Impact of NATO’s New Strategic Concept on the Indo-Pacific

It took barely a decade to turn the NATO security assessment on its head.

The NATO strategic concept, a binding document that lays down the very reason for its existence, predicts the future course of action for the world’s oldest and longest military alliance. In the third edition of the NATO Strategic Concept adopted in Lisbon in 2010, NATO had little to justify as a threat and Afghanistan figured more conspicuously. The document stated that “NATO poses no threat to Russia. On the contrary: we want to see a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia, and we will act accordingly, with the expectation of reciprocity from Russia.” Of China, there isn’t a word. And to emphasize the relationship between NATO and Putin’s Russia, the document went a step ahead stating, “… we remain convinced that the security of NATO and Russia is intertwined and that a strong and constructive partnership based on mutual confidence, transparency and predictability can best serve our security”.

Fast forward to the Madrid NATO conference where the NATO 2022 Strategic Concept document was unveiled on June 29. Russia is now described as the “most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” The document goes on to emphasize that “…Its coercive military posture, rhetoric and proven willingness to use force to pursue its political goals undermine the rules-based international order.” For the first time China too appears to be a threat albeit lower in the priority after terrorism imported from Middle East and North Africa (MENA) into Southern Europe. On China, NATO identifies “the PRC’s malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation target Allies and harm Alliance security” and para 13 states that “We will work together responsibly, as Allies, to address the systemic challenges posed by the PRC to Euro-Atlantic security and ensure NATO’s enduring ability to guarantee the defence and security of Allies.”

Situation in Europe

For one, there is a clear acceptance that the world no longer sees Trans-Atlantic Europe as the center of gravity of the world order. It has since moved to the Indo-Pacific. An emboldened Russia and her utter disregard for NATO response to occupation in South Ossetia, Georgia and Ukraine in the past decade are a testimony to the depths to which NATO has failed as an alliance in deterring Putin.

Two, declining US power has blunted NATO’s teeth. The Trump administration refused to pick up the tab of Europe’s security, plunging Trans- Atlantic relations to the very nadir of its 75-year existence. A direct fall-out was the abysmal response by NATO to the Russian offensive into Ukraine in February 2022, leaving a hapless Zelensky to literally fend for himself in the early days of the Russian onslaught. Speaking at the RUSI Land Warfare Conference 2022, the Chief of the General Staff General of the UK, Sir Patrick Sanders underscored the extent to which US military power is stretched across the globe:

“Given the commitments of the US in Asia during the 20s and 30s, I believe that the burden for conventional deterrence in Europe will fall increasingly to European members of NATO and the JEF. This is right in my view: taking up the burden in Europe means we can free more US resources to ensure that our values and interests are protected in the Indo-Pacific.”

Clearly, there is a grudging acceptance of the limits of US power and a realization that global attention and center of gravity has moved to the Indo-Pacific.

Three, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has made inroads into Europe successfully driving a wedge between the ‘haves’ in Western Europe and the ‘have-nots’ in Eastern Europe, dividing the continent into two distinct economic blocs. As nation after nation falls into China’s debt trap diplomacy, Montenegro, Greece, Albania to name a few, European unity is in disarray. NATO Secretary General made it clear during the Madrid Summit that “China is not our adversary but we must be clear about the serious challenges it represents”, a view that clearly drew a distinction between Russia and China as threats to NATO. NATO still views China as a distant threat and continues to deal with China cautiously despite Beijing’s utter disregard for the existing international world order, violation of lawful treaties, human rights violations in Xinjiang and aggressive military actions in the South China Sea and along the Line of Actual Control with India.

Four, NATO nations are scurrying to seek security guarantees ever since Putin entered Ukraine. There is a firmer resolve to pay their ‘dues’ for collective security, Finland and Sweden have shed their historic neutrality to join NATO, Germany has announced an unprecedented $100 billion increase in its defense budget after decades of reduced spending, Denmark has initiated legislation to remove an opt-out to EU defense policies while Moldova and Ukraine have become official candidates to join the EU. To recall the words of the CGS of the British Army who said recently:

“While Russia’s conventional capability will be much reduced – for a time, at least – Putin’s declared intent recently to restore the lands of ‘historic Russia’ makes any respite temporary and the threat will become even more acute. We don’t yet know how the war in Ukraine will end, but in most scenarios, Russia will be an even greater threat to European security after Ukraine than it was before.”

Impact on the Indo-Pacific?

To be fair to NATO, the 2022 document does realize the importance of the Indo-Pacific, given that developments in that region can directly affect the Euro-Atlantic security. Para 45 encourages the need to “… strengthen dialogue and cooperation with new and existing partners in the Indo-Pacific to tackle cross-regional challenges and shared security interests.” But, geographic dislocation seems to make NATO wary of concerns in the region, playing second fiddle to the US in conduct of FONOPs in the South China Sea or participation in naval exercises in the IOR.

It is China that stands to benefit from the NATO’s resurgence in the Indo-Pacific.

Firstly, it decouples NATO from the US leaving the latter to seek a completely new set of allies to impose its power and authority in the Indo-Pacific. Thus, alliances with South Korea, Japan and Taiwan as well as support from Australia and the Philippines are crucial for the US. With focus shifting to Russia and Russian expansion in Europe, US military power will be spread thin, calling for a more militaristic and aggressive role in the Indo-Pacific from its traditional allies.

Secondly, the US Indo-Pacific strategy released in February 2022 makes a few clear policy guidelines. Among others, it lays down that the US will attempt at:

  • Deepening five regional treaty alliances with Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), the Philippines, and Thailand
  • Strengthening relationships with leading regional partners, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Pacific Islands
  • Contributing to an empowered and unified ASEAN
  • Strengthening the Quad and delivering on its commitments

Clearly, the US intends to build military capacities and strengthen her allies in the Indo-Pacific to offset its ‘binary split’. This would willy-nilly push for securitization of regional partnerships in an attempt to stand up to Chinese assertion, coercion and aggression in the region.

Thirdly, insecurities are bound to rise in the Indo-Pacific as diminishing US power no longer guarantees the security of Japan or the Korean Peninsula. Incessant threats from a hostile Chinese proxy, North Korea, or even an aggressive Chinese presence in the East China Sea and around Taiwan has hastened militarization of the region. In the Korean peninsula, the US recently lifted the missile guidelines restrictions imposed on South Korea in 1979, paving the way for South Korea to make its own class of ballistic missiles to defend itself from North Korea. “We have long secured enough technologies and know-how to develop longer-range missiles but were not able to make them due to the missile guidelines,” said Nam Se-gyu, a former head of the South Korean government’s Agency for Defense Development. South Korea has also recently test fired a SLBM, suggesting it also possesses a credible second-strike capability. Taiwan has received a huge consignment of US weaponry to upgrade its defense forces against any Chinese misadventure across the Straits, much to the annoyance of China. The Philippines has signed up for Brahmos missiles systems from India to protect itself from a hostile PLAN in the vicinity of the West Philippines Sea.

Fourthly, nations like India, which are pivotal to the success of US strategy in the Indo-Pacific are increasingly likely to be pressurized to give up its policy of “strategic neutrality”. The US strategy is implicit in its mention of the need for “… Supporting India’s continued rise and regional leadership” as one of its essential policy guidelines. India has successfully and deftly balanced its relations with Russia and the US even as it faces a belligerent Chinese army on its borders. India has also successfully engaged China in various multi-lateral forums like BRICS, SCO, AIIB without compromising its position on the border dispute even as the uneasy standoff between the two largest nuclear-powered militaries enters its third year. A weakened Russia, a hesitant US and an aggressive and emboldened China will call upon India to make choices.