NATO’s outreach to Asia is a very perilous step

Despite its defensive guise, NATO has harbored aspirations to broaden its influence globally from the outset.

Imran Khalid

Imran Khalid

The Jakarta Post


US Navy and Japan Air Self-Defense Force aircraft fly in formation over the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76)on June 1, 2017 in the Sea of Japan. (AFP/-)

May 9, 2023

JAKARTA – The report by Nikkei Asia on May 3 mentioning that NATO plans are underway to establish a liaison office in Japan next year, with the ostensible objective of fostering coordination with key regional partners across the Indo-Pacific theatre, including close allies such as Australia, South Korea and New Zealand, is certainly very disturbing news for regional peace and stability.

Such incendiary steps may prove to be extremely destabilizing in the region, leading to more tensions and strains. For quite some time, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has been propagating the case for the establishment of a liaison office in Tokyo as a part of NATO’s outreach plan in the Indo-Pacific.

This move was first discussed between Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Stoltenberg earlier this year as part of efforts to deepen connections between Tokyo and the Western security alliance. Reportedly, negotiations are also currently underway to sign an Individually Tailored Partnership Program (ITPP) between the two entities before the upcoming NATO summit in Lithuania this July.

Of course, this push to extend NATO’s reach into the Asia-Pacific will create more worries. While Stoltenberg has made a point of emphasizing the importance of strengthening ties with key players in the area, China has already made it clear that it opposes any attempts by NATO to expand its reach in the Asia-Pacific region.

Beijing has been condemning such efforts, warning against the establishment of an “Asia-Pacific version of NATO” and making clear its opposition to any foreign military involvement in the region. With tensions simmering and power dynamics in flux, the establishment of a NATO liaison office in Japan will prove to be a major flashpoint in the ongoing geopolitical struggle for influence in the Indo-Pacific.

China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang said in March during his maiden news conference that the United States “Indo-Pacific Strategy” is in fact an “attempt to gang up to form exclusive blocs, to provoke a confrontation by plotting an Asia-Pacific version of NATO.”

Of late, Japan has been quite aggressive in its efforts to expand its sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific region, in particular, it is seeking to enhance its presence in areas such as Southeast Asia, South Asia and the East and South China Seas. To achieve this goal, Japan is pursuing a multifaceted approach that includes enhancing its military capabilities, collaborating closely with the United States on its Indo-Pacific strategy, and seeking assistance from external partners.

These measures are indicative of Japan’s ambitious agenda, which seeks to assert its position as a major player in the region and to shape the balance of power in ways that are favorable to its interests. However, Japan’s efforts are likely to face stiff opposition from other regional powers in the region, who are quite wary of Tokyo’s true intentions. The result is likely to be a period of intense competition and maneuvering in the Indo-Pacific, as various countries seek to find ways how to counter Japan’s ambitious thrust to advance its military agenda. Japan’s recent push to expand military cooperation beyond bilateral and multilateral exercises with select NATO member states to the entire 31-member alliance poses a potentially significant threat to regional peace and stability.

The risks of heightened conflict in the great power games and maritime rights disputes that characterize the geopolitical landscape cannot be discounted. As such, the establishment of a NATO liaison office in Japan is sure to be a contentious issue in the ongoing struggle for power in the Indo-Pacific.

There is apprehension that the reinforcement of NATO’s power may draw the West deeper into Asia: exploiting the rift caused by the existing power struggle in the Asian continent and compelling Asian countries to make definitive choices. It is essential to bear in mind that NATO is primarily a Western military alliance.

Despite its defensive guise, NATO has harbored aspirations to broaden its influence globally from the outset. So, NATO is being focused by Washington to expand its tentacles in Asia in the coming days.

The new efforts for the integration of Japan, South Korea and NATO have been gathering steam. It appears that these countries are banding together to counter the challenges of China. As the partnership between Japan, South Korea and NATO evolves, it is shifting from the intangible to the tangible.

This newfound alliance is using the “new excuse” of novel security domains, such as cybersecurity, supply chains and infrastructure. So, it seems, Tokyo is indirectly supporting NATO’s expansion toward Asia. But this will be a very perilous step, which is fraught with many pitfalls.

If Asia were to follow in the footsteps of the European security model, it would mean relying solely on the formation of alliances to maintain balance and security. However, this would result in a lack of cohesive security measures, leaving the region vulnerable to discord and potential conflict. History has shown that the balance of power in Europe was eventually disrupted by contention, even leading to war.

Thus, adopting such an approach in Asia may prove to be a precarious endeavor.


The writer is an international relations analyst.

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