NATO engagement in East Asia, to counter China’s influence, is a misguided and potentially dangerous strategy for the alliance’s European members. It is bound to increase tensions between China and NATO and risks binding China and Russia closer together. A China containment strategy has no tangible benefits for European security and predominantly serves the interests of a United States that is desperately trying to maintain its global hegemony.
While NATO is not currently looking to recruit new members in East Asia, it is forging strategic partnerships with “like-minded” states in the region. Countries like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand are all in the process of transitioning from being NATO’s “global partners” to becoming members of a more tangible arrangement that NATO has labeled “Individually Tailored Partnership Programs.”
NATO’s strategic cooperation with Japan has increased in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the July 2023 NATO Leaders Summit in Lithuania, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg greeted Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, telling him that “no partner is closer than Japan.”
As a step toward more substantial security relations, NATO was planning to open a liaison office in Tokyo — the first of its kind in Asia. But these plans have been shelved due to apprehensions that they might fuel tensions between NATO and China. French President Emmanuel Macron warned that such a move would be a “big mistake.”
Officially, NATO’s outreach to East Asia aims at enhancing cooperation on issues such as “maritime security, new technologies, cyber, climate change, and resilience.” But in practice, the move is unmistakably an attempt to counter China, which NATO now openly regards as a “challenge [to] our interests, security and values.”’ In his meeting with Kishida, Stoltenberg noted his concern about “China’s heavy military build-up” and “the modernization and expansion of its nuclear forces.” This must have been music to Kishida’s ears, who has persistently strived to develop closer relations with NATO for precisely this reason.
But it is difficult to see how European security would benefit from an enlarged NATO military role in East Asia, which is certain to antagonize Beijing. Unsurprisingly, China has responded vociferously to NATO’s words and actions. China fears that the United States’ largely unconnected alliances in the region will take on a more integrated and anti-Chinese character under the NATO umbrella. NATO has countered that its military presence is benign and defensive in nature.
NATO’s allegedly defensive intentions are unlikely to reassure Beijing. Virtually all international relations experts agree that it is impossible to correctly decipher other states’ intentions. Without certainty of others’ intentions, states tend to raise their guard and take countermeasures. One does not have to be an international relations expert to predict that this could well happen in East Asia should NATO increase its military presence there.
NATO members often complain about Chinese attempts at changing the status quo, but they seem unable or unwilling to recognize that their own venture into East Asia constitutes a change of the status quo — something Beijing would feel compelled to respond to.
This dynamic of tit-for-tat escalation in the absence of certainty used to be common knowledge in the international relations community. It is often called the security dilemma. If Chinese leaders perceive NATO engagement with East Asian countries as increasing the threat to China, they might also take precautions by increasing armaments and alliance building. One counterproductive effect on European security, for example, would arise if China moved even closer to Russia.
But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, warnings about security dilemmas have often been dismissed as appeasement. If we accept the security dilemma logic, hawks contend, would we not also have to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s excuse that NATO enlargement forced him to invade Ukraine? The answer is no. It is of course true that Russia’s invasion is illegal and unjustified. But it is also true that Moscow perceived NATO enlargement as threatening, although each new NATO member had purely defensive reasons for joining the alliance. Until recently, the latter point was not seen as a crazy appeasement argument.
Wars stir emotions. The Ukraine war has made Europeans blind to the dangerous consequences of geographically expanded engagement. While NATO’s enlargement in Eastern Europe was tightly connected to European security, deepened engagement in East Asia has zero rhyme or reason. It will only serve to antagonize China. Despite China’s often problematic behavior, it does not pose a direct threat to Europe. In 2020, this was recognized even by the European Union foreign affairs chief. But such realism is hard to come by in post-invasion Europe. NATO’s East Asian ambitions unnecessarily risk turning China into an enemy of Europe.
When NATO strays so far “out of area” that it begins operating in East Asia, one has to question the benefits for European security. There seem to be few, if any. For the United States, NATO’s turn to East Asia is strategically significant. Washington is seeking to maintain US global hegemony by binding together its loose alliance networks into a firmer coalition capable of containing a rising China. It seems clear that NATO’s new East Asia policy is primarily directed from Washington.
But Europe does not have to play the United States’ power games. As French President Emmanuel Macron correctly stated earlier in 2023, getting involved in such games would be “a trap for Europe.”
This article was originally published on the East Asia Forum.