Does NATO have a role in the Indo-Pacific region?

‘China’s growing influence and international policies’ present ‘challenges for the alliance’

As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO marks its 75th birthday, the alliance is beginning to explore a larger role in the Indo-Pacific. But members are divided on whether, or to what extent, it should do so.

For some, with the war raging in Europe, NATO’s only concerns should be supporting Ukraine and deterring Russia from attacking alliance members. Yet others believe it has a role in bolstering deterrence in the Indo-Pacific and preventing Chinese adventurism in the region. 

The path the alliance chooses could have significant geopolitical consequences.

The China challenge

China used to be largely absent from NATO’s list of major geopolitical concerns. But in recent years the alliance has signaled its growing worry with Beijing’s strategic direction and assertiveness. 

In 2019, NATO mentioned China in an official statement for the first time, noting in its London Declaration:

China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges [for the alliance]. 

References to China have since become sharper, with the 2021 Brussels Summit Communiqué stating:

[Beijing’s] ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.

China’s support for Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in 2022 further increased concerns within NATO. At the Madrid Summit later that year, it adopted a new Strategic Concept, its first in over a decade. It said:

[China’s] ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security, and values.

Strategic partnership

NATO called out the “deepening strategic partnership” between Beijing and Russia and their collective attempts to “undercut the rules-based international order.” 

In addition, it invited leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea, which was informally known as the Asia-Pacific Four or AP4, to join the summit, marking the first time all four leaders did so.

Last year’s Vilnius Summit Communiqué further detailed the alliance’s major concerns with China, including its cyber and disinformation operations, attempts to control important industrial sectors, and its growing alignment with Russia. 

Again, AP4 leaders attended the summit. NATO also announced a new partnership program with Japan.

China’s military drills have ramped up the pressure on Taiwan. Photo: PLA

The Taiwan contingency

Concerns that China will use force against Taiwan are also driving NATO’s new focus on the Indo-Pacific region. 

A major war that draws in the United States would not only force Washington to make difficult trade-offs that would compel its NATO allies to shoulder more of the burden in deterring Russia but would also disrupt or sever supply chains across the continent.

It would also shave up to $10 trillion off global GDP.

NATO has begun to express its stake in peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and to make the case that what happens in the Indo-Pacific will have enormous ramifications for the future of Europe, and vice versa. 

High costs

Its hope is that further internationalizing the Taiwan issue will help deter China by signaling the high costs of aggression. 

When NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg visited Tokyo in 2023, his joint statement with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio asserted that “the security of the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific is closely connected.” 

The statement further stressed:

The importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait [is] an indispensable element in security and prosperity in the international community.

A few months later, Stoltenberg separately noted that “the status quo in and around Taiwan should not be changed by force.”

NATO members are still divided on China. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

NATO divisions

While communiqués from NATO now explicitly discuss China, its members are divided on whether Beijing poses a threat to European security and, if so, how best to address it. 

On one end of the spectrum, Lithuania has been the target of severe Chinese economic coercion since it allowed Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius in 2021 and has called for a tougher approach toward Beijing. 

At the other end, Hungary continues to pursue closer relations with China, to now include law enforcement and security cooperation, as well as deeper trade and investment ties. 

Germany, while officially viewing China as a “partner, competitor, and systemic rival,” also continues to pursue closer economic ties with Beijing, which remains its top trading partner. 

France, for its part, has made clear its view that NATO should remain more narrowly focused on Europe and thus strongly opposed the opening of a NATO liaison office in Tokyo.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed everything. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A more deliberate approach

Amid Russia’s war against Ukraine and the ongoing threat Moscow poses to NATO, it would be a mistake for the alliance to spread its military power even thinner by pursuing deployments and activities in the Indo-Pacific.

Instead, a more constructive task would be to begin to reckon with the potential that a conflict in the Indo-Pacific could force Washington to shift military assets from Europe to the Pacific.

This would push European members to shoulder the burden of deterrence and defense. 

As a practical matter, this would entail NATO urgently boosting defense spending, rebuilding their defense industrial bases, and conducting operational planning for contingencies that could occur while the United States is engaged in a conflict in the Indo-Pacific.

That being said, there remain multiple ways NATO can partner with countries in the Indo-Pacific to bolster security that does not distract from its core mission of maintaining European security. 

NATO members and Indo-Pacific partners, having been the target of Russian and Chinese cyber and disinformation operations, can share best practices and lessons learned. 

Fanning flames

Countries in the bloc and the Indo-Pacific that have been victims of Chinese economic coercion can also share ideas on how to combat such activities. There is also the potential for more defense industrial cooperation between NATO and countries in the Indo-Pacific.

While pursuing such cooperation, it should be cognizant that Beijing will use deepening linkages between NATO and the Indo-Pacific to promote its narrative that the alliance is fomenting conflict in the region. 

In April, China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency published an article that argued NATO was “fanning flames beyond its scope” and “where NATO goes, war is most likely.” 

This followed official Chinese statements in recent years that have sought to link a greater NATO presence in the region with the growing likelihood of confrontation and conflict.

To counter such a narrative, NATO should make clear that although it is open to increasing cooperation with partners in the Indo-Pacific, it will not expand the alliance to include countries in the region formally. 

Meanwhile, its secretary-general should regularly meet with senior Chinese foreign policy officials and explain NATO’s concerns with Chinese behavior and the alliance’s activities in the Indo-Pacific.

David Sacks is a fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). His work focuses on US-China relations, US-Taiwan relations, Chinese foreign policy, and cross-Strait relations. Read his full bio here.

This article was first published on May 30 by the Council on Foreign Relations under a Creative Commons licenseRead the original here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.