3 QUESTIONS - Is Indo-Pacific a new frontier for NATO?

3 QUESTIONS - Is Indo-Pacific a new frontier for NATO?

For now, rise of China has prompted NATO to reevaluate its role in region, with its presence contingent upon desires of countries in both Europe and Indo-Pacific

By Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

- The author is a researcher and journalist focusing on conflict and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa, primarily related to the Gulf region.

ISTANBUL (AA)- In three questions, Jonathan Fenton-Harvey evaluates the relations between NATO and the Indo-Pacific countries and their future relations.

- How is NATO increasing its engagement with the Indo-Pacific?

For the second consecutive year, the heads of state from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea, informally known as the four Asia-Pacific partners (AP4), participated in the annual NATO Summit. This recurring attendance highlights the increasing importance of the Indo-Pacific region for NATO and the organization’s growing engagement with regional partners.

Over the past year, discussions between NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners have progressed amid the war in Ukraine and concerns regarding China and the Taiwan issue. During the Vilnius Summit, Japan and Australia reaffirmed their support for Ukraine and pledged assistance to Kiev. Additionally, NATO ratified individual partnership agreements with Japan and South Korea, focusing on areas such as cyber security, defense, and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

However, proposals to establish a NATO liaison office in Japan were struck down after France vetoed them, resulting in disappointment among several member states and officials. Nonetheless, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has expressed that opening the liaison office could be considered at a later stage, with discussions ongoing. There are clear desires to enhance NATO's physical presence in the Indo-Pacific region, yet the exact timing of its realization remains uncertain.

While discussions to enhance NATO and Indo-Pacific cooperation have remained mostly symbolic thus far, they indicate increasing desires to connect security and cooperation between Europe and the Indo-Pacific. NATO was initially established as a Euro-Atlantic organization, albeit with global partners, and its growing attention towards the Indo-Pacific demonstrates its determination to extend its focus beyond its traditional mandate, particularly amid United States (US)-led efforts to contain China.

- How could this impact NATO’s relations with China?

Last year, NATO unveiled its comprehensive strategy, emphasizing that China was indeed its primary concern in the Indo-Pacific region. This strategic approach goes beyond concerns regarding Chinese investments in critical infrastructure in Europe; it also highlights the growing proximity between Beijing and Moscow, which raises apprehension among NATO officials and member states. Dialogue and plans for establishing a permanent presence would serve as a platform for enhancing consultations on security matters between Europe and the Indo-Pacific, while also addressing the challenges posed by China.

Naturally, China has strongly criticized NATO's portrayal of it as a threat and has explicitly demanded that NATO refrain from involvement in East Asia. China has also issued a warning of a "resolute response," indicating further regional tensions may arise because of these developments. Conversely, officials from certain NATO member states have downplayed the significance of these measures. While there are desires to expand NATO’s presence, there is also evidently a level of wariness over provoking China, prompting more moderate tones regarding NATO's potential expansion.

Skepticism over the establishment of a liaison office indicates that caution may persist over how NATO's expansion in the region will unfold. This delicate dynamic could potentially slow efforts to facilitate closer cooperation between NATO and its regional partners, meaning it may remain at the consultation level. Meanwhile, the physical aspect of cooperation between the two theaters could remain limited to the AP4's aid to Ukraine for now.

- Does NATO have a strong future in the Indo-Pacific?

Should NATO officials seek to push for a deeper physical presence in the Indo-Pacific, the success of doing so would also depend on support from member states and regional countries. From the US’ perspective, NATO’s engagement would aim to supplement existing US-led initiatives in the region, such as AUKUS, a three-way strategic defense alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom (UK), and the US, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD).

Paris' veto of the liaison office reflects states' desire to balance economic relations with China with security concerns, which is particularly evident among the AP4 countries. Japan and Australia may welcome the security benefits of aligning with NATO, yet they may be unwilling to forgo their robust trading ties with Beijing.

India, while often seen by US and NATO officials as a desirable counterbalance to China in the region, pursues an independent foreign policy and also maintains strong economic relations with Beijing, despite ongoing border disputes with China. India will likely cautiously engage with NATO while maintaining a certain distance, as it has also maintained open relations with Russia throughout the Ukraine war.

Currently, these ongoing discussions serve as testing grounds for deeper engagement between Europe and the Indo-Pacific. For now, the rise of China has prompted NATO to reevaluate its role in the region, with its presence contingent upon the desires of countries in both Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

While a multilateral approach may not be guaranteed, bilateral cooperation between individual partner states could prevail, particularly in enforcing regional cooperation measures. Nonetheless, considering shared and overlapping security concerns, the exploration of direct security cooperation between NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners is likely to persist.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu.

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