SEOUL – The West’s eastward shift – or pivot or tilt, depending on which capital you are sitting in – is accelerating.

On Wednesday, Japan revealed that the 11 members of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, a regional free-trade grouping, would start negotiations on the entry of the United Kingdom.

That announcement came only hours after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking on Tuesday, urged NATO to take a more robust eastward-looking stance toward China.

These developments come against the backdrop of a multiplicity of dynamics that are driving increasing Western engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

Washington has been responding to the ongoing rise of China as a dual economic and military challenge to its hegemonic status.

Western European nations and NATO members are being rallied by their US ally, while also acknowledging East Asia’s role as the world’s fastest-growing region in the post-Covid-19 era.

Though the Joe Biden administration may have been distracted by events in the Middle East (Israel/Gaza), Central Asia (Afghanistan) and on Russia’s periphery (Ukraine and Belarus), its early foreign policy focus is clearly on the Indo-Pacific.

The first overseas trip by its leading security and defense officials was to Tokyo and Seoul, and the first two foreign leaders greeted by Biden were from those two countries. And it is not only the Americans who are focused on the Indo-Pacific.  

France, the Netherlands and the UK are now deploying forces to or in the region. And “Global Britain” – a term promoted by the Boris Johnson administration – will wake up to good news on Wednesday morning.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson stalks the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth just prior to her slipping anchor and heading for her first operational deployment in the Indo-Pacific. Photo: AFP

Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japan’s Economic Revitalization Minister who is also in charge of TPP negotiations, told the media on Wednesday morning that a decision had been taken at a virtual meeting of the 11 CPTPP members to start talks on London’s entry to the pact, Kyodo News reported.

Having painfully leveraged itself out of the world’s largest free-trade zone, the EU, post-Brexit UK is aggressively seeking new trade partnerships. In the region, London has signed a flurry of free trade agreements, or FTAs, with Hanoi, Seoul, Singapore and Tokyo, and seeks further trade pacts with Canberra and New Delhi.

Despite being an Atlantic power, London made a formal request in February to join the CPTPP, also known as the TPP-11. According to the British government, membership would mean “greater inward investment and strengthening the UK’s ties with the Indo-Pacific region and the Americas.”

London, which has enjoyed strong support from Tokyo and Auckland in its bid, specifically noted the excellence of the CPTPP’s membership conditions in terms of digital trade and services.

The CPTPP’s member nations are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Seven of these nations have so far ratified the agreement, which covers about 13% of global trade by volume.

China, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand have also expressed varying degrees of interest. The larger question is whether the United States – which then-US president Donald Trump, a bilateralist rather than a multilateralist, pulled out of the TPP in 2016 in one of his first acts in office – will seek to rejoin.

After the US exit, the de facto leadership of the CPTPP passed to Tokyo, its largest member economy.

Representatives from the 11-nation Pacific trade pact the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership meet in Santiago on March 8, 2018. Photo: AFP/Claudio Reyes
Representatives from the 11-nation CPTPP meet in Santiago on March 8, 2018. China, the biggest member of RCEP, has also expressed interest in joining. Photo: AFP / Claudio Reyes

Though the previous long-running Shinzo Abe administration in Tokyo was lambasted by neighboring South Korea for being nationalistic, in wider policy terms its posture was internationalist.

Tokyo won bids to host the Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics, while welcoming increasing numbers of tourists and immigrants. It promoted global trade pacts that leveraged open the Japanese economy.

And it upgraded the expeditionary assets of its Self Defense Force and deployed naval units farther afield – to the Gulf, the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

While the multilateralist Abe spoke out strongly against Brexit, Japan is expected to offer the warmest regional welcome to the UK carrier strike group, and has long been receptive to the UK joining the CPTPP.

Trade experts say that the CPTPP, unlike the vaguer, Beijing-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), is a “gold standard” agreement with more stringent and transparent conditions set for entry.

Still, the UK’s entry is unlikely to be approved for at least two years – and, indeed, it is far from a done deal, given that all member states have vetoes.

“It is going to be an uphill battle,” said Tosh Minohara, chairman of the Research Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs.

And China?

“Everyone says the door to China is open, but that is a door China cannot pass through because of state-owned enterprises and whatnot,” Minohara said. “It cannot meet the requirements.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels on June 1, 2021. Photo: AFP / Johana Geron

Separately, on Tuesday US top envoy Blinken joined a virtual NATO Foreign Ministerial meeting hosted by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg ahead of the upcoming NATO summit set for Brussels on June 14.

According to the US State Department, Blinken expressed “… support for Secretary-General Stoltenberg’s efforts to adapt the alliance through the ‘NATO 2030’ initiative, making it more resilient and capable of confronting systemic challenges from Russia and the People’s Republic of China.”

While NATO has long been postured against the Russian Federation and its predecessor USSR, it has customarily not been an Indo-Pacific force.

That posture seems to be shifting – particularly given that the US has been unable to bring its ever-squabbling Japanese and South Korean allies into a trilateral alliance in Northeast Asia, while its wider regional alliance, the still-nascent Quad, lacks a formal architecture.

Blinken reinforced his message as he “encouraged NATO to deepen its cooperation with Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea.” That is the American thinking. A broader NATO is more conflicted.

Stoltenberg, speaking at a press conference at NATO headquarters on May 31, admitted there was “convergence, opposition and understanding among Allies… of the challenges posed by the rise of China.”

Even so, Stoltenberg spoke strongly on China in his longest remarks of the press conference. 

China’s rise “poses serious challenges,” he said, noting that it “will soon have the largest economy” and already has the “second-largest defense budget” and “largest navy” in the world. He also noted that Beijing’s investments in future-based defense systems are extensive and ongoing.

“China is not sharing our values,” he continued. “They don’t believe in democracy. They don’t believe in the freedom of speech and the freedom of media.”

He also mentioned China’s repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and threats toward Taiwan.

Citing its advances in the Arctic, Africa and cyberspace, Stoltenberg said: “China is also coming to us.” He raised the issue of the security of 5G mobile telecoms networks and welcomed NATO’s “common understanding of the importance of … protecting our critical infrastructure and the challenges posed by the rise of China.”

Predicting a joint communique on China as one likely outcome of the upcoming summit, the NATO leader said that the “NATO 2030 Agenda” is likely to encompass a “higher degree of common understanding of the convergence of positions when it comes to the challenges posed by China.”

The Brussels summit will come at a time of growing outreach to the region by NATO powers beyond solely the United States, which has long maintained major footprints in both the North Atlantic and Western Pacific.

A French Rafale fighter jet is catapulted from the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which visited the region in 2019. Photo: AFP / Mario Goldman

Asia Times has learned that a French electronic intelligence-gathering ship is now docked in Busan, South Korea. That follows a Northeast Asia visit to the region by French naval and ground units last month.

In Kyushu, Japan, French troops conducted exercises with Japanese and US Marines and took part in naval drills with those two allies plus Australia.

Paris has also been upgrading defense cooperation with Canberra and selling it submarines while embedding French liaisons with Australian units.

Paris, which oversees 2 million French citizens in the region, published its Indo-Pacific strategy review in 2019, the same year its Charles de Gaulle carrier strike group visited the region.

Now, however, regional focus is on the UK.

Amid a storm of publicity and visits by both Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a British carrier strike group – the largest UK naval force to set sail in “a generation” – departed its home base and is headed for the region on its first operational deployment.

Its final destination, in September, is Japan.

The UK commands and provides the bulk of the flotilla, but US Marine aircraft are on the British carrier’s deck and US and Dutch vessels are in the escort group, suggesting an emerging multilateral Western presence in Indo-Pacific waters.

While the UK has backed out of the EU, it jointly published with France and Germany a “Note Verbale” at the United Nations last September in which the three European powers stated their support for unrestricted freedom of navigation in East Asia waters.

That note was a rejoinder to multiple communiques released by Beijing outlining its claims in the South China Sea. Germany will be sending a frigate to the region this November and December.

Noting that the British carrier strike group’s commander has called his command a “NATO-enabled” capability and that Stoltenberg has visited the carrier, NATO may be “viewing this as a sort of test case for power projection in Indo-Pacific.” said Alex Neill, a Singapore-based security consultant.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sits in the captain’s chair on the bridge of HMS Queen Elizabeth in Portsmouth, UK, prior to its departure for Asia. Photo: AFP / Leon Neal / Pool

He suspected that it hails from an era of increased joint inter-operability, with British, French, US and Japanese carriers – which are being converted into F-35 fighter jet platforms – conducting joint regional cruises.

Overall, Neil sees a shift, not only in NATO, but also in the EU, in terms of its posture toward China.

“I think this may be reflective of a shift in Europe toward an admission that the relationship with China is about competition now,” he told Asia Times. “Germany may have lingering reservations, but the EU has said that its rivalry with China has become systemic.”