The US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific region has grown in recent years although its geostrategic priority remains in Europe.
– NATO is very unlikely to initiate major collective security efforts against China even as its involvement in the region grows
– The alliance is likely to remain focused on Europe, not the Indo-Pacific, as its source of insecurity is Russia, not China
– NATO will likely rely mainly on economic and technological means, as well as limited non-aggressive defensive measures, to constrain China’s growing power
2020 marks the 71st year of the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); the year will also mark the alliance’s growing engagement in the Indo-Pacific. After the US announced an era of ‘strategic competition’ with China in 2018, pundits have begun debating NATO’s involvement in the great-power contest. During his visit to Australia and New Zealand in August 2019, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg noted the need to address the China ‘challenge’. The London Declaration, issued by heads of the state and government at the NATO Council meeting last December, officially recognised “China’s growing influence and international policies [which] present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.” Such remarks are accompanied by efforts to boost the NATO–Japan, the NATO–Australia and the EU–ASEAN strategic partnerships in 2019.
But it is not yet clear what strategic role will the alliance play in the new decade (2020-2030), nor how NATO might respond to regional conflicts, especially concerning the four volatile flashpoints: the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Korean Peninsula.
IN RETROSPECT: NATO DURING THE COLD WAR
It is very unlikely that NATO would marshal its collective strategic resources (conventional and nuclear arsenals) to engage in any of the four flashpoints. NATO’s strategic priorities remain in the European heartland, and its traditional mandate remains to deter Russian aggression. Spreading its resources thin, by engaging militarily in both regions — Europe and the Indo-Pacific — would undermine its capacity to contain Russia’s subversive influence, while emboldening Russian opportunism in the Baltic.
This line of reasoning — the reluctance to divert strategic resources — dates back to the Cold War. The Korean War, which began in June 1950 and just a year after NATO’s formation, was the alliance’s first and last major military intervention in Asia. According to NATO historian Lawrence Kaplan, the war “was a turning point in the history of the alliance,” as it deepened US military commitment in Asia and drove the expansion of NATO’s “geographic shape.” As NATO depended primarily on US security guarantees, it could not afford to allow the US to divert resources to Asia, potentially suffer defeat there and overlook the pressing Soviet threat in Europe. As Kaplan notes, it was during the Korean War that “the German question was revived and acquired an urgency that had been lacking before June 25, 1950” — that is, how best to unify a divided Germany under a democratic political system without provoking a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. This urgency was triggered by a common fear of Soviet aggression: that the Soviets would take every opportunity to engulf Europe in communism, and Moscow would do so as soon as the US showed signs of weakness in its resolve to defend Europe.
For NATO, the lesson of the Korean War was to minimise, if not prevent, US engagement in Asia. Thus, NATO took no military action as a collective alliance in the following Asian crises: the two Taiwan Strait crises in the mid-50s, the Laotian crisis in the late 50s and the Vietnam War in the 60s. Instead, its individual members, especially London and Paris, played the role of a spoiler by impeding US commitments to its Asian allies. In particular, they sought to join the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (a US-led alliance launched in 1954 to defend Southeast Asia from the Communist wave) and use their membership as a means to dissuade Washington from diverting attention away from Europe.
NATO AND THE WORLD TODAY
Photo: WO FRAN C.Valverde/NATO/FlickrDespite the end of the Cold War, the fear of Russia has returned following Moscow’s 2014 ‘annexation’ of Crimea, its use of hybrid warfare — notably in eastern Ukraine — and its support of far-right movements in European democracies. This fear is further exacerbated by the uncertainty over US commitment to NATO and Europe under the Trump administration, a fear which has taken urgency in the 2018 Munich Security Conference (Europe’s largest security conference).
The greater change in the global strategic environment is the growth and nature of Chinese influence across the globe. China’s economic, technological and military weight is now increasingly felt across both Europe and the Indo-Pacific. However, Beijing’s strategic priorities remain in the latter region. Even as it embarks on a self-declared global humanitarian intervention campaign and builds bases overseas, China remains vested in the Indo-Pacific due to its territorial reunification agenda. Moreover, it is not in China’s interest to become entangled in European conflicts; doing so could potentially invite trouble from its northern neighbour — Russia. China is likely to forge a tacit alliance, if not a close strategic partnership, with Russia to divide US attention and resources between its Asian and European allies, and this strategy requires respecting Russia’s sphere of influence in Europe.
As such, NATO countries other than the US do not fear China as a traditional security threat or ‘challenger’ — at least not in Europe. And while NATO’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific has grown, this does not imply some newfound strategic priorities toward this region. Indeed, NATO has been reluctant to take military action as a collective alliance against China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Current freedom of navigation operations are not conducted under NATO’s name, but rather by individual NATO members like Canada, France, Germany and the UK. Even then, these military efforts, as the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue revealed, are undertaken in a cautious manner to avoid China’s ire and to hedge between the US and China.
NATO’s principal security concern regarding China is the non-traditional security risk it presents as a latent technological and economic superpower. In particular, China’s high-tech investments in Europe have provoked fears of Chinese cyberattacks and influence operations among NATO members. This has generated cleavages in NATO, with European NATO countries divided between decoupling and remaining engaged with China. China has the capability to fracture the alliance short of military confrontation.
NATO’S ROLE IN THE INDO-PACIFIC: OFFSHORE BALANCER
In light of the aforementioned issues, NATO is more likely to instigate collective efforts at managing the non-traditional security risks stemming from China than to treat China as a traditional strategic rival. It is unlikely to initiate major security efforts for the purpose of warfighting or deterrence against China (and North Korea), nor intervene directly in the western Pacific’s four key flashpoints, since doing so would divert resources and attention and encourage Russian opportunism in Europe.
Instead, NATO is likely to strengthen the capability of other major powers and institutions like ASEAN, Japan and India as a means to constrain China’s emergence as a regional and global superpower. It is likely to do so mainly through economic and technological instruments such as investments and aid, as well as through limited, non-provocative defensive measures couched under the label of ‘defence diplomacy’, ‘non-traditional security’ and ‘strategic partnership’. NATO’s aim is not to become an Indo-Pacific power, but rather to make Indo-Pacific countries able to provide security for their own region.
Tommy is a member of the East and South East Asia team. He covers strategic and crisis developments pertaining to the use of force, with a concentration on flashpoints in East Asia.