Leaders still long to entice Nato EastwardJul 27, 2023
From Vilnius, Lithuania, NATO cast its eyes east to the Ukraine. For the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, there was a desire to look even further east beyond the Ukraine. He, some NATO members and invited guests, remain undeterred in their desire to bring NATO into Asia.
Jens Stoltenberg supports the ambition noting that ‘‘This idea that we can say that China doesn’t matter for NATO is wrong.”
Following the Vilnius meeting, this group will assiduously nurture the growing eastward ambition to support the American desire to preserve American influence. Although deferred in Vilnius, pressure will be maintained to establish a NATO office in Tokyo as a hub for co-operation with Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. Japan has already upgraded its representation to NATO by creating a new ambassador post.
The future risk remains. NATO is being encouraged to become a broader instrument of US foreign policy applied outside of the European context.
At the height of US hegemony, NATO was one of the major military alliances but it was supplanted with a new series of military agreements. These include AUKUS, the renewal of base agreements with the Philippines and the active encouragement of Japan’s remilitarisation. These new agreements also include a range of ad-hoc alliances such as the ‘Coalition of the Willing” deployed in Middle East conflicts and elsewhere.
It appears the ambition to extend NATO to encompass what might be called a North Asia Treaty Organisation has not abated. Stoltenberg claims that “China, in particular, is watching to see the price Russia pays, or the reward it receives, for its aggression in Ukraine.” He suggested leaders in South Korea, Australia and Japan were clearly concerned that what was “happening in Europe today could happen in Asia tomorrow.”
His views were not compelling enough to convince all in attendance at Vilnius that NATO expansion eastwards beyond Ukraine was an immediate priority, although the invited guest countries from Asia did not step back from their desire to see NATO in Asia. NATO will formalise a new collective title for Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, its designated observer partners in Asia.
The clear objective of any eastward NATO expansion is to further assist the United States to contain China. However, any NATO push into Asia is a relatively minor part of the large-scale US activity in the Asia Pacific region.
It reflects a dilution of NATO’s original purpose rather than a major European threat to the existing balance in the Asia Pacific region. In this sense it is symbolic because there are few genuine military implications of this move in terms of Asia-Pacific security and stability.
Apart from any other factor, the logistics of sustaining military operations half a world away from Europe are daunting. The edifice of imperial reach has long retreated from the Asia Pacific region so the extensive support infrastructure is missing.
It is estimated that the US currently maintains more than 700 military facilities outside of the United States and is engaged in at least two significant conflicts at any given time. Multiple US military facilities are located around the maritime borders of China. The facilities are claimed to be necessary to preserve the Global Rules Based order and protect the freedom of navigation.
Emboldened by a new-found unity of purpose following exhortations from the US and the UK in response to the Ukraine conflict, the proposal in Vilnius to extend NATO’s operation into Asia Pacific was met with some enthusiasm for the theory promoted by Stoltenberg and others, but it garnered little practical support. Stoltenberg’s support ensures it will appear again on the next NATO meeting agenda.
Even when freed from the distraction of Ukraine, any new NATO interest in the Asia Pacific region is more likely to be limited to the token passage of aircraft carriers and other assets in the South China Sea. The logistics of a sail-through are very different to the logistics of actual military engagement. Showing the flag, be it British, French or NATO poses little threat to the security and stability of the region.
The European version of NATO brings no significant military or diplomatic advantage to efforts by the US to inhibit China’s development progress. It is the QUAD, the trilateral US, Japan, Australia security dialogue and the emerging US, Japan, South Korea trilateral dialogue that challenges the stability of the region.
The attempt by the UK and the US to expand or export the NATO organisational model to Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea is more significant than any direct European participation in the region. Joseph Camilleri, Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University, believes it is an attempt to globalise NATO to preserve US dominance. He sees it as part of a bigger story, a multi-layered US-led “Indo-Pacific strategy” whose clear aim is to contain China and preserve US regional and global dominance.
A NATO organisational model is a potential threat to regional peace and security because it further unifies US efforts to contain China by militaristic means. Regional players like South Korea, Japan and Australia are already building the capacity, with US backing, to sustain efforts to contain China. This is driving the militarisation of the Asia-Pacific.
In 2022, military spending in the region increased to $575 billion, not including the $368 billion planned expenditure by Australia on AUKUS submarines. The region accounted for 41% of global arms imports. The largest arms exporter was the United States and the largest importers were US allies.
Camilleri says “the United States can no longer afford the high cost of mounting a long-term containment policy that holds any prospect of stemming China’s rise. To bridge the deficit, it must turn to allies, old and new.”
A decision to extend NATO further east into the Asia Pacific was deferred but it remains on the NATO agenda as a symbolic endorsement of US objectives to halt China’s development by every means possible.
A version of this article was published in China Daily, July 25, 2023.