10th July 2024 – (Beijing) As NATO leaders gather in Washington D.C. for their 75th anniversary summit, the transatlantic alliance finds itself at a crossroads. While reaffirming its commitment to European security, NATO is increasingly setting its sights on the Indo-Pacific region, a move that is raising eyebrows and concerns across Asia.

The alliance’s interest in the region is not new, but recent developments have intensified NATO’s focus on Asia. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine, China’s growing assertiveness, and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have all contributed to what NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg calls a “global” security landscape. However, this expanded vision for NATO’s role is meeting resistance and scepticism from many Asian nations, who see the alliance’s involvement as potentially destabilising and out of step with regional dynamics.

Despite NATO’s efforts to cultivate closer ties with Asian partners, the response from the region has been lukewarm at best. Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand have been invited to the NATO summit for the third consecutive year, but this outreach has not translated into widespread enthusiasm for NATO’s increased presence in the region.

Many Asian countries are wary of being drawn into what they perceive as a Cold War-style confrontation between the West and China. They are particularly concerned that NATO’s involvement could exacerbate tensions and undermine the delicate balance of power in the region.

A senior diplomat from an Indo-Pacific nation, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed scepticism about the need for a NATO presence in the region: “It’s not something anyone is pursuing at present. China’s demonstration that it is committed to reconstituting the Russian military-industrial base and supporting their war on Ukraine has been sufficient to demonstrate that the Indo-Pacific and Atlantic theatres are irrevocably linked and that the security challenges we are facing are not defined by geographic theatres. So no need for the tokenism of an office in Tokyo.”

This sentiment reflects a broader view in the region that while the security challenges in Europe and Asia are interconnected, they do not necessarily require NATO’s direct involvement in Indo-Pacific affairs.

Unsurprisingly, China has been vocal in its opposition to NATO’s Asian ambitions. Chinese officials have consistently criticized what they see as NATO’s attempts to expand its influence beyond its traditional geographic boundaries.

Lin Jian, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, recently stated, “We firmly reject NATO’s vilification and blame-shifting against China. NATO should not use China to justify its insertion into the Asia-Pacific and attempt to disrupt regional dynamics.” He further urged NATO to “form the right perception of China, get rid of its Cold War mentality and zero-sum approach, stop scaremongering on security and making imaginary enemies, stop forming exclusive clubs in the name of collective defence, and play a constructive role for global peace, stability and development.”

China’s opposition is not merely rhetorical. Beijing has been actively working to strengthen its ties with other Asian nations and promote alternative security frameworks that exclude Western powers. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) are examples of China-backed initiatives that aim to address regional security issues without Western involvement.

NATO’s push into Asia is not just facing external resistance; it is also highlighting internal divisions within the alliance. While some members, particularly the United States, are keen to expand NATO’s role in countering China’s influence, others are more hesitant.

France, for instance, has been a vocal critic of NATO’s Asian pivot. French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed concerns that establishing a NATO office in Tokyo could unnecessarily provoke China and complicate European efforts to maintain a balanced relationship with Beijing.

These disagreements reflect broader debates within NATO about the alliance’s purpose and priorities in the 21st century. While there is a growing consensus that China poses significant challenges to the international order, there is less agreement on how NATO should respond to these challenges, particularly in regions far from its traditional area of operations.

NATO’s efforts to engage more deeply in Asia also highlight the complexities of the region’s security landscape. Unlike Europe, where NATO has been the dominant security architecture for decades, the Indo-Pacific lacks a single, overarching security framework.

Instead, the region is characterized by a web of bilateral and multilateral arrangements, many of which have evolved to address specific regional concerns. The United States maintains strong bilateral alliances with countries like Japan, South Korea, and Australia, while organisations like ASEAN play important roles in regional diplomacy and conflict resolution.

Attempting to overlay NATO’s structures and processes onto this complex landscape risks disrupting existing relationships and creating new tensions. Many Asian countries value their strategic autonomy and are reluctant to be seen as aligning too closely with any one power bloc.

Moreover, the security challenges in the Indo-Pacific are often quite different from those NATO has traditionally addressed in Europe. Issues such as maritime territorial disputes, nuclear proliferation, and economic coercion require nuanced approaches that may not align well with NATO’s traditional focus on collective defence against military aggression.

Another factor complicating NATO’s push into Asia is the region’s deep economic integration with China. Many Asian countries, including close U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea, have significant trade and investment ties with China. They are understandably reluctant to jeopardize these economic relationships by aligning too closely with a military alliance that Beijing views as hostile.

This economic reality highlights the limitations of a purely military-focused approach to regional security. While NATO has expertise in military coordination and deterrence, it is less well-equipped to address the complex interplay between economic and security issues that characterizes many of the challenges in the Indo-Pacific.

Given the scepticism and resistance to NATO’s direct involvement in Asia, some experts argue that Western countries should focus on strengthening existing regional security arrangements rather than trying to expand NATO’s role.

One approach could be to enhance cooperation between NATO and existing Indo-Pacific security frameworks, such as the Quad (comprising the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India) or the AUKUS partnership between Australia, the UK, and the U.S. This could allow for increased coordination on shared security concerns without the perceived provocation of a formal NATO presence in the region.

Another option could be to focus on non-military aspects of security cooperation, such as cybersecurity, climate change mitigation, and disaster response. These areas offer opportunities for meaningful collaboration without the geopolitical baggage associated with traditional military alliances.

As NATO leaders discuss the alliance’s future at this week’s summit, they will need to carefully consider the implications of their Indo-Pacific strategy. While there is a clear rationale for NATO to pay more attention to developments in Asia, the alliance must be mindful of the region’s unique dynamics and the potential unintended consequences of its actions. Rather than pushing for a direct NATO presence in the Indo-Pacific, a more productive approach might be to focus on enhancing dialogue and cooperation with regional partners on specific issues of mutual concern. This could include information sharing, joint exercises focused on non-traditional security threats, and coordination on global challenges like climate change and pandemic response.

Ultimately, NATO’s role in Asia will likely remain limited by both external resistance and internal divisions. The alliance’s leaders would do well to recognise these limitations and focus on areas where NATO can add value without exacerbating regional tensions or undermining existing security arrangements.