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Japan–NATO Ties: A Difficult Partnership

Dr Arnab Dasgupta is a Research Analyst in the East Asia Centre at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 10, 2023

    On 21 June 2023, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced at a press conference that he would attend the NATO Leaders’ Summit to be held in Vilnius, Lithuania on 11–12 July, following which he would travel to Brussels for a visit to the headquarters of the European security grouping.1 Subsequent to the announcement, Jiji Press sources highlighted that Kishida's government was hard at work drafting a new Japan–NATO Individually Tailored Partnership Programme (ITPP), to replace the existing Japan–NATO Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme (IPCP).2 The IPCP, which has nine focus areas including cybersecurity and maritime security cooperation, is now expected to be augmented by cooperation on emerging domains of conflict such as outer space and disinformation campaigns in the social media sphere.

    Another objective of Kishida’s visit will be to push for his government’s proposal to host a NATO liaison office in Tokyo, the first in Asia.3 First revealed by the Nikkei newspaper earlier in June, the new office is envisioned as providing a contact point for NATO members to carry on security-related dialogue with prominent Asian security actors such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. This would replace the current system, whereby the Danish Embassy in Tokyo served as the contact point for dialogue with NATO.

    Japan’s proposal has run into obstacles in the form of objections by NATO members led by France, which has opposed the setting up of a new office in Asia as a distraction from the alliance’s core task of ensuring security in Europe, especially given Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and beyond. Kishida’s visit to Vilnius would thus be a well-timed opportunity to press the flesh, as it were, and ensure that the objections to Tokyo’s proposal are softened or withdrawn.

    History of Japan and NATO relations

    To be sure, Japan has had a long association with the NATO alliance.4 It has the distinction of being the oldest ‘contact partner’ of NATO, with its initial outreach stretching back to 1979. In the 1980s, Foreign Minister Shintarō Abe travelled to major European capitals on behalf of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone to campaign for a Japan–NATO consultation mechanism, but was stymied by French objections. The formal opening of consultations between the two was pushed to the 1990s, after NATO had lost its bete noire, the Soviet Union. After 1991, when then-Secretary General of NATO Manfred Wörner visited Japan, the relationship was upgraded to a formal High-Level Consultation, which has continued to this day.

    The Japan–NATO relationship only really came into its own, however, when the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Japan’s support of the US-led and NATO-backed International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan included its minesweeping and refueling assistance as well as the manpower contribution by the Japanese Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) to the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) set up in pacified districts of Afghanistan. Japan also raised funds for the Afghan reconstruction effort through the 2002 and 2012 Tokyo Conferences on Afghanistan. These contributions led it to be perceived as a trusted partner in NATO’s task of security provision.

    Japan’s collaboration with NATO forces then extended to maritime cooperation in the Gulf of Aden and surrounding waters against piracy originating in the Horn of Africa. In this, especially after 2010, a key role was played by Prime Minister Abe, who elevated the relationship to a formal one by signing the 2013 Joint Political Agreement, which was then reflected in the IPCP issued by Japan. By 2017, Abe’s forceful advocacy of the commonality of ‘shared values’ between the NATO countries and Japan, as well as the common threat China’s actions in the East and South China Seas represented to both, was reflected by NATO officials. The relationship seemed poised to take on a myriad of challenges such as cyber-warfare, piracy and non-traditional security cooperation.

    Impact of Ukraine

    Russia’s advance into Ukraine in February 2022 has upended much of this spirit of partnership, by highlighting anew the deeper structural limitations inherent in the Japan–NATO relationship. Primarily, it has revealed a sense of renewed threat from Russia, which has resumed pride of place in the forefront of European countries’ consciousness. As the US and European countries attempt to support Ukraine while straddling the fine line demarcating their overt intervention in the conflict, Japan is increasingly being expected to accommodate NATO’s priorities while the latter seem to be withdrawing into their European backyards once more.

    To his credit, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has adroitly parlayed the Ukraine crisis into a call for greater European attention to the Indo-Pacific by drawing an explicit parallel between Ukraine and Taiwan, most notably, by his statement that “Ukraine today will be the East Asia of tomorrow”.5 French President Macron in China though stated that Europe must remain a third party in the Indo-Pacific and not get involved in other people’s quarrels.6 Though this statement was then walked back, France continues to remain opposed to Tokyo’s desire to host a NATO office in the Indo-Pacific, citing once again NATO’s Euro-Atlantic focus.

    Indeed, it may well be said that NATO is gradually withdrawing from its mission of ‘projecting stability’ beyond its core area, as more of its resources are drawn into the Ukraine conflict. This is most evident in the fact that NATO members have varying degrees of consciousness about the security challenges in the Indo-Pacific. While the United States, United Kingdom and France are actively engaged with several Asian partners and allies, Germany, the Eastern European countries and Turkey have a minimal or no footprint there, with no sign of them developing anything more tangible in the near future.

    It can thus be said that Prime Minister Kishida’s visit will have to serve primarily two purposes: first, to convince the reluctant members of NATO to make common cause once again against China and Russia in the Indo-Pacific, and second, to demonstrate that Japan, which has committed a whopping 43 billion yen to be invested into the defence budget over the next five years, remains the interlocutor of choice for NATO to work with. How successful he will be in this endeavour may be judged by how detailed the leaders’ communique will be on Chinese actions in Asia, as well as the outcome of the simultaneous meeting currently being coordinated by Japan in association with Australia, South Korea and New Zealand to be held on the sidelines of the main summit.7

    In this context, Japan’s quest to attract significant security cooperation from NATO members is a development India would do well to note. The US Senate India Caucus, for instance, is proposing for India to be offered the ‘NATO plus five’ status that Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Israel currently enjoy. EAM S Jaishankar, though, stated that the template does not apply for India.8 The success or failure of Japan’s diplomacy would hold lessons that could not only justify India’s decision not to engage with NATO as an entity, but also gauge the seriousness of some of the organisation's European members in actually implementing their rhetorical stances on the ‘shared values’ of peace, security and freedom in the Indo-Pacific region by working with the countries of the Global South.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.