NATO Should Think Big About the Indo-Pacific


When NATO leaders gather in Washington on 10-11 July, the war in Ukraine will likely dominate conversations. But the war can no longer be seen exclusively as a Euro-Atlantic affairif it ever really was. North and South Korea have, directly and indirectly, given Russia and Ukraine more munitions than any other country except the United States. China has helped Russia cushion Western economic and political pressure from day one, and continues to enable Moscow’s defense-industrial and battlefield effort through the transfer of dual-use goods. So does Iran, particularly through drone exports. Conversely, countries like Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea continue to stand behind Ukraine.

What happens in Ukraine also has broader geo-strategic ramifications. The Sino-Russian relationship may continue to be characterized by a good dose of friction and mistrust. But a key takeaway from the war is that what unites these two powers is greater than what divides them. Their shared interest in rolling back U.S. power appears to be animating a broader Sino-Russian geopolitical alignment, especially around the critical regions of Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. For China, the war in Ukraine offers an opportunity. A United States that diverts scarcer national security resources to a never-ending protracted battle in Europe cannot fully focus on the Indo-Pacific. Relatedly, Russia’s down payment to North Korea and Iran comes by way of support of their missile and nuclear programs, which may fuel regional instability in the Middle East and the Korean peninsula and help further disperse U.S. attention far and wide. All in all, through a set of interlocking strategic partnerships with Russia, North Korea, and Iran, China may well seek to “gain advantages and avoid disadvantages in chaos.”

References to a Beijing-Moscow-Tehran-Pyongyang axis might indeed be premature. Russia will surely try to mitigate its dependence on China, not least by strengthening its own ties with  North Korea or trying to preserve a functional relationship with India. North Korea and Iran will also strive to maneuver between China and Russia to maximize their own leverage. But for all those frictions, the war in Ukraine appears to be catalyzing the consolidation of two sets of adversarial alignments, however imperfect or relatively incohesive these might remain. The first is structured around China and Russia but also includes North Korea and Iran. The second comprises the United States and its European and Indo-Pacific allies, and while it might be less advanced, it actually boasts far greater potential.

The United States and its European and Indo-Pacific allies must match up. And the forthcoming meeting in Washington between NATO and its Indo-Pacific four (IP4) partners, Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand, offers an excellent opportunity to do just that. The fact that the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific alliances are structured around a clear anchor – U.S. military power – makes them more cohesive and gives them a strategic edge as compared to the sort of interlocking partnerships that bind China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. To capitalize on such advantage, however, NATO and its IP4 partners must think big, move past declaratory statements about tackling transnational challenges, and articulate their partnership around the need to deter great power revisionism. Even if they are to remain operationally focused on their respective regions, NATO and its IP4 partners should think about how to develop a cross-theater deterrence ecosystem of shared concepts, doctrines, capabilities, technologies, and standards that gives them the scale required to outmatch their competitors, especially in a context of attrition and protraction.

The Long and Winding Road to the NATO-IP4 Partnership

The United States and its European and Indo-Pacific allies seem to be well aware of the need to situate the war in Ukraine in the context of broader geo-strategic dynamics. A look at NATO’s post-February 2022 narrative reveals that the alliance is as clear-headed about the fact that its center of gravity lies in Europe as it is about the fact that the Indo-Pacific has become the epicenter of global power competition politically, militarily, economically, and technologically. Indeed, at their meetings in Madrid (2022) and Vilnius, allied leaders recognized that the fate of the Euro-Atlantic is increasingly tied to broader geostrategic dynamics. This is significant. Since NATO’s birth in 1949 – and long before that, arguably – the Euro-Atlantic has been the epicenter of global power dynamics. That is no longer the case. And this new normal compels the alliance – especially Europeans – to reflect more systematically about the links between Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

To be sure, NATO’s efforts to develop a more global or Indo-Pacific sensitivity are riddled with strategic and political obstacles. For one thing, most European allies believe that the Euro-Atlantic should be NATO’s main – and even only – business, and that preserving security therein is challenging enough as it is. For another, most of NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners do not want the alliance in or near their region. They would rather have NATO – and Europeans in particular – focus on securing Europe so that the United States has as much spare bandwidth as possible to focus on Asia. Just as importantly, not even the United States itself appears to be particularly interested in a NATO role in the Indo-Pacific. European diplomatic solidarity regarding territorial disputes in Asia is no doubt welcome, and so is greater transatlantic technological coordination vis-à-vis China. But from a strictly military viewpoint, Europeans should focus on bolstering their conventional defenses.

The current push for cooperation between NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners is therefore about generating greater diplomatic solidarity with each other’s problems and fostering global and cross-theater situational awareness.  It is about NATO with rather than in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, the NATO in the Indo-Pacific scare narrative appears to come primarily from China, who is appropriating and amplifying Russian references to NATO’s expansionist gene being a source of instability in Europe, and projecting that logic to the Indo-Pacific and global levels. Europeans, Americans, and Indo-Pacific countries themselves seem to have no appetite for NATO in the Indo-Pacific.

And yet, a sort of guilt complex around the “no NATO in the Indo-Pacific” narrative might be slowing down the alliance’s agenda of cooperation with the Indo-Pacific. This agenda still bears a strong transnational, 1990s flavor. It is by and large framed around the need to address global challenges like terrorism, proliferation, or the climate-security nexus, and centers on the need to strengthen cooperation in areas like cyber or disinformation. This is understandable, as it provides a sound diplomatic umbrella under which deeper cooperation can occur. But it is also insufficient. After all, transnational challenges have become a second-order priority for both NATO and its Indo-Pacific countries. In fact, they all – especially NATO, Japan, Australia, and, increasingly, the Republic of Korea – have almost identical strategic and political priorities: the strengthening of deterrence against revisionist great powers in their immediate vicinity. Their focus may be on different regions or threats. And they may not be interested in directly engaging in each other’s region. But the fact that they require similar operational concepts, capabilities, and technologies provides a formidable foundation for serious cooperation.

Think Big: Towards a Cross-Theater Deterrence Ecosystem for Europe and the Indo-Pacific

As NATO leaders look toward their forthcoming summit in Washington, and beyond, they should think harder about how to link their Indo-Pacific partnership agenda with the Alliance’s core business: strengthening deterrence in the face of great power revisionism.

NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners have to focus on different competitors and areas of responsibility, and that encourages them to develop bottom-up operational concepts and strategies tailored around their specific needs. The Indo-Pacific is a predominantly maritime environment requiring Air-Sea operational solutions, and Europe is a predominantly continental environment, which requires prioritizing Air-Land-centric concepts. That said, the operational challenges and objectives NATO and Indo-Pacific countries confront are remarkably similar.

Both sets of alliances face the challenge of standing up to revisionist great powers that, by expanding their nuclear arsenal and fielding Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities to obtain local escalation dominance, seek to undermine the credibility of U.S. extended deterrence, all the while they engage in corrosive below-the-threshold probing. The fact that China and Russia are engaging in military-technological cooperation and mirroring each other’s strategies further underscores the similar nature of the threat faced by European and Indo-Pacific allies. Critically, both sets of alliances seek to offset their respective threat predicaments through operational concepts and strategies that contribute to deterrence by denial and pave the way to preserve access, movement, and punishment options for their ultimate security guarantor, i.e. the United States. This opens up significant opportunities for cross-regional collaboration conceptually and doctrinally, and thus when it comes to training, exercises, and military education. Overall, a similar threat predicament incentivizes allies in both regions to develop a new operating system or “software”, and arguably incentivizes a collaborative quest for new ways of war drawing on shared concepts and strategies

The fact that European and Indo-Pacific allies are looking at similar strategic and operational solutions, or ways of war, also underscores the potential for synergies in terms of “hardware.” Indeed, both sets of alliances are eyeing similar capabilities and technologies, namely multi-layered air and missile defense, theater-range conventional strike (land-, sea- and air-launched), suppression of enemy air defenses, stealth air-combat, SSNs or electronic warfare. All these capabilities are critical to the implementation of deterrence by denial, and to enabling access and punishment options for the United States in maturing A2AD environments. Moreover, European and Indo-Pacific countries are often developing many of these capabilities and technologies in collaboration with the United States, and are plugged into America’s architecture of strategic enablers and technological innovation. The more compatible their ammunitions, platforms, doctrines, technical standards, and defense-industrial bases are, the easier it will be to generate the scale required to outmatch their competitors and prevail, especially in a context of attrition and protraction. Additionally, this compatibility will facilitate mutual assistance in the event of an attack, even if they choose not to operate within each other’s regions

The main competitive advantage that the U.S.-led alliance ecosystem bears in relation to the China-Russia partnership is that it is asymmetric. As research has shown asymmetric alliances tend to last longer and be more cohesive than symmetric ones, partly because the allies or partners aren’t constantly looking over each other’s shoulder. European and Indo-Pacific allies will of course constantly seek to reduce their dependence on the United States, either because they value their autonomy and status or to mitigate risks associated with abandonment and/or entanglement. However, they are all aware that there is no security outside the alliance with the United States. The same principle does not apply to the China-Russia partnership. In practical terms, this means that the United States and its allies can go further in terms of functional division of labor operationally, but also when it comes to capability development, defense-industrial, or technological collaboration. More broadly, it means America’s European and Indo-Pacific allies are all in the same boat. They may have different short-term priorities, but such differences are tactical in nature. Strategically, they each have a stake in a prudently disciplined and efficient management of U.S. power. As such, a U.S. focus on Asia and outcompeting China is in their collective interest, because that is where the main threat to America’s power base comes from.

When they meet in Washington, NATO leaders should remember that America’s focus on Asia and the strengthening Sino-Russian partnership underscore the growing interdependence between the European and Indo-Pacific theaters. The Ukraine war is a formidable example in this regard. This does not mean European and Indo-Pacific countries should extend mutual defense commitments to each other. But it means the time has come for them to think big about their partnership and move beyond the declaratory and transnational level onto a more concrete one stressing inter-state deterrence. To do that, they should begin to lay the foundations of a cross-theater deterrence ecosystem of concepts, doctrines, capabilities, technologies, industries, and standards geared for protracted warfare against revisionist great powers.


Prof. Luis Simón is director of the Centre for Security Diplomacy and Strategy (CSDS) at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, and director of the Brussels office of the Elcano Royal Institute. He is also a senior associate with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)

Image: Staff Sgt. Jackie Sanders