IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

NATO’s Partners in the Asia-Pacific: Casualties of the Pivot Toward Europe?

130221-D-NI589-871 The meeting of the NATO Ministers of Defense is convened in Room 1 at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on Feb. 21, 2013. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta is in Brussels to meet with his NATO counterparts. The current International Security Assistance Force mission and the follow-on NATO mission in Afghanistan are the central topic of group meetings and Panetta’s own one-on-one discussions with allied and partner ministers here this week. DoD photo by Glenn Fawcett. (Released)

Written by Rebecca R. Moore.

Seeking to allay concerns that its Asia pivot heralded an abandonment of Europe, the Obama administration in early 2013 appealed to NATO to join the United States in enhancing its defence-related engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.  Due largely to the demands of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, the Alliance had already developed partnerships with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and Mongolia—all of which had made critical contributions to the ISAF mission—while simultaneously seeking closer ties with other regional actors, including China, India, and Singapore.   Although none of these states were members of NATO’s formal partnerships frameworks, the Alliance had issued a new partnership policy in 2011 aimed at developing more efficient and flexible partnership arrangements with these and other “global partners,” which included making Partnership for Peace (PfP) activities available to non- PfP members.

While conceiving of partnership in this way is fully consistent with NATO’s identity as a collective defence organization, in the context of the Asia-Pacific security environment, it is problematic in so far as it has at least the potential to antagonize China, despite an unofficial NATO-China dialogue dating back to 2002.

In anticipation of its 2014 Wales Summit and termination of the ISAF mission in late 2014, NATO also sought ways of maintaining the expertise and interoperability developed with Asia-Pacific partners in Afghanistan.  Indeed, the desire to sustain and further develop NATO’s relations with these partners had prompted NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT) in early 2014, just prior Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, to task the NATO Defense College with assessing “how Europe, North America, and the Asia-Pacific intersect and what it means for NATO.”  Given Russia’s actions, however, related discussions between NATO and “like-minded Asia-Pacific partners” in Vancouver in May 2014 took an unanticipated turn.   As noted in the conference proceedings, “for several Alliance members bordering Russia, talk of Asia-Pacific suddenly seemed an unwelcome diversion and at worst an affront to the Alliance’s core purpose to defend the European democratic space.”  Suddenly, the discussion was “no longer simply about ‘NATO with and/or in Asia-Pacific,’ but whether the Alliance should even bother expending further resources vis-a vis that part of the world.”

In generating pressure for NATO to focus principally on its Article 5 collective defense mission, Russia’s actions have shifted the balance of attention devoted to the three core tasks identified in NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept (collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security) in addition to limiting the resources available for partners in the Asia-Pacific region.  Indeed, growing recognition of the threats to the European continent stemming from NATO’s southern border in the form of terrorism and an ongoing refugee crisis, has, together with the Ukraine Crisis, understandably shifted the focus of NATO’s partnership resources to Middle Eastern partners (Mediterranean Dialogue, Istanbul Cooperation Initiative and Iraq) as well as to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova.

Yet, there is a danger in focusing too narrowly on threats to European territory at the expense of the Asia-Pacific.  Specifically, the Alliance risks ignoring challenges to the liberal order stemming from beyond Europe and the Middle East, generated in part by China’s rising power and closer Sino-Russian cooperation – challenges every bit as significant as the challenges generated by the Russian intervention in Ukraine.  Moreover, China is not rising in a vacuum.  India and Japan are rapidly emerging as formidable regional and potentially global powers, and Asians are now spending more on defence than Europeans, reflecting growing tension and instability in the region.  North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program, in particular, remains a significant threat to both regional and global order.

Beyond the question of whether NATO should remain engaged in Asia, lies the issue of how the Alliance should engage the region.  The answer to this question arguably hinges on how NATO understands its core identity and purpose and the balance it strikes among the three identities articulated in the 2010 Strategic Concept.  Indeed, two potentially competing narratives regarding NATO’s identity are useful in thinking about the manner of NATO’s engagement with the Asia-Pacific.

The first is a realist conception of NATO as a threat driven alliance, which exists exclusively to deter and defend its members’ territory.  From this perspective, NATO’s attention and scarce resources necessarily shift to its own neighborhood in the face of threats stemming from both Russia and the Middle East.  A second narrative, however, holds that NATO is not merely a collective defence organization, but rather a political/military organization with the capacity to shape rather than merely defend the liberal security order that NATO pledged in the 1990s to construct. It can utilize the partnership concept as an essentially political means of projecting stability eastward and enlarging the Pacific zone established among the NATO Allies in the aftermath of World War II.

Although the events of 9/11 led to a renewed focus on NATO’s military dimension, including new capabilities and new missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, NATO never abandoned the notion of using an increasingly diverse and global assortment of partners to project stability beyond its borders.  Notably, however, the Alliance concerned itself primarily with partners’ operational value in the context of NATO missions outside of Europe and not whether they shared the liberal democratic values at the heart of the security order to which NATO had committed itself.  Not surprisingly, NATO’s partnership efforts in the wake of Ukraine have also focused primarily on building partners’ capacity for defence and deterrence and improving interoperability with NATO forces.

While conceiving of partnership in this way is fully consistent with NATO’s identity as a collective defence organization, in the context of the Asia-Pacific security environment, it is problematic in so far as it has at least the potential to antagonize China, despite an unofficial NATO-China dialogue dating back to 2002.   In short, if NATO  is to engage in the Asia-Pacific region in a way that strengthens like-minded partners and supports a liberal security order, it matters whether the Alliance presents itself as a narrowly focused collective defense organization or whether it chooses to emphasize its multiple and complementary identities as well as its commitment to utilizing crisis management tools and expertise to engage partners in the project of sustaining and extending on a global scale the liberal democratic values enshrined in the preamble to the original NATO Treaty (democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.)

Unfortunately, NATO has yet to articulate a clear strategic vision with respect to the role that its like-minded Asia-Pacific partners might play in sustaining liberal order.  Instead, the Alliance appears to be moving in a very different direction—returning to Europe and re-evaluating its identity as a forum for cooperative security relationships, and convener of crisis management activities.  In so doing, it risks losing an opportunity to shape rather than merely respond to the emerging global order.

Rebecca R, Moore is a Professor of Political Science and Global Studies at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota. She is the author of NATO’s New Mission:  Projecting Stability in a Post-Cold War World (Praeger Security International, 2007) and co-editor ( with Gülnur Aybet) of NATO in Search of a Mission (Georgetown University Press, 2010). Photo Credit: CC by U.S. Department of Defense.