China’s rise pushes Asia-Pacific countries to join NATO

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When NATO leaders met in Madrid this week, they were joined by heads of government from four countries far beyond the usual geographic reach of the transatlantic alliance: Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

The unprecedented participation of the four American allies – and their cooperation agreement with NATO on cyber defense and maritime security – underlines their concern both at the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the growing power of a China increasingly assertive.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who halted a crucial election campaign for the summit, said the move showed the leaders had realized that the security of Europe and the Indo-Pacific were “inseparable”.

“I feel a strong sense of crisis that Ukraine could be East Asia tomorrow,” Kishida said, adding that Asia-Pacific partners should in future “regularly participate in EU summits. NATO”.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida attends a meeting during the first day of the NATO summit at the IFEMA convention center in Madrid, Spain, June 29, 2022 © Lavandeira Jr/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

NATO member states share their new partners’ concern about Beijing’s intentions. At the summit, the alliance formally defined China for the first time as “a challenge” in its strategic concept for the next decade.

Closer ties between NATO and Asia-Pacific countries have raised concerns in Beijing.

“Now NATO has extended its tentacles to the Asia-Pacific,” said Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for China’s foreign minister, adding that attempts to undermine peace and stability in the region were ” wanted to fail”.

Beijing has repeatedly warned against the creation of any NATO-style military bloc in Asia, a prospect that security experts have called highly unlikely since countries in the region have widely varying interests and strong economic ties with China. China.

But the deeper engagement between NATO and the four Asia-Pacific countries is driven by fears that separate alliances with the United States will no longer be enough to ensure their security. Their confidence in Washington has been undermined by former President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach, which has threatened to withdraw US troops from Japan and South Korea.

And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and fears that China could make a similar move to Taiwan have suggested the need for multiple options to bolster deterrence.

“It would complicate the calculations for China if it had to think not only about the alliance with the United States, but also about the 30 members belonging to NATO,” said Yoshikazu Hirose, an alliance expert at the National. Defense Academy in Japan.

A US official said Washington had pushed for Japan and the other three countries to join NATO, part of a strategy by President Joe Biden’s administration to build and expand coalitions of like-minded allies to counter China.

The US official said Japan wants to expand and diversify its security ties as an insurance policy to protect itself from China in case the 2024 US election produces a weaker president on alliance with Tokyo. “Japan is trying to build capacity outside of its relationship with the United States,” he said.

Christopher Johnstone, a Japan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, said Kishida in particular felt a strong sense of threat due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and wanted Europe to and NATO are more responsive to the challenge. from China.

Kishida had also encouraged British and German naval deployments to the Indo-Pacific over the past year, said Johnstone, who until recently was in charge of Japanese policy on the National Security Council. “It fits into a larger pattern of relationship diversification,” he said.

At the Madrid summit, Anthony Albanese, who was elected Australian prime minister in May, dismissed accusations that NATO and its partners had built an “imaginary enemy” in the form of China.

Albanese pointed to Beijing’s “limitless” partnership with Russia and its refusal to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. “China must look at what is happening and see the resolve that exists around the world and should condemn Russia’s actions,” he said.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese speaks to the media after arriving at Torrejon Air Base for the NATO Leaders Summit in Madrid, Spain, June 27, 2022.
Anthony Albanese | © Lukas Coch / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol, who made his international debut at the summit, vowed his country would play a bigger role in security. “The cooperative relationship between South Korea and NATO will become the cornerstone of solidarity,” Yoon said.

On the sidelines of the summit, Yoon also met with Kishida and Biden for the countries’ first trilateral meeting in nearly five years. The South Korean leader took the opportunity to signal his desire to restore relations with Japan which have been strained by disputes over historical and trade issues.

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, concerns about how to contain China’s military ambitions had prompted a wave of collective security arrangements in Asia. These include the Quad, which brings together the United States, Japan, Australia and India, and the Aukus pact, under which the United Kingdom and the United States will help Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

These multilateral security networks and existing bilateral defense pacts have also been complemented by regional economic initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, recently unveiled by Biden.

Stephen Nagy, a senior lecturer at the International Christian University in Tokyo, said there would be limits to cooperation between NATO and its new partners.

“I think they would welcome any kind of diplomatic, financial and resource investment in NATO to push back against Russia,” Nagy said. “But do NATO members want South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand to be part of their relationship and to be equal around the table? I’m not so sure.”

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