Op-Ed: A Game of Tradeoffs: NATO’s Engagement with the Asia-Pacific

Osaka, Japan. Photo by Arthur Mazi via Unsplash.

By Diya Ashtakala 

NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept identified China as a “strategic challenge.” The document highlights the threats that China poses to the alliance. NATO is aware of China’s position as a rising power, dominating global markets and a key trading partner, while also aware of the security implications of China’s growing cyber capabilities and its territorial complications with Taiwan. NATO views China as a challenger to the rules-based order it seeks to preserve. 

Given NATO’s approach to China, its members have engaged in increasingly formalized security relationships with Asia-Pacific countries: Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. This decision by NATO has many pros, but is not without its cons. NATO countries need to understand that actual engagement with the region requires greater military capabilities. They need to assess the scope of this engagement while considering the security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region.  For NATO, it is a game of tradeoffs. 

The Gains

NATO’s engagement with the Asia-Pacific region is complicated by China on several fronts, but offers opportunities. While Europe continues to face the repercussions of the war in Ukraine, which is an attack on the country’s sovereignty, the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty looms. China’s strategy towards Taiwan can impact maritime security as China continues to engage in gray zone activities such as military exercises around Taiwan. If China were to invade Taiwan, the repercussions could be felt in Europe as well, as China is the European Union’s (EU) largest trading partner. The President of the United States, Joe Biden, stated that the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if China launches an unprovoked attack. China continues to seek reunification and a One China policy, which will be critical in shaping NATO’s engagement with Taiwan. While Taiwan and NATO do not have formal diplomatic relations, NATO and Taiwan have collaborated on academic programs, with NATO seeking to better understand the situation in Taiwan and its abilities. 

NATO has always had its issues with Russia, and China’s close relationship with Russia does not make that better. China has and continues to maintain a stance of neutrality on the war in Ukraine. Early on, China rebuked that Russia is not the only actor to blame. The West is also to blame, particularly the United States. Further raising the stakes for NATO, China not only participated in Vostok exercises with Russia, but China’s People’s Liberation Army was accused of stealing intellectual property related to Europe’s military capability. The Asia-Pacific region can be crucial to NATO if it seeks to establish a system of checks and balances. 

NATO has already laid the groundwork for this through the Partnership Interoperability Initiative. Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, the four Asia-Pacific partners, are part of this initiative. These four nations have growing capabilities and have acquired strategic assets to bolster their defenses against China. They are critical to any future operations that NATO may decide to explore in the region to counter China’s growing dominance.

China’s advanced cyber capabilities are common knowledge. The U.S. and its allies, including NATO, released a White House Statement accusing China of “irresponsible and destabilizing behavior in cyberspace.” The Asia-Pacific allies have also faced similar concerns and attacks from China, impacting the region’s critical infrastructure. NATO’s best bet is to engage with these allies in order to establish intelligence sharing and reconnaissance activities. Exploring avenues of cooperation between the two may create a joint response to China’s cyber-attacks, transcending regional boundaries.

The Costs 

While the Asia-Pacific region might be strategically important for NATO, are the region’s security concerns a NATO problem? In its purpose, NATO states, “NATO strives to secure a lasting peace in EUROPE…” NATO was and continues to be viewed as a Euro-Atlantic alliance, even if it seeks to expand its influence. This raises the question: Is NATO solely for the Euro-Atlantic or does it want to become something much larger? 

NATO may be a one-of-a-kind security alliance in the current international realm, but the Asia-Pacific region has multiple security frameworks. First, the region has the AUKUS, a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Second, Australia is provided with nuclear-powered submarines by two prominent NATO countries. Finally, the Indo-Pacific region has the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and the Trilateral Partnership. While an Asian security alliance similar to NATO might be just a dream, it  does not have to include NATO. 

Even if NATO does continue to pursue interests with its Asia-Pacific partners, what does NATO intend to do to counter China’s territorial movements? Although NATO’s military personnel is close to 3.5 million, China is estimated to have close to two million active personnel. NATO may have the upper hand in terms of personnel, but must consider a number of other factors. Will NATO allies really want to increase their commitment to a region that is not the primary focus of NATO’s security interests? Even if NATO can counter the Chinese military power, any conflict will inevitably impact NATO. 

In the case of Taiwan, the U.S. has made promises to the country, while diametrically opposing them in official statements.  In the National Security Strategy 2022, the White House states, “We oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo from either side, and do not support Taiwan independence.” This stance will prove to be decisive for NATO and an influential factor in how it addresses the Taiwan issue. It is also important to note that while both are cases of territorial interests, Taiwan and Ukraine are not the same. They are contrastingly different in their own issues. For example, unlike Ukraine, Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations. Taiwan is also not in a geopolitical environment that has an alliance like NATO. Another point to note is that while the US and Taiwan have the Taiwan Relations Act, no such act exists between the US and Ukraine. Given the different security challenges, NATO requires tailored approaches each for Russia and China. 

NATO’s Dilemma

NATO must clearly define what it will do with its Asia-Pacific partners. The engagement might help NATO respond to the strategic challenge and threats posed by China. The Partnership Interoperability Initiative is a step forward in this direction. However, does NATO have a contingency plan if it is ever required to provide military assistance to its partners? Taiwan and Ukraine are different issues, and it is critical for NATO to see it that way. The Euro-Atlantic alliance needs to decide what its next steps are – engage further or maintain distance. Despite the challenges posed by the complex security challenges in the region, NATO should promote cooperation amongst its allies through knowledge sharing and reconnaissance activities. NATO and its allies can work together to build a joint response to a possible confrontation with China.

Diya Ashtakala is a graduate student in the MAIA program specializing in Security Studies. Her research interests include nuclear deterrence, cybersecurity, and alliances and security frameworks. She is from Bangalore, India.


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