East is East and West is West: Contextualizing Japan-NATO Incremental Engagement

“No partner is closer and more capable than Japan,” gushed NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during his visit to Japan in early 2023. These words were welcomed in Japan, a country beset by multiple threats – from a potential war with China over Taiwan to an increasingly erratic, nuclear-armed North Korea. It is little surprise then that Japan suffers from a crisis of confidence. Not confidence in itself, per se: but confidence in its allies and friends. The question in the minds of Japan’s leaders, whether on the left or right is: Will its allies and friends do the “right” thing in a time of crisis? In Tokyo’s mind, the right thing is coming to the defense of Japan with the full strength and resources that its friends and allies possess.

A great deal has been written about why Japan acts the way it does in terms of its security and what is, at its heart, its lack of confidence in its closest and most powerful ally, the United States. Research on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, has demonstrated Japan’s founding role in this informal intergovernmental organization. At its heart, the Quad (for Japan) is about reworking its relationship with the U.S. As early as 2006, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his closest advisors understood two issues very well: First, China’s rise was anything but peaceful. Second, the U.S.-Japan relationship was asymmetric and inflexible. Japan was a rules-taker; the U.S. was the rules-maker.

Herein lies Japan’s conundrum. It must confront the rise of China, but to do so effectively it needs the U.S. The conclusions Shinzo Abe had drawn, and his resulting actions have had truly profound consequences for Asian security, deterrence, and gave rise to an Indo-Pacific “geography of strategies.”

More than Geography

During Abe’s first term in office, Tokyo saw that its chance to redraw its unequal partnership with the U.S. ran through New Delhi. India was willing to listen to Japan because of China’s attempts to not only revise the international rules-based order, but also pursue Chinese security via territorial acquisitions – not just in the Eastern Pacific, but in South Asia. Abe understood that by bringing India to discussion about Asian security with the U.S., Australia, and Japan, Tokyo would create four equal seats at a roundtable. His successors, including current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, continue to drive this constructive engagement. They understand that by spreading responsibility across the Indo-Pacific for Asian security, Japan now has the option of convening Quad meetings, planning agendas, and inviting the leaders of four very different countries with their unique capabilities and geographies together.

What do they talk about? China. Sure, it’s about pandemic relief and disaster management and secure supply chain initiatives, but the glue binding the group together is China. As a result, Japan sits in a much better position vis-à-vis the U.S. (and is much closer to both India and Australia) than it was in 2007. In addition, Japan can point with pride to encouraging India to join a club with Uncle Sam.

What does India have to do with NATO-Japan ties? Everything. First, India is the “Indo” in Indo-Pacific. It is impossible to have an Indo-Pacific concept or related conception of strategies without India. Second, however, is that India does not view the “free and open Indo-Pacific” in the same manner as Japan, the U.S., and Australia for complex reasons related to its geography, history, and culture that not necessarily need any clarification. Suffice to say that India sees inclusivity as a worthy guiding principle and, because of this, Europe comes as a natural partner. 

It is difficult to articulate the massive geopolitical effects of the Ukraine war. Coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, it has not only awakened a sleeping Europe to Russia’s threat, but that of China. NATO has found its footing again.

In addition, it would have been difficult to explain Japan’s extreme disappointment about India and the Ukraine war. The fact that India again abstained from a February 2023 UNGA vote about a Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory only added insult to injury. But to see India’s actions as entirely negative would be disingenuous for Japan. For the war in Ukraine has clarified the Quad’s operational scope. India’s partnership with Russia and refusal to condemn Moscow’s territorial aggression are at odds with the Quad’s emphasis on universal norms. However, India’s actions by no means fatally undermine the Quad. Instead, New Delhi led the charge, perhaps inadvertently, to ensure that the four-member grouping remains focused on – and a tool to deal with – primarily China, not Russia.

For these reasons, and the inherent limitations of the informal Quad, it has been argued that the U.S., Japan, and Australia, must explore other architecture to address warfare scenarios in East Asia, in which Russia siding with China and India maintaining a neutral stance is plausible. With what we term as “Quad Minus” situation in mind, the U.S.-Japan Alliance, the nascent Australia-UK-U.S. (AUKUS) alliance, the Group of Seven (G7), and other relevant partnerships must be considered so as to effectively counter Chinese attacks if and when they come. And this is where Japan-NATO relations come into focus.

At the heart of the issue is whether the security of the North Atlantic and Asia are “inseparable,” as Kishida noted. While the security of the North Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific are linked in several ways, it would be highly inaccurate to say that they are inseparable. There certainly are some shared security challenges and interests, but each region has its own distinct geopolitical dynamics, economic relationships, and strategic priorities.

In the North Atlantic, for example, the primary security concerns revolve around NATO’s defense against potential Russian aggression. In contrast, the Indo-Pacific faces a range of complex security challenges, including territorial disputes, nuclear proliferation, and the rise of China’s military power. In a nutshell, so far, NATO is all about keeping the Russians out and the Americans in. The Indo-Pacific – especially for its architects, the Japanese – is about keeping the Chinese out and the Americans and, to a lesser extent, the Indians in. But NATO is not an answer to Indian intransigence, nor can it take the place of security architecture and minilaterals already in the Pacific. Japan should consider Japan + AUKUS = JAUKUS long before it bets on NATO. 

Finding Common Ground

Instead, Japan’s cooperation with NATO should be driven by a combination of security concerns, shared values, strategic partnerships, and diplomatic engagement. The military component, the sharpest tip of the spear, is secondary because NATO cannot possibly operate at even close to the same level in the Indo-Pacific as it does on its home turf. And to be fair, there are few in NATO or Japan who are advocating this.

In addition, formal engagement with NATO could potentially strengthen Tokyo’s relationship with the EU since both NATO and the EU have a number of overlapping strategic interests. This could take the form of enhanced political dialogue between Japan and various EU member-states, better economic relations, and (most importantly) strategic influence for Japan in Europe. In essence, it could reinforce the perception in Europe that Japan is a de facto NATO member and a priority partner for the EU separated only by geography.

What is needed (and is in the offing) from Europe is political opprobrium and signaling to China against any aggressive acts. This is the most we can meaningfully hope for. NATO is, after all, composed mostly of European states that have differing views on the Indo-Pacific. They even have different views on Russia in Ukraine. As such, the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and NATO’s increasing alignment with Japan (and South Korea), and Europe’s increasingly hardline stance on China are welcomed developments indeed. Japan-NATO relations involve taking strong stands on security issues after carefully sharing the two region’s unique perspectives and then finding commonalities.