Asian Allies Have a Role to Play in NATO

From a Wall Street Journal commentary by John Bolton headlined “Asian Allies Have a Role to Play in NATO”:

Ukraine dominated the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s recent summit, but concern with Asian threats was evident. While the final communiqué asserted China’s “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values,” it was mostly diplomatic verbiage. NATO’s 75th anniversary summit next year should aspire to a sharper focus.

Some alliance members find that unappealing. France’s Emmanuel Macron no longer claims that NATO is experiencing “brain death,” but he still chafes at the thought of U.S. global leadership. He grouses that a Sino-American confrontation over Taiwan is “a trap for Europe.” France even objects to a NATO liaison office in Japan “as a matter of principle” (although Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says the issue is “still on the table”).

By contrast, most other alliance members welcome closer security relations with like-minded Indo-Pacific allies. Lithuania published its own Indo-Pacific strategy, emphasizing cooperation with Taiwan. Germany’s foreign minister stressed that Berlin was “not naive” on China.

South Korea’s president and prime ministers from Japan, Australia and New Zealand participated in the summit, signaling converging interests. Signing an extensive new NATO-Japan defense-cooperation agreement, Mr. Stoltenberg described Tokyo as NATO’s closest partner. Seoul signed a similar agreement. Canberra and Wellington will follow.

The difficulty for some Europeans lies in the diverging institutional perspectives of NATO and the European Union. During the Cold War, as the EU was evolving and the Soviet threat was proximate to Western Europe, aligning economic and strategic priorities was less fraught than it is today. By contrast, after victory in the Cold War, NATO seemed marginal to many Europeans (and Americans), the EU strengthened institutionally, and Franco-German economic objectives increasingly centered on China.

Moreover, in both the U.S. and Europe in the 1990s, economic concerns dominated. With globalization all the rage, global geostrategic thinking withered along with NATO-member defense budgets, which remain chronically underfunded. Whether it was U.S. furniture manufacturing, children’s toys, or high-tech capabilities with important military applications that poured out of North America to Asia, it all looked the same. Washington watched, and, during the Clinton administration, encouraged the shrinkage and consolidation of the defense-industrial base.

China’s rising threat has now splintered the EU, with France and Germany on one side and much of what Donald Rumsfeld called “new Europe” on the other. By contrast, American attention to the Chinese threat has risen dramatically, and imports from China are dropping sharply. Most EU members are now retracing America’s path, increasingly appreciating the gravity of Beijing’s menacing activities (economic as well as politico-military), though they don’t yet fully understand them.

In preserving peace and security, NATO’s extraordinary success makes it an unparalleled vehicle for defense cooperation in any region where its core interests are at stake. And while NATO’s institutional involvement in Asia is desirable, like-minded members can work together even if the alliance itself isn’t initially involved. Ad hoc programs could grow over time.

Potential cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners is boundless. NATO members and key Asian allies, for example, are already central to the Wassenaar Arrangement, successor to the Cold War’s Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls. Unfortunately, Wassenaar has dubious members, including Russia and South Africa, so reinvigorating international export controls will require more creative thinking.

Or consider winter warfare. Post-1945, top contenders for Olympic gold in the biathlon always seemed to be Soviet or Nordic athletes. Combining cross-country skiing with marksmanship, the biathlon emerged from military team sports. With India still playing the great game against China, and with all the Nordics soon to be in NATO, imagine the training and joint exercises possible in mountainous areas near China’s border.

Sales of weapons systems are an important way the U.S. strengthens its Asian allies, as Mr. Macron understands. Furious at losing a submarine deal with Australia to the U.S. and Britain, he celebrated Bastille Day with Indian Prime Minister Modi, announcing beforehand some $9 billion in weapons sales. While the U.S. might prefer that New Delhi purchase American arms, any non-Russian acquisitions diminish India’s reliance on Soviet technology, hopefully drawing India closer to NATO interoperability standards, and inevitably throw shade on Beijing.

Washington should give careful, strategic thought to expanding NATO’s Asian role. It need not admit Asian members tomorrow, but it can certainly work toward that goal.

John Bolton is author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” He served as the president’s national security adviser, 2018-19, and ambassador to the United Nations, 2005-06.

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