CSDS POLICY BRIEF • 26/2023
By Eva Pejsova
- The upgrade in NATO-Japan relations reflects a greater strategic alignment post-Ukraine, as well as Japan’s own shifting security posture.
- For Japan, NATO provides a platform to boost its international profile, all while shaping the Allies’ perceptions.
- The perception of NATO branching out to the Indo-Pacific may present Beijing with a security dilemma that risks exacerbating regional tensions.
- Effective communication on the content, objectives and limits of the NATO-Japan partnership – internally and externally – is essential if its full potential is to be achieved.
- Japan’s interest in NATO may help to boost security cooperation with the EU. Coordination between the EU and NATO should be part of both organisations’ Indo-Pacific outlooks.
Speaking at the NATO Summit in Vilnius in July 2023, the NATO Secretary General stated that Japan stands out as one of the oldest and most important “out-of-theatre” partners of the Alliance. Often referred to as ‘natural partners’, NATO and Japan share a long history of practical cooperation. Japan has participated in the reconstruction of the Balkans, the stabilisation process in Afghanistan and Iraq and the anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia. Japan has been part of NATO’s Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme (IPCP) since 2014, contributing to its work on cybersecurity, arms control and non-proliferation, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, maritime security and counterterrorism. So why and how are recent declarations of partnership different? While not so much has changed in terms of content, it is the form, the geopolitical context, as well as Japan’s own shifting security posture, that makes the partnership ever so meaningful. This Policy Brief looks at some of the most common perceptions – and misperceptions – about Tokyo’s evolving relationship with the Alliance.
To be sure, the current upgrade mostly translates the already effective cooperation into a more institutionalised and political relationship. The Individual Tailored Partnership Programme (ITPP), agreed at the Vilnius Summit, builds on the pre-existing efforts and expands cooperation to emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs), cyber defence, strategic communications, space security and climate security. In practical terms, it basically aims at exchanging experience, best-practices and information, as well as encouraging participation in research projects and exercises. Politically, Japan’s regular participation in NATO Summits and meetings since 2014 has allowed for deeper communication and coordination on mutual threats and contingencies. As of 2018, Japan decided to establish a permanent Mission to NATO in Brussels and it assigned a liaison officer to NATO’s Maritime Command in Northwood, United Kingdom (UK), marking the growing political commitment and significance of the partnership.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has been a major catalyst. First, it marked a shift from Japan’s policy of engagement with Moscow, championed during the Abe era, that aimed to find a settlement for the territorial dispute over the Northern Territories/Southern Kuriles and manage Russia’s relationship with China. Post-February 2022, Japan imposed sanctions on Moscow and provided generous assistance to Kyiv, aligning itself closely with the transatlantic camp in the process. For Japan, one of the key lessons from the war in Ukraine is that NATO deterrence works. Second, the alignment between Russia and China, with their “no limits friendship”, has reinforced the notion of interconnectedness between the Indo-Pacific and the Euro-Atlantic strategic theatres. The idea that ‘whatever happens in one region affects the other’ has become mainstream, and is repeatedly reiterated by leaders from NATO, the United States (US), Europe, Japan and South Korea alike. The need to join forces to uphold the rule-based international order is logical in this context, with NATO being perceived as the most efficient protector of such an order.
Finally, the current rapprochement reflects Japan’s own evolving foreign and security policy. Since Abe’s security reforms in 2013, and even more so since its 2022 National Security Strategy, Japan has embarked on an ambitious security build-up of its security posture, with a three-fold approach to a) boosting its defence capabilities; b) strengthening its alliance with the US; and c) diversifying its partnerships – both bilaterally and through various multilateral and minilateral settings. In that sense, its relationship with NATO complements its bilateral Alliance with the US, all the while running in a parallel, multilateral track.
It’s (not) all about China
The “China challenge” is often understood to be the main factor behind NATO’s interest in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, the NATO 2022 Strategic Concept explicitly mentions China’s ‘ambitions and coercive policies’ as a challenge to the Alliance’s security, interests and values. The Concept goes on to remark that this can be seen in terms of China’s expanding global influence, which can have direct implications for Euro-Atlantic security, especially as it undermines the US’ position in the region and therefore indirectly impacts the operational capacity of the Alliance as a whole. In this respect, it is in NATO’s interest to expand its network in the region, for which cooperation with East Asian partners is essential. However, while Japan is certainly most concerned by Beijing’s military build-up, it would be misleading to reduce the current NATO-Japan rapprochement as only a response to China.
First, China is not a new security threat to Japan. Historically, China has evolved as a civilisational inspiration, a wartime enemy, an assistance recipient, an economic competitor and a security challenge. If today the communist regime poses an immediate threat to Japan’s sovereignty, especially in the case of the unresolved territorial dispute in the East China Sea, it is also its largest trading and investment partner. Above all, it is a neighbour that Japan needs to live with, which makes its life as the closet US ally amidst the ongoing US-China rivalry extremely difficult.
Second, China is not the only security threat Japan faces. North Korea’s missile testing has intensified since 2022, with the development of a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programme, which has resulted in several tests landing in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. NATO’s tightening ranks with Japan and South Korea, as well as the expanding trilateral cooperation between Tokyo, Washington and Seoul, has reinforced the perception of containment that Pyongyang has been harbouring, making it thereby more aligned with Russia and China. The formation of such a bloc only adds to the already hostile environment that Japan has been operating in.
Finally, Japan and other East Asian partners are well aware that NATO is not relevant in the context of possible military action by China in the region. Its collective self-defence mechanism, Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, is strictly limited to its members and, even more so, only to the Northern Atlantic. Any escalation of tensions, be it in the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, or the South China Sea, can only be dealt with by strengthening regional defence capabilities, and through its bilateral alliance with Washington. That said, many regional countries tacitly welcome NATO’s interest in the region as a psychological deterrent. Taiwan has voiced support for the engagement as a tool to respond to China’s assertiveness and military build-up. Similar reactions can be observed from across south-east Asia, including in the Philippines and Singapore, who share concerns about Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.
For Japan, strengthening ties with NATO mostly contributes to improving its own defence technological capabilities and enhancing interoperability with other like-minded partners. If NATO wants to maintain its relevance and operational advantage, it needs to keep ahead with the latest technological developments across the spectrum of military activities, including EDTs like AI and quantum computing – areas in which Japan and South Korea are well advanced. Participation in initiatives such as NATO’s Innovation Fund (NIF) and the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) could be useful platforms for that. Diplomatically, NATO also provides a useful multilateral platform to advance Tokyo’s “proactive contribution to peace” agenda. It is in coordination with NATO that Japanese Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) aircraft provided disaster relief during the March 2023 earthquake in Turkey, significantly boosting its public diplomacy and international profile. Interactions within the NATO framework finally help Japan to influence the perceptions of other US allies and shape the debate from within.
‘Spreading its tentacles’
Speculation about the nature of the Alliance’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific reached a peak with the January 2023 announcement of the intention to establish a NATO Liaison Office in Tokyo. The idea to set up a regional office in either Japan or Australia, with the aim of ensuring better and more direct communication with all the “AP4” (Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea) countries, has been discussed informally within the North Atlantic Council for a long time. The public disclosure of the information has triggered a lively debate both within and outside the organisation and a dangerous spiral of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
The NATO Secretary General’s visit alone, taking place as it did against the backdrop of war in Europe, certainly demonstrated the importance of Asian partners to the Alliance. However, it fuelled China’s anti-NATO narrative, according to which US-led military blocs aim to ‘hold countries in the region hostage’ through a confrontational dynamic. In a communiqué issued in the aftermath of the Vilnius Summit, China accused NATO of spreading chaos and warned of a ‘resolute response’ to any action threatening Beijing’s ‘legitimate rights and interests’ in the region. While one could dismiss such comments as anti-NATO propaganda, there is a real risk that a self-fulfilling prophecy could come true, especially given the high tensions and military activity in the Taiwan Strait. In a classical example of a security dilemma, China may perceive NATO’s attempt to include the Indo-Pacific into its strategic perimeter, regardless of its actual scope, as an attempt to change the status quo, and therefore something the communist regime may be tempted to react to.
Within the Alliance, France stood up strongly against the plan, arguing that the organisation should focus on its original geographical mandate. The opposition to the NATO regional office idea came after the visit of President Macron to China in April 2023, which also led to the controversial comments on Europe needing to stay away from the US-China rivalry and not letting itself being dragged into a potential Taiwan crisis. Rather than being influenced by China, France’s overall position on NATO’s focus is not new, and in this case more driven by a frustration that the information has leaked without any official prior agreement. That said, while France was the most vocal opponent, other NATO members are not necessarily thrilled by the organisation’s focus on Asia, with Turkey at the forefront.
Finally, there is no unanimous domestic support in Japan for a more confrontational approach. Although 54% of the Japanese population supports a ‘more proactive role in the US-Japan security alliance’, the debate on NATO in the Diet is ongoing. The Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), Japan’s largest opposition party, remains concerned that closer cooperation with NATO may exacerbate regional tensions. While supporting Japan’s defence build-up and cooperation with partners, the CDP leadership has warned against the overt targeting of specific countries in the region following the Secretary General’s January visit. Unsurprisingly, Japan’s Communist Party is also opposed to closer cooperation with the Alliance, stating that a connection of the US-Japan alliance to NATO may escalate global military rivalry. Proper communication is therefore essential for Japan to get the public support needed to uphold its engagement and implement necessary domestic reforms.
A bridge to Europe?
One potential winner of the Japan-NATO rapprochement could be the further strengthening of European Union (EU)-Japan security ties. Since the entry into force of the EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) in 2019, Tokyo and Brussels have stepped up cooperation in many functional areas, especially economic security, sustainable connectivity and the digital and green transitions. However, cooperation on more traditional security and defence issues still needs to be developed, notably in the field of defence technology transfers.
Traditionally at the periphery of Japan’s strategic thinking, the idea that Europe is a serious security partner has become widely accepted over the past five years, largely due to the legacy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The publication of the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2021 and the unprecedented level of interest, as well as the naval deployments of several EU Member States, such as France, Germany and the Netherlands in 2021, followed by Italy in 2023, have convinced Tokyo of Europe’s sustained commitment to regional affairs. The war in Ukraine finally demonstrated the EU’s resolve and capacity to act, which has changed the perception of its Far Eastern partners, making it a trust-worthy and useful security partner.
Strengthening defence industrial cooperation could be the next step for EU-Japan relations. Japan’s emerging defence industry still struggles to convince international partners, especially outside the US. An exception has been the “Global Combat Air Programme” (GCAP) led by Japan (Mitsubishi), the UK (BAE Systems) and Italy (Leonardo), agreed in December 2022, which aims to develop a new generation stealth fighter jet that should replace the Japan Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF) fleet by 2035. Japan has also bilateral agreements on the transfer of defence technology and equipment with France, Germany and Italy, which can be built upon. Joining forces on defence research and development, AI and Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) technologies makes much common sense.
NATO’s outreach to the Indo-Pacific partners is still a controversial topic in Europe, mostly due to the prominent role of the US within the Alliance and the lack of communication about the actual nature of the engagement. While most European NATO members agree with the overall rationale of the need to increase cooperation with regional partners, some warn it will draw China and Russia even closer together and undermine European interests at the expense of the US’ strategic ambitions. On the other hand, the desire to enhance EU security cooperation with Japan is unanimous. In that context, a pending question that needs to be addressed is the format. Overlapping membership, areas of competence and cooperation in both the EU and NATO creates confusion for Indo-Pacific partners, as well as for the members themselves. Effective coordination between both organisations and their member states is essential to maintain the good course of Europe’s engagement with Japan and avoid getting lost in communication.