Asia Defense | Security | East Asia

A NATO Office in Japan: Much Ado About Not Much

Speculations surrounding the impact of the proposed NATO office in Tokyo are wildly overhyped.

A NATO Office in Japan: Much Ado About Not Much
Credit: Depositphotos

Earlier this year, following a visit to Japan by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Nikkei Asia revealed that  the organization was considering the opening of a liaison office in Japan by 2024. Amid the growing tensions between the United States and China, the latest move from the transatlantic alliance is perceived as a way to shore up Western security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. In that perspective, a NATO office in Tokyo would build on the momentum brought about by other multilateral initiatives such as the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.) and AUKUS (Australia, the U.K., and the U.S.). 

NATO officials increasingly look at China as a major security issue for the organization. Its 2022 Strategic Concept affirmed that China’s “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.” Stoltenberg also repeatedly condemned Beijing’s policies, stating during a trip to South Korea in early 2023, “China is also a challenge because we see China is investing heavily in new modern military capabilities, including new long-range missiles that can reach all NATO territory.”

These statements surely indicate a new approach, but there are several reasons to question the significance of a NATO office in Japan. Such a project will very likely fuel Beijing’s narrative of a Western aggressive strategy in the region, but at the same time, it will not provide much to Asian partners. 

At regional level, a NATO office in Japan creates unease. Like in Africa or the Middle East, the alliance suffers from a negative perception across Asia: the organization is usually seen as a mere extension of U.S. foreign policy. Some commentators fear NATO would spread to Asia a “destructive militaristic culture,” to use the expression of Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat and influential voice. This reflects the desire of Southeast Asian countries and also India to avoid importing a Western template for Asia’s security architecture. For those countries, the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine does not strengthen the relevance of NATO; it actually weakens it. 

However, that view of NATO overestimates the ability of the organization to project itself in Asia. In fact, the internal decision-making of NATO reveals two big obstacles to its ambitions in the Indo-Pacific: a rift among its member states regarding the strategy vis-a-vis China and a disconnect between the assertive rhetoric of NATO representatives and the actual capabilities its armed forces can bring to bear.

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First, there is no united front within the transatlantic alliance on the China issue. Starting in 2019, the U.S. administration of then-President Donald Trump pushed for a more active role of NATO in the Indo-Pacific. But at the same time, some defense analysts in Washington remain skeptical and consider that Europeans should rather deal with their own security issues — namely Russia — in order to let the Americans focus on Asia

This approach can somehow echo the thinking of European leaders such as France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who provoked a major controversy in April after he gave an interview on a flight back from China (and in the middle of a People’s Liberation Army drill near Taiwan) during which he declared that Europeans should not be “just America’s followers” and “get caught up in crises that are not ours.”

Later, Macron and his government clarified that the French president did not mean to support Beijing’s views on Taiwan but called instead for a European view that is distinct from the American one. This goes along with the French ambition to build an Indo-Pacific strategy away from great power competition, one that rallies local partners keen on preventing the bipolarization of Asia. Unsurprisingly, the French have publicly expressed their own skepticism about the project of a NATO office in Japan

If France challenges the relevance of NATO on the China file, other member states question the China file itself. For instance, Eastern European countries like Hungary and Poland cultivate close ties with Beijing. In 2016, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda went as far as to express hopes that his country “will become China’s gateway to Europe.”

These competing views within NATO highlight the difficulties that will prevent the organization from building an ambitious and coherent policy in the Indo-Pacific. When push comes to shove, all the major decisions involving NATO policy have to be approved by consensus by its 31 member states.

But even putting the internal politics aside, a NATO office in Japan would not make a big difference in terms of military capabilities. It has been wrongly described as a new “outpost” of the alliance in Asia. In reality, the office would likely involve one permanent representative relying mostly on the bureaucracy of the headquarters in Brussels. In practice, there is already NATO representation in Japan: it is provided by the Embassy of Denmark in Tokyo — a common practice that designates the national embassy of a NATO member as the point of contact in one country. This underlines the fact that NATO’s own administration is modest and heavily relies on the resources its member states are willing to provide.

The gap between rhetoric and resources reflects a broader limitation with NATO engagement in the Indo-Pacific. Contrary to the concerns over a NATO presence in Asia sounding the drums of war, the real risk is that the alliance’s activities will be underwhelming. In truth, NATO member states have limited capabilities that they can project to the Indo-Pacific. Only three countries maintain a credible naval presence in the area: the U.S., the U.K., and France. For the first time in two decades, Germany sent a frigate to cross the South China Sea in 2021 and the Netherlands also dispatched a frigate that same year to a U.K. carrier strike group sailing to Japan. These are extremely modest deployments that reveal the limited power projection capabilities of Europeans as well as their actual reluctance to provide more to the Asian theater. 

In the end, Asian diplomats and military officers could draw valuable lessons from NATO’s engagement in the Middle East, which started more than two decades ago. Following the 9/11 attacks, NATO also moved closer to Middle Eastern partners such as Israel, Jordan, and the Gulf states. Back then, there were similar concerns about the potentially destabilizing effect of a NATO presence in the Arab world. In the end, though, the alliance did not do much in the area. It stayed away from the regional crises such as the Israel-Palestine conflict or the Iranian nuclear issue and it refrained from building a significant presence, apart from a small training mission in Iraq and an office in Kuwait (primarily financed by the hosting country). NATO did provide an added value by supporting the modernization of Middle Eastern armed forces and allowing them to participate in various military training and exercises, but the NATO presence certainly did not affect Middle East politics.

All of this does not mean that a NATO office in Japan would add nothing, but rather that the speculations surrounding the project are overhyped. It will neither signal the deployment of military forces that NATO does not have, nor will it overcome the disagreements among Western countries about China. At most, the office will support consultations and training activities with the Japan Self-Defense Forces — and probably with New Zealand and Australia too. But in the end, policymakers may wonder if it is worth risking another diplomatic dispute with Beijing for an office that will not be a game changer for cooperation between Japan and the Atlantic alliance.

A previous version of this piece mistakenly said that NATO representation in Japan is handled through the embassy of the Netherlands. It has been corrected.