The media’s coverage of the July 11-12 NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania largely centered on Ukraine’s NATO membership bid and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s frustration over not being offered a clear-cut timetable for joining the alliance. But behind the headlines, another significant story about the meeting went largely unnoticed: NATO is continuing to gradually move toward the Asia-Pacific region to counter China’s increasing power.
For the second consecutive year, Japan and South Korea, which are not NATO members, were invited to attend the annual summit. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida walked away with a so-called “partnership program” with NATO, a five-page agreement that aims to strengthen defense cooperation between Japan and the alliance, up to the fielding of joint exercises. The NATO joint communique stated in no uncertain terms that China is a potential threat that needs to be taken seriously.
NATO, it seems, is making a concerted decision to add Asia to its docket at a time when the alliance has its hands full managing Europe’s largest war since 1945. If this is the plan, NATO policymakers should step on the brakes before it goes too far.
NATO’s new Asia-Pacific mission is remarkable for several reasons. When the alliance was formed in 1949 amid the looming post-war threat posed by the Soviet Union, it had a clear-cut purpose: protect Western Europe from the threat of Soviet expansionism. Once the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, NATO lost its raison d’être. Expanding to Central and Eastern Europe was no longer an obstacle, and the alliance has nearly doubled in size from its Cold War peak. With its geopolitical adversary dead and buried, NATO increasingly looked outside of Europe, in places like Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, to maintain relevance.
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Courtesy of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine, NATO has re-discovered its original purpose: the collective defense of its member states on the European continent. NATO approved new defense plans this week for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Enhancing deterrence against a near-peer rival in Russia is now NATO’s first, second, and third priority.
But that could be undermined if NATO distracts itself in Asia. NATO’s newfound sense of purpose would be diluted, as would attempts to revitalize defense investments in Europe. NATO unity will be harder to maintain the further it gets bogged down in Asian security issues; there are already substantial differences among members about the nature and extent of the China threat and how best to respond to it.
The disagreements surrounding NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s initiative to open a small NATO office in Tokyo is instructive. While Stoltenberg sees the office as a way to make NATO’s relationship with Japan more durable, French President Emmanuel Macron sees the project as wholly unnecessary.
NATO’s European members insist that security on the continent requires a constant American military presence. If that’s true, their priority should be to live up to the spending guidelines adopted at the 2014 Wales summit and devote a minimum of 2% of their individual GDP to defense spending. While NATO members have added a combined $350 billion to their defense budgets since 2014, plenty of work still needs to be done—today, only 11 out of 30 members meet the benchmark (the latest NATO data didn’t include Finland, its most recent member). It’s particularly scandalous that the German Bundeswehr, the armed forces of the wealthiest country in Europe, suffers from numerous deficiencies.
NATO’s rationale for venturing into Asian security affairs is clear enough. The U.S. categorizes China as its “pacing challenge,” a country that seeks to displace Washington as the world’s leading center of gravity. There is growing concern in the U.S. and Europe about China’s military modernization and propensity to coerce its neighbors.
Yet rhetoric aside, NATO would struggle to sustain a regular operational presence in Asia. With the exception of the U.S., U.K., and France, the alliance doesn’t have the capacity to project power in Asia even if it wanted to—and NATO is heavily dependent on U.S. military power, intelligence, and reconnaissance capabilities in any event. The most that could be done by the defense alliance are a few freedom of navigation operations in contested waterways, symbolic deployments that don’t do much other than irritate the Chinese. Given these ongoing military deficiencies as well as the current security environment on the European continent, one must ask why the alliance would even consider ratcheting up its ambitions.
One must also ask how focusing on Asia helps the alliance preserve military support to Ukraine. Just this week, the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, and Canada committed to arming Ukraine’s defense “for as long as it takes.” Yet Europe’s defense industrial base, hampered for decades by underinvestment, already struggles to balance Ukraine’s ongoing needs with its own. Expanding NATO’s, and therefore Europe’s, remit into Asia will only compound the problem, forcing more difficult choices ahead.
Then there’s the question of whether NATO’s diagnosis of the China threat is even accurate. In terms of nuclear weapons, China possess less than 8% of Washington’s arsenal. China’s “global footprint” consists of one foreign base compared to Washington’s expansive network of 750 bases in 80 countries—including a vast network around China. While U.S. officials view China as a growing threat to the U.S.-led international order, the gap between Washington’s capabilities and Beijing’s is regularly understated.
In life, there is such a thing as too much ambition. This aptly sums up NATO’s Asia-Pacific dreams.
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