Japan bringing NATO into Asia increases uncertainty to region
Concerns over possible arm races in Asia-Pacific grow
Published: Jul 10, 2024 08:43 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

Illustration: Chen Xia/Global Times

Japan and NATO are reportedly finalizing plans to establish a line for sharing highly confidential security information during the ongoing NATO summit in Washington, DC. This latest move, along with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's remarks implying China's "support" for Russia, underscores Japan's "pivotal role" to cater to the US' strategy in building an "Asian NATO" and to serve Japan's goal of breaking free from post-war restrictions, observers said. 

Japan's introduction of NATO into the Asia-Pacific has drawn criticism for escalating regional instability and introducing uncertainty, with some experts expressing concerns about a potential arms race.

Kishida is expected to meet with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to reach an agreement on Thursday to strengthen security cooperation by establishing a system on sharing high-level information even at ordinary times, The Japan News reported on Wednesday.

From Tuesday to Thursday, leaders of NATO's 32 member countries are conducting a three-day summit in Washington, DC. And for the third year in a row, the leaders of New Zealand, Japan and South Korea will attend the NATO summit. 

"Japan has played a pivotal role in driving NATO's engagement in the Asia-Pacific and integrating the region into NATO's strategic framework. It has facilitated NATO's entry into the Asia-Pacific through various means and assisted the US in establishing cooperative relationships with neighboring countries," Xiang Haoyu, a research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

Japan's enhanced cooperation with NATO serves two primary objectives: to leverage NATO's capabilities in countering China, especially in maritime disputes like the East China Sea and South China Sea, and to circumvent its constitutional constraints by pursuing unprecedented military expansion. This aims to shed Japan's status as a defeated nation in WWII and elevate its influence as a significant political power, Xiang said. 

Hyping threats from North Korea, Russia and China, along with emphasizing the Taiwan question and maritime disputes is tactics that Kishida has taken to "persuade" the Japanese to back his plan to revise the pacifist constitution, bolster the defense budget and elevate cooperation with NATO, Da Zhigang, director of the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies at the Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times. 

In July 2023, Japan and NATO signed the renewed Individually Tailored Partnership Program, with both sides agreeing to expand cooperation on security issues across all domains of warfare. Also in recent years, Japan has been negotiating and signing new reciprocal access agreements (RAA) on defense training and capacity building with NATO member states, according to media reports. 

The US is currently pushing for the convergence of the transatlantic NATO alliance and the Asia-Pacific alliance to align with its "Indo-Pacific strategy," collectively applying pressure on China to curb its rise. However, with its global resources spread thin and domestic factors like elections influencing its leadership, the US is also utilizing Japan's proactive engagement with NATO to achieve its strategic objectives, Xiang said. 

Despite NATO's efforts to use the pivot to the Asia-Pacific as a catalyst to demonstrate its global influence, establishing an Asian version of NATO, which includes Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand or other countries - faces significant challenges in practice, analysts said. 

Xiang noted that the diverse interests and demands of NATO's 32 member countries lead to substantial divisions on how to approach China. While NATO requires external threats to maintain internal unity as a military alliance, member states do not universally agree on whether China poses such a threat. Moreover, many countries maintain strong economic and trade ties with China, constraining NATO's focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

But NATO's expansion to Asia is also alarming. At a press conference on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian said that China's position on NATO is consistent. 

We firmly oppose NATO acting beyond its characterization as a regional defensive alliance, inserting itself into the Asia-Pacific to incite confrontation and rivalry, and disrupting the prosperity and stability in this region. We urge NATO to make real contribution to world peace, stability and security, Lin said. 

Da said that with NATO's increased involvement in the Asia-Pacific region and its heightened containment efforts against China, particularly concerning issues like the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits, China may face a deteriorating external environment.

Japan's efforts to introduce external influences into the Asia-Pacific have been criticized for increasing regional instability and introducing uncertainty. Their collaboration with NATO often prioritizes military aspects, thereby heightening the risk of arms races, Da said. 

Moreover, when countries in a region shift their focus away from multilateral cooperation, free trade and regional welfare and development, instead prioritizing military buildup and mutual deterrence, it ultimately harms the region itself, said the expert.