Why NATO's tentative pivot to the Asia-Pacific may be a hard sell

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is reaching out to prospective security partners in the Asia-Pacific as it turns its attention to China. But some NATO members want the focus to remain where it has always been — on Russia.

Allies want the focus to stay on Russia — and NATO's prospective 'partners' in the region don't all get along

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a bilateral on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels on June 14, 2021. (Stephanie Lecocq/The Associated Press)

Newton's third law of motion — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction — was on full display this week after NATO and the G7 took a tougher public line on China.

The ink was barely dry on the communiques from both summits before Beijing authorized an aerial show of force in the skies over Taiwan.

On Tuesday, what Taiwanese defence officials described as a "record number" of Chinese military aircraft (28 in all) flew into the self-governing island's airspace — an action widely interpreted as Beijing aiming an extended middle finger at the world's leading western democracies.

In this undated file photo released by the Taiwan Ministry of Defense, a Chinese PLA J-16 fighter jet flies in an undisclosed location. China sent a record 28 fighter jets, 14 of them J-16s, toward the self-governed island of Taiwan on Tuesday, June 15, 2021, the island's defence ministry said. (Taiwan Ministry of Defense via AP)

The same day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian condemned the rhetoric and measures coming out of last weekend's G7 summit in Cornwall as an attempt to interfere "in China's internal affairs."

NATO — an even more blunt instrument on the international stage — went further than the Group of Seven countries and declared China a security threat to western nations.

Is NATO going global?

Significantly, NATO promised to deepen partnerships across the Asia-Pacific, especially with Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea.

It's also seeking out new friends in "countries across Latin America, Africa and Asia," said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

In some respects, this week's summit in Brussels laid more groundwork for NATO to go global — a notion that's been quietly percolating since the former Trump administration pushed China onto the alliance's agenda at the last summit eighteen months ago in London.

Without much fanfare and amid the usual blizzard of pandemic headlines, foreign ministers from Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea were for the first time invited last December to take part in a NATO foreign ministerial meeting to discuss common policy and Beijing's growing assertiveness.

"China's not an adversary," Stoltenberg insisted this week — even as he pointed out that China's new icebreakers suggest it has designs on the Arctic, that China participated in military exercises with Russia in the Euro-Atlantic sphere, that it increased the size of both its nuclear arsenal and its conventional military and conducted aggressive cyber-campaigns by, among other things, spreading disinformation.

'China is coming closer to us'

"We are concerned by China's coercive policies, which stand in contrast to the fundamental values enshrined in the Washington Treaty," said Stoltenberg, referring to NATO's foundational document.

The secretary general also argued that increased cooperation with Asian countries "is not about moving NATO to Asia" but rather recognizes how "China is coming closer to us."

The events of the past week in some ways complement efforts by the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to breathe life into its Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, involving the mutually wary nations of Australia, India, Japan and South Korea.

And while the move to reach out to Asia-Pacific partners might make the "North Atlantic" part of NATO's name seem passé, one defence expert said there are divisions and long-held grudges among the countries being courted for this deeper security partnership.

"I think this call for greater engagement in the Asia-Pacific with NATO's partners is absolutely timely, considering that the traditional role that the U.S. has played in Asia to maintain a strategic balance was being questioned under the Trump administration," said Tina Park, vice president of the NATO Association of Canada.

Antagonistic allies

Japan and South Korea have a particularly prickly relationship, dating back to the brutal occupation of the Korean peninsula by the Japanese in the years leading up to and during the Second World War.

In late 2018, a South Korea destroyer locked targeting radar on a Japanese patrol plane — a confrontation that spiraled into a major diplomatic incident. The two countries have argued over territorial claims and Japan's refusal to recognize and apologize for the treatment of Korean "comfort women".

"These are just some of the issues that may get in the way for future cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo when it comes to defence issues," said Park.

"While the idea of having Asian partners is very pragmatic and very positive for NATO, the actual practice of bringing these partner nations together to align with NATO's strategic objectives will not be an easy task. But I think it's something we should keep trying."

Even within the current 30 member alliance, there are differences of opinion on the Asia-Pacific pivot. Some European members that signed on to NATO specifically for protection from Russia are more concerned about Moscow's next moves than whatever Beijing has planned.

Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas speaks with the media as she arrives for a NATO summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AP)

Appearing on a panel Monday with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Brussels Forum of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas made it clear she believes the major security threat is the one in her front yard — the border between her country and Russia.

"Russia is a clear threat is what we also stress here, because of Russia's aggression," she said. "They have definitely shown with deeds."

Trudeau said he believes the alliance has the capacity to "walk and chew gum at the same time" in dealing with both authoritarian rivals.

This past spring saw a small but riveting illustration of why China has rocketed onto NATO's radar: the arrest and conviction of an Estonian national — a prominent marine scientist who was spying for China.

Tarmo Kouts spilled secrets to Chinese military intelligence. Until last year, he was vice president of NATO's Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.