Smoke or Substance? NATO-Japanese Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

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Ever since the inclusion of Italy, NATO has had a more complicated relationship with maritime geography than its name implies. Now, with challenges to the international order appearing across multiple flanks, the alliance is trying to figure out how to further its mission in the Indo-Pacific.

In recent years, like-minded European and East Asian nations have increasingly worked to deepen their defense ties. This is perhaps most evident in the rapidly evolving relationship between Japan and NATO, which has captured headlines on both sides of the Pacific in recent months. This enhanced cooperation is widely welcomed in Washington and European capitals but is meeting a more mixed response in the rest of the Indo-Pacific. It is also, unsurprisingly, provoking strong negative reactions from Beijing, Pyongyang, and Moscow.

Underpinning much of this discussion is the assumption that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is the primary catalyst for a Japanese-NATO “rapprochement.” But the reality is that both sides have been consistently strengthening their strategic partnership since 2007. Recent debates risk minimizing what is actually a multi-decade history of Japanese-NATO relations and missing both its true potential and its limitations. The reality is that Japanese-NATO cooperation far predates Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is best understood as a Tokyo-led effort to diversify its security relationships beyond its bilateral alliance with the United States to focus on niche areas of overlapping interest that link Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security.

 

 

We believe that NATO-Japanese relations are indeed good for European and Indo-Pacific security. However, this growing partnership has yet to promote a clear vision of its benefits to a largely skeptical, if not unsupportive, region. One of the authors has spent the past several months on the ground in Tokyo investigating the desired future direction of Japanese-NATO security cooperation. Based on these meetings with Japanese and European experts and NATO officials, we argue that Japan and NATO would benefit from a renewed emphasis on public diplomacy, a commitment to burden-sharing on economic security, and increased information sharing.

History of Japan-NATO Ties

It is easy to view Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s much-quoted declaration that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow” as the genesis of current NATO-Japanese cooperation. Certainly, the invasion of Ukraine sparked fears across the region that the failure of deterrence in Ukraine could threaten stability in Asia by incentivizing aggressive actions by Beijing. In turn, European leaders, too, arguably reached a limited consensus that any subsequent failures of deterrence in Asia would, in turn, bring further destabilization to Europe’s security environment.

Yet, the origin of Tokyo’s modern interest in the strategic relevance of Europe is better tied to a different quote from a former Japanese prime minister. In 2007, during the first visit of a Japanese prime minister to NATO’s headquarters in Belgium, Shinzo Abe declared his intention to deepen relations with the alliance, stating: “The work that lies ahead is simply too large to allow Japan and NATO the luxury of taking different tracks. Building on our past efforts, we must work together to ensure a peaceful and secure future.” His interest proved long-lasting. Ten years after that inaugural meeting, Abe met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and asserted that the two sides: “shared recognition that the security environments of Asia and Europe are closely linked.” It was during this meeting that the current focus of this relationship — Japan’s opening of an “independent mission” to NATO — was initially requested by Stoltenberg.

Going back further still, Abe’s own father sought to institute a Japanese-NATO consultation mechanism in 1983. His goal was to create space for Tokyo’s involvement in European security discussions regarding issues with the potential to impact Japan’s national security interests. Though this attempt failed due to France’s protestation (much as France recently blocked NATO’s first Indo-Pacific office in Tokyo), it underscores how Japanese strategic thinkers have long recognized the linkages between Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security environments.

Over the past several decades, hard security cooperation gradually gained traction in Japanese-NATO relations, as marked by a series of formal agreements and expanded military-to-military engagements. Notably, in 2010 Japan and NATO signed an agreement on the security of information and material after agreeing to “consult on political and security-related issues of common interest and expand and intensify cooperation in these regards.” In 2014, the Japanese Self Defense Forces began conducting combined exercises for the first time with their counterparts in the NATO Operation Ocean Shield, an initiative focused on counter-piracy activities. Since 2014 Japanese forces have maintained the ability to operate together with NATO forces according to NATO standards, rules, and procedures and using similar equipment as part of the Partnership Interoperability Initiative, hinting at the potential of greater interoperability in the future. 

Building Resilience and Reducing Vulnerabilities 

To leaders in Tokyo and Brussels, the path forward appears clear. By continuing to deepen bureaucratic and security cooperation, NATO and Japan can strengthen deterrence in each other’s regions and benefit from a geographically diverse partnership. This assumption has only very recently been institutionalized in NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept, which recognizes the People’s Republic of China as a “strategic challenge.” In reality, expressing concerns over China in a strategic document is one thing, while agreeing in concrete terms on what NATO should collectively do to meet this challenge is an entirely more difficult endeavor. Indeed, this was clearly underscored by France’s recent scuttling of NATO plans to open its first regional Asian office in Tokyo. As it stands, there is no consensus on what NATO’s role in the Indo-Pacific should be. While individual NATO countries are releasing their own Indo-Pacific strategies and increasing their military engagement in the region, coordinated NATO military engagement, that is “flying the NATO flag,” remains a very remote possibility.

Article 6 of the Washington Treaty clearly delimits the geographic boundaries of invoking Article 5’s mutual defense commitment, meaning that NATO will never be the centerpiece of deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. Rather, NATO and Japan are aiming to focus cooperation on niche overlapping areas of interest in which their shared experiences combating Russian and Chinese economic coercion and information warfare — as well as reducing supply chain vulnerabilities — taught them vital lessons.

Importantly, these areas of cooperation are firmly grounded in the legal language of NATO’s founding charter. The 2023 Vilnius Communique identifies hybrid operations against allies as having the potential to reach the level of an armed attack, thus potentially leading the council to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. The communique also establishes hybrid threats and challenges from state and non-state actors as activities that “target our political institutions, our critical infrastructure, our societies, our democratic systems, our economic, and the security of our citizens,” mentioning threats from disinformation, technology, economic coercion, and supply chain vulnerabilities over 20 times. In this light, NATO-Japanese cooperation is an opportunity to coordinate and develop a common toolkit to use against adversaries. The expansion of Article 5 to include hybrid threats significantly expands the space for cooperation between Japan and NATO to build mutual resilience to shared security challenges.

Japan and NATO each have unique comparative advantages in countering hybrid threats. NATO’s experiences combatting Russian disinformation and Japan’s experiences effectively responding to Chinese economic coercion can offer important best practices for the other to adopt. Increasing NATO-Japanese cooperation on hybrid challenges enhances security and stability in both the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific as a whole.

The Regional Perception Gap

The burgeoning cooperation between Japan and NATO, while aimed at bolstering security and stability in the Indo-Pacific, is raising eyebrows and concerns among the more alignment-skeptical states of Southeast Asia. To be sure, this unease is not lost on NATO leaders. France, for example, has long recognized NATO’s image problem in Southeast Asia and has consequently occasionally played the role of spoiler in the alliance’s expansion in the region.

Southeast Asian leaders are wary of a Western-centric security framework, fearing that it may disrupt the fragile balance of power in the region. While these fears may misunderstand the nature of NATO’s role in Northeast and Southeast Asia, they are not necessarily unfounded considering the region’s history of post-colonial conflicts, European military interventions, and lack of strategic flexibility in managing ongoing territorial disputes with China. The potential for escalation and polarization, dividing the region into Western-aligned and Chinese-aligned states, represents a worst-case scenario for many ASEAN leaders. As a result, while a number of states in Southeast Asia favor closer security ties with both Tokyo and Washington, skepticism towards a larger Japanese-NATO partnership remains rife.

An instructive comparison can be found in the challenges faced by the AUKUS countries when they announced plans for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. The initiative was met with skepticism and even condemnation from various governments in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, Much of this took the form of nuclear proliferation concerns, which were bolstered by Chinese and Russian propaganda. In response, the Australian government set up special diplomatic teams in both Canberra and Vienna (at the International Atomic Energy Agency Headquarters) to combat AUKUS disinformation.

To be sure, regional skepticism does not mean that Tokyo and Brussels should halt their efforts to strengthen ties. Rather, the success of this relationship depends largely on their ability to address and mitigate such regional concerns. As a result, we argue that it is equally important for both Japan and NATO to articulate exactly what cooperation does and does not entail. This clarity is essential for counteracting the narrative promoted by the Chinese Communist Party’s disinformation campaigns, which portray NATO as a destabilizing force in the region. Combating such rhetoric requires a clear and comprehensive vision, goals, and aims that drive and contextualize Japanese-NATO security engagements. The challenge lies in reassuring Southeast Asia that the partnership aims to contribute positively to regional stability and security, without exacerbating existing tensions or creating any factions vis-à-vis China.

Moving Forward

To enhance the NATO-Japanese relationship in the Indo-Pacific, we recommend policy adjustments in three key areas: public diplomacy, economic security, and combating disinformation. First and foremost, NATO should publish a clear statement of its Indo-Pacific vision before increasing its involvement in the region. NATO would benefit from clarity that it intends to work with Indo-Pacific partners and not necessarily in the Indo-Pacific itself, a distinction best substantiated through an official NATO statement. That vision should include language describing other mutually agreeable goals in the region, including a desire to promote a rules-based order, freedom of navigation, and an affirmation of ASEAN centrality. This is far from a call for just words on paper, as any military planner knows the importance of a stated vision and tasks before jumping into a complicated strategic environment.

Second, NATO should be recognized as an advantageous platform for discussing economic security threats. Indeed, such threats equally impact North America, Europe, and Asia, making piecemeal state-by-state policy solutions largely unworkable. The ongoing debate within NATO’s member states regarding the security of semiconductor supply chains, for example, highlights the importance of sharing sensitive information to spur joint action by partner and allied nations. To be sure, Japan’s current position as a laggard in information security poses the largest barrier to such an initiative. Yet, Japan’s intention to institute a formalized security clearance system, and recent reporting that NATO and Japan are considering setting up a dedicated line for sharing security information, opens up more opportunities for deeper NATO-Japanese intelligence cooperation. Assuming progress on this front, Japan should also be formally added as an intelligence sharing partner with the alliance through the 7 Non-NATO Nations intelligence sharing agreement, providing more teeth to ongoing cooperation on economic security.

Finally, Japan and NATO should initiate an exchange of information at the agency level regarding ongoing disinformation campaigns by Russia, China, and other malign actors. This includes understanding distribution networks, tactics, and sources of disinformation. The Chinese Communist Party’s disinformation apparatus has NATO squarely in its sights, and Beijing is determined to push a narrative that NATO-Japanese cooperation is driving destabilization and exacerbating regional tensions. Considering the importance of combating Russian information warfare for sustaining NATO support for the Ukrainian war effort, as well as maintaining Ukrainian societal resilience, these lessons would prove all too relevant in any Taiwan contingency.

Conclusion

The rise of Japan as a leader in Asia’s defense affairs in the 21st century, something generally supported by leaders in Southeast Asia, was once feared for the same reasons that NATO’s entry into Asia is feared today. It was not so long ago that Southeast Asian leaders said that Japan’s “remilitarization” was the largest risk to upsetting Asia’s security dilemma. Japan’s success in managing and building its image as a security partner in the region is the perfect example of the sort of outreach that will be required to make NATO a welcomed partner in Indo-Pacific security. Tokyo should not forget that this achievement was facilitated by long-term and consistent outreach built on mutual trust and a focus on common goods for all.

We are not witnessing the opening stages of a significant expansion of NATO in the Indo-Pacific. Yet, if managed properly according to clear and realistic expectations, deepened Japanese-NATO security cooperation can effectively enhance deterrence.

 

 

Ryan Ashley is an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force with extensive operational experience in East Asia and Japan and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. He is also a lecturer with the Air Force Special Operations School. He has previously published on East Asian security and international relations with War on the RocksNikkei Asia, and The Diplomat.

Jada Fraser is an M.A. student in Asian Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and former editor-in-chief of the Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs. She is a member of the Young Leaders Program and a U.S.-Japan Next Generation Fellow with Pacific Forum. She has previous published with Nikkei Asia, the Lowy Institute, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Image: NATO

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