July 2023


NATO looks to Asia

Duncan Bartlett considers why a transatlantic alliance which was originally established to deter a Soviet threat is actively building partnerships in Asia

A willingness to adapt and change has made the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – better known as NATO – the ‘strongest, most successful alliance in history’, according to its Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg.

Now, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has given impetus for an expansion of NATO’s role within both Europe and Asia.

In the northern part of Europe, two countries which previously sought to retain neutrality, and which both share a border with Russia – Finland and Sweden – have applied for membership of the alliance.

In Asia, meanwhile, South Korea has opened a mission to NATO, while the organisation also plans to establish a liaison office in Tokyo.

The Japanese Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, as well as President Yoon Suk-Yeol of South Korea, intend to travel to Europe to attend a NATO meeting in Lithuania this July. It is highly likely that Joe Biden will also be present, enabling a trilateral summit to take place involving the United States and the two East Asian nations. Mr Stoltenberg has described Japan and South Korea as ‘Asia Pacific partners’, a term which he has also applied to Australia and New Zealand.

President Yoon has used previous meetings of the group to raise concerns about North Korea’s missile tests and its nuclear program, as well as its recent failed attempt to launch a spy satellite.

‘Korea’s love affair with NATO is not a summer fling – it is part of a long-lasting and well-calibrated courtship’, according to Professor Ramon Pacheco Pardo of King’s College, London, who says that, as well as the threatening actions of North Korea, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also looms large in Seoul.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg: A willingness to adapt has made NATO the ‘strongest, most successful alliance in history’

‘Not only is the invasion against international law, but it could set a dangerous precedent as tensions between China and Taiwan rise,’ warns Professor Pardo. He notes, too, that South Korea is the only Asian country to have condemned Russia’s actions, imposed sanctions on Moscow and also sent offensive weapons to Ukraine, via third parties.

A lively debate is taking place within South Korea as to whether such exports are in violation of the law. South Korea is Asia’s biggest arms exporter after China but its Foreign Trade Act says exports can only be used for ‘peaceful purposes’ and ‘shall not affect international peace, safety maintenance, and national security’.

When NATO’s leader went to Seoul at the start of 2023, he expressed the view that such legal niceties do not apply in the face of the attack on Ukraine.

‘Several NATO allies who had as a policy never to export weapons to countries in conflict have changed that policy now,’ Mr Stoltenberg said, citing Germany, Norway and Sweden as those which have changed their arms export policies to help the Ukrainian army.

‘I urge the Republic of Korea to continue and to step up the specific issue of military support,’ he added, according to CNN.

In Japan, stringent constitutional constraints on military activity were drawn up after the Second World War and although the pacifist wording is no longer taken literally, the government is adamant that it cannot supply lethal weapons to Ukraine.

NATO plans to establish a liaison office in Tokyo

Instead, generous humanitarian aid, focused on rebuilding the country, is on offer, as well as strong diplomatic support.

In the military sphere, the Japanese Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) took part in NATO’s largest ever air force exercise in June.

German-led ‘Air Defender 23’ manoeuvres brought together more than 250 military aircraft from 25 NATO and partner countries. The Chief of Staff of Japan’s Air Self Defence Force, General Hiroaki Uchikura, said: ‘We want to deepen cooperation with senior military officers from various countries and bring back things we learn that can be used to improve our defence capabilities.’

Germany’s Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said that the air force exercises sent strong messages to anyone ‘who threatens our freedom and our security’.

From the Japanese perspective, the promise of sending what NATO described as ‘a highly visible and powerful signal of credible deterrence in the air domain’ brought another benefit: it was a display of force which was noticed by China.

Prime Minister Kishida’s government frequently raises concerns about China’s military expansion and maintains that some of China’s behaviours ‘pose a strategic challenge’ for Japan and the international community.

Nevertheless, Mr Kishida said in May that his country had no plans to become a NATO member. But China has still criticised Mr Kishida for his decision to attend the NATO summit in Lithuania in July. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning has claimed that ‘the Asia-Pacific region does not welcome NATO’s plan to open a liaison office in Japan’.

South Korea is the only Asian country to have condemned Russia’s actions

She said Japan should be ‘extra cautious on the issue of military security’, given its ‘history of aggression’ – a reference to the invasion of parts of China by the Japanese Imperial army in the middle of the 20th century.

This fits with the Chinese Communist Party narrative that the era of American dominance in Asia should be drawing to a close and that US allies such as Japan and South Korea must accommodate an emboldened and powerful China. 

China’s defence minister, General Li Shangfu, took up this theme at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June. ‘Today, what Asia-Pacific needs are big pies of open and inclusive cooperation, not small cliques that are self-serving and exclusive,’he said.

SHOW OF STRENGTH: The Japanese Air Self Defence Force took part in NATO's largest ever air force exercise in June

This carried echoes of a speech delivered on regional security by Xi Jinping in 2014, in which he said: ‘In the final analysis, it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia.’

Chinese propaganda always insists that it was an expansion of NATO which provoked Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an act which outraged liberal democracies but has not been condemned by Xi Jinping.

For Jens Stoltenberg, NATO is vitally important in an era of great power rivalry. In his view, it will serve its purpose most effectively when its transatlantic core is supported by committed international partners.

Duncan Bartlett is theeditor of Asian Affairs

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