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NATO in Indo-Pacific: Tokyo office a no-go for now

Teri Schultz in Brussels
June 15, 2023

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg wants to ramp up the alliance's partnership with Indo-Pacific nations to counter China and Russia. But at least one European ally is not pleased with the plan. Teri Schultz reports.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg looks into the camera, mouth open in speech
Stoltenberg has dismissed suggestions that NATO is trying to expand to Asia, but defended strengthening the alliance's partnership with Indo-Pacific countriesImage: Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

As NATO's biggest air force drill in history, Air Defender 23, sweeps through allied skies, two nonmember countries are also taking part in the exercises. The participation of Sweden, which is bidding to join the alliance, is hardly surprising, but the other guest may seem more of an anomaly: Japan.   

In fact, Japan has more cooperation with European and American allies than may immediately be visible. "No NATO partner is closer or more capable than Japan," Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in January on a visit to Tokyo.

The Japanese government has enacted sanctions against Russia for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and it's providing cargo transport for humanitarian assistance to the war-ravaged country. 

Tokyo's reasons for doing so are not entirely altruistic. "What is happening in Europe today could happen in East Asia tomorrow," Stoltenberg has warned — and Japanese officials use virtually the same line to explain their deepening NATO ties to their own population. 

Closed for business

Now there's a hitch in what would have been the next substantial step in that relationship: the creation of a liaison office in Tokyo, NATO's first in Asia, which could also coordinate the alliance's activities with other Indo-Pacific partners such as South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

The suggestion, which has not been formally announced by NATO, sparked predictable criticism from Beijing, but also got blasted by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Quoted by the Financial Times newspaper from a public appearance in Bratislava, Macron said the alliance should stay in its area — the North Atlantic — and that if "we push NATO to enlarge the spectrum and the geography, we will make a big mistake."

Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific chair at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, told DW that the French president's rejection is "leaving the Japanese gobsmacked." 

It's "absurd" for Macron to treat a "small issue" like the liaison office as if it were a major foreign policy matter, Cronin said, adding that Macron likely wants to preserve business interests with Beijing as well as be seen as a protector of Europe, keeping the continent out of the way of increasing US-China tensions.

"He can sell it to the Chinese as 'look what I'm doing: I'm standing up for Europe's independence from America' and avoiding having Europe pulled into the local affairs of Asia," Cronin said.

Who you gonna call? 

Janne Leino, a foreign and security policy expert with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Brussels who spent many years in China, agrees with part of Cronin's assessment but thinks there's another explanation for Macron's behavior. "[Former German Chancellor] Angela Merkel was the go-to person for China before," Leino said. "I think Macron is positioning himself now to be kind of a follow-up."

"France is very much interested in having Europe also in that [Indo-Pacific] area, but maybe not to be the junior partner within NATO," he added. "If the European Union comes along there, France is, of course, the big player within the European Union framework."

China to NATO: Stay away

Whatever the motivation, Macron's position — or rather, his opposition — was welcomed in Beijing, where Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Weng Wenbin was asked about it at a June 6 briefing.

Weng echoed Macron in noting that "Asia lies beyond the geographical scope of the North Atlantic," going further to accuse NATO of being "bent on going east into this region, interfering in regional affairs and inciting bloc confrontation." 

Adding a direct warning to Tokyo, Weng said: "Japan should make the right call in keeping with the region's stability and development interests and refrain from doing anything that may undermine mutual trust between regional countries and peace and stability in the region."

Asked Wednesday by a journalist from China Media Group whether the alliance was in fact trying to expand to Asia, Stoltenberg dismissed the suggestion. "No one has been in favor of that," he told a press conference previewing this week's defense ministerial.

But, because of the "security consequences of the rise of China, where China is investing heavily in new modern military capabilities … threatening neighbors," the NATO chief defended strengthening the partnership with Indo-Pacific countries. 

In the near term, that includes a second invitation to the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand to NATO's summit. They all attended last summer in Madrid for the first time.

NATO is also working on agreements with each of these countries to upgrade their status from the current "partners across the globe" to what's called the Individually Tailored Partnership Program (ITPP), which, according to NATO documents, intensifies bilateral cooperation in sectors such as cyber, new technologies, climate change and the defense industry.

Call China, too — and call its bluff?

Janne Leino suggests another way for NATO to handle concerns about China.

"If the argument is that we cannot open an office in Japan because we might anger China — which is a bit what Macron is pulling at the moment, at least officially — then why don't we just directly talk with China about these issues?" Leino said.

"Because officially, both NATO and China are open for dialogue," Leino said. "That's what they keep saying to each other. So why not test that?"

If Beijing were to reject such an overture from NATO, he said, it would have to tone down its objections to other Indo-Pacific nations that accept the offer. 

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru