NATO knows Asia is vital to protecting global security

A student dances during military training at the Shandong University of Arts in Jinan, Shandong Province of China. Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images.
A student dances during military training at the Shandong University of Arts in Jinan, Shandong Province of China. Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is adopting a new ‘Strategic Concept’ that will, for the first time, include direct reference to China, and its Madrid summit will also see another first with the participation of Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea.

Neither of these changes means NATO aims to expand to include Asia but it shows the 30 NATO members are concerned about security threats from Asia expanding into Europe and North America. In a world of long-range missiles, cyber operations, and vulnerable supply chains, the concerns of ‘Euro-Atlantic’ countries have become global.

NATO’s interest in Asia began more than 20 years ago following the al-Qaeda attacks on the US in 2001. Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea contributed troops to the NATO-led ISAF mission in Afghanistan, while Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force provided offshore logistical support.

From 2009, Australia and New Zealand also contributed ships to the NATO-led counter-piracy operation off East Africa. Japan and South Korea were not formally part of the same mission but deployed ships in parallel.

Closer cooperation with Asia-Pacific ‘partners’

This growth in practical cooperation was institutionalized in December 2016 when NATO held its first formal meeting with the four Asia-Pacific ‘partners’ at its headquarters in Brussels. When asked why the meeting took place, one NATO official said ‘because they asked’.

But the desire to forge stronger security links between the North Atlantic area and these Asia-Pacific countries comes from both sides. One key spur has been the Korean peninsula and the risk it poses to wider regional security. The official statement from that 2016 meeting ‘strongly condemned’ North Korea’s continued development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

But more recently NATO members have become more concerned about risks from China. In an October 2020 speech, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned China has been ‘asserting its economic, diplomatic, and military weight. We have experienced new levels of sophisticated cyber-attacks’. He has also talked of a need to avoid ‘import[ing] vulnerabilities into our critical infrastructure, industries, and supply chains’.

NATO members, as with other countries, are attempting to find a balance in relations with China, which is a huge trading partner and a global leader in new technologies but also has the world’s second largest defence budget and has attempted to coerce some members of NATO in recent years.

Stoltenberg was Norway’s prime minister in 2010 when China imposed sanctions on the country after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. And in 2021, China targeted Lithuania in a row over Taiwan, adding to NATO members’ concerns about China’s growing military expenditure and strategic reach.

Stoltenberg says China is ‘investing heavily’ in modern military capabilities, including missiles which can reach all NATO allied countries, as well as ‘coming closer’ in cyberspace. He says ‘we see them in the Arctic, in Africa, we see them investing in our critical infrastructure. And they are working more and more together with Russia. All of this has a security consequence for NATO allies’.

Anxiety is increasing among NATO members

These fears were exacerbated during the COVID crisis when the Chinese government’s decision to redirect medical and other supply chains which European economies and societies relied on caused huge anxiety among NATO members, adding to existing fears of espionage, hacking, and the buying-up of strategic companies.

Although China is not regarded by NATO members in the same light as Russia, Beijing’s signing of a ‘no limits’ agreement with Moscow in February was also seen as an unwelcome intervention in European security especially as, in the document, China called on NATO to stop admitting new members.

Despite these concerns, NATO members will not be calling for a break in relations with China. Stoltenberg has declared China’s rise ‘presents opportunities’ especially for NATO members’ economies and trade. He says it is important to continue to engage with China, which is ‘not an adversary to NATO’.

NATO’s founding treaty limits its role to the ‘North Atlantic area’ so it will not be admitting any members from Asia or taking on any commitments to defend Asian countries. But the latest moves do show its members see a need to work with like-minded democracies in Asia to shore up the international system against future challenges from China and North Korea.

Bill Hayton, Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme.

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