Nato flag. Photo: iStock
Nato flag. Photo: iStock

Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), outlined the alliance’s policy toward the Asia-Pacific region during a five-day trip to Japan and South Korea that concluded last Thursday.

The main task of Nato is the protection of allied territories. However, according to Stoltenberg, the “geography of danger has shifted.” Global security challenges, he said, require global solutions and a wider cooperation among partners.

Behind this assumption lies the idea that what happens in East and Southeast Asia may affect Nato’s security. In sum, Stoltenberg’s words leave open the possibility that the Euro-Atlantic bloc can intervene there. It remains to be seen in what way.

North Korea and maritime security

North Korea and maritime security in the China Seas fall within the category of global challenges in Nato’s calculus, meaning that the Atlantic alliance views itself as a legitimate stakeholder in both domains.

The North Korean nuclear crisis topped Stoltenberg’s agenda during his East Asian tour. He said Pyongyang must dismantle its nuke and missile programs. To reach this goal, all relevant actors should continue to exert pressure on the Hermit Kingdom through economic penalties and diplomatic and political actions, with diplomacy taking the back seat to the sanctions policy at the moment.

North Korea poses a danger to Nato’s natural partners in East Asia, but also to the alliance itself

North Korea poses a danger to Nato’s natural partners in East Asia, but also to the alliance itself. The United States, Canada and France, three Nato allies, are Pacific nations (Paris has overseas dependencies in the region), and there is a widespread belief that European soil is within reach of North Korean nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, or that Pyongyang will have the capability to strike the Old Continent soon.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is working to expand the cordon sanitaire around the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, emphasized this particular aspect in his talks with the Nato secretary general.

Cooperation on maritime security was another hot topic during Stoltenberg’s discussions with the Japanese premier. The Nato boss said there was a great potential to step up interoperability between the Atlantic alliance’s and Japan’s naval forces, which have already conducted joint operations to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa. Nato has also teamed up with South Korea to fight Somali pirates.

In their joint press statement, Stoltenberg and Abe voiced concern about territorial disputes in the China Seas. They expressed opposition to “unilateral coercive actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions” in the two bodies of water and called for maritime rows to be settled in accordance with the international law. They also reiterated support for freedom of navigation and overflight in the contested waters, reaffirming Nato’s and Japan’s commitment to preserving the rules-based world order.

Nato and Japan made no mention of China, but their words are an implicit attack on Beijing’s island-building in and militarization of the South China Sea, where it has overlapping claims with a number of neighbors, and unilateral declaration of an air-defense identification zone in the East China Sea, where it disputes Tokyo’s administration of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

Limited options, Article 5 apart

Japan and South Korea are Nato’s long-standing partners. The Atlantic alliance has agreed to develop new partnership programs with both countries. They will be centered on nuclear non-proliferation and fighting terrorist organizations, besides on countering the North Korean threat and reinforcing naval collaboration.

Cooperation on cyber defence and anti-missile technology will be increased as well. Nato is ready to share with Tokyo and Seoul its expertise in cyber warfare, which it has developed to respond to hybrid threats from Russia. Nato’s and Japan’s ballistic missile defenses have similar capabilities. Stoltenberg stressed that they were in talks to share experience and best practices. But he pointed out that Tokyo and the Atlantic alliance were not planning to link their defense shields.

Don’t expect Nato to deploy military hardware to pressure North Korea or exercise freedom of navigation and overfly in the China Seas. The Euro-Atlantic military grouping is engaged in Eastern Europe, “Syraq,” Afghanistan and the Arabian Sea. It does not have currently the means and resources to operate in the East Asian theater too. Furthermore, its presence on a geopolitical chessboard so far away from the allied territory could irritate already ill-disposed public opinion in Europe, and would be seen as a provocation by China (and Russia).

Nato is an asset in case of an act of aggression against the United States, however. Asked if an armed clash on the Korean Peninsula would trigger the Atlantic bloc’s Article 5 on collective defence, with the possibility that Nato  troops fight along with US and South Korean forces against Pyongyang, Stoltenberg cryptically answered that Washington was part of the alliance and that the only time Nato  had invoked this clause was after the 9/11 terror attacks on US soil.

This means that Nato ’s collective defense also covers the Pacific Rim. It would depend on a political decision on whether it should be activated in the event of a crisis there.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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