscribes to the notion that Russia’s invasion was provoked by NATO’s eastward expansion. Others saw Russia using NATO’s expansion as a pretext to invade Ukraine.

Indonesia took a more cautionary approach to the Ukraine war; not outrightly condemning Russia, but rather calling for peace to prevail. President Joko “Jokowi Widodo traveled to Kyiv and Moscow last week to try his hands at mediating peace in his capacity as the president of the Group of 20 wealthiest nations, and one of the appointed champions of the UN Global Crisis Response Group.

It is also stretching the imagination a little to suggest at NATO’s expansion into the Indo-Pacific region merely from the presence of four Asian leaders at its summit last week. Asia is not defined by these four countries. All four are traditional allies of the US, and taking part in a NATO summit is almost a matter of course in the name of their respective national interests.

These four don’t represent the rest of Asia. In fact, India and Indonesia, the two largest Asian countries outside China, have remained non-aligned in all this and are more representatives of the region.

India may be part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) with the US, Australia and Japan, but that is as far as it goes for now. In the Ukraine war, India refrained from condemning Russia, with which it has intense economic relations.

Indonesia, too, maintains relations with everyone — the US, Russia and China — as do most of its Southeast Asian neighbors. It’s worth noting that China, for almost all Asian countries, is their biggest trading partner.

Tensions between the US and China were already boiling before the NATO summit, which affected the security atmosphere in the Indo-Pacific region. China has been building up its military presence, including in the South China Sea, and the US has responded through the formation of the Quad, the AUKUS trilateral security pact with Australia and the United Kingdom, and now with NATO-AP4.

Indonesia, through ASEAN, has tried to create a middle path for bringing the two big powers together through the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific, which the group launched in 2019. The concept tries to create a new regional architecture that is inclusive of all, including the two big powers, through collaboration rather than competition. NATO’s incursion into the region will make it even more challenging for ASEAN to sell its concept.

Interestingly, several Asian countries that have professed non-aligned in the emerging cold war, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, are participating in the month-long 2022 Rim of the Pacific military exercises in Hawaii, which kicked off last week involving 26 of the US’ “partner countries”, excluding Russia and China.

While for Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, the name of the game is alliance formation, for most of the rest of Asia, it is still called hedging — at least for now.

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