In July, Japan and South Korea attended, for the second consecutive year, the annual summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Lithuania.
During the meeting, Japan and the 30-member Atlantic military alliance signed a partnership agreement setting up a NATO office in Tokyo and beginning joint exercises as Western powers have become increasingly worried about China’s rise.
Although China was not mentioned as a potential threat in the partnership agreement, it is evident that some European powers, like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, had started projecting their forces in the Asian region.
The three European countries have deployed warships to patrol the East and South China Sea, further raising tensions in the disputed waters.
NATO has started expanding into the Indo-Pacific region. But it happened at a time when the alliance had its hands full in dealing with crises in Ukraine.
With its limited capabilities, NATO has to step on the brakes to expand in the Indo-Pacific region.
When NATO was created in 1949, the alliance sought to protect Western Europe from Soviet expansion during the Cold War.
But NATO began looking beyond Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and expanded into central and eastern Europe.
In search of relevance, NATO dipped its hands into Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
It is now looking into the Indo-Pacific region, supporting the United States’ efforts to check China’s expansion of global influence.
But the ambitions of Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general, to extend the alliance’s reach to the Indo-Pacific region met some resistance from some members in Europe.
French President Emmanuel Macron saw NATO’s opening of an office in Tokyo as unnecessary.
Others feared it might distract NATO from strengthening its organization in the face of rising threats from Russia after its adventure into the Ukraine.
It could further strain NATO’s efforts to revitalize defense investments if the UK, France, and Germany would get involved in security issues in Asia.
Some political and security analysts believe only the United States would benefit from NATO’s involvement in the Asia-Pacific region because it needed more allies to confront China.
Japan and South Korea would not be enough to counter China, and the 10 member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) are reluctant to take sides in the rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
NATO’s effort to project power in the Indo-Pacific region was driven by severe concern over China’s expanding global influence and coercive activities with smaller and weaker neighbors.
It wanted to help the United States contain China, which Washington has considered a “pacing challenge” that seeks to topple its rival as the world’s No. 1 economic and military power.
However, most European states wanted to strengthen NATO’s own defense posture in the face of threats from Russia and its allies.
Many European states suggested that NATO focus on its own security problems in Europe before projecting power to Asia, for which many members do not have the capacity.
NATO countries could send frequent freedom of navigation and overflights to help Asian allies counter China’s increasing presence and activities in disputed waters.
There could also be token deployment of warships, planes, and troops on the ground but these could probably not help much in stopping China. It could only increase tensions between Beijing and European states.
So why would European states bother to antagonize China and affect trade and economic relations?
Another thing, NATO remained heavily dependent on US military presence, through its bases in Europe and its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
China’s military remains inferior to the United States. Washington has over 700 military bases in 80 countries around the world.
Some of these military bases are strategically located around China, particularly in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore.
There is US presence in some Central Asian republics as well as in the Middle East.
China only has a military presence in Pakistan and probably in Somalia, Myanmar, and Cambodia.
While the United States wanted its allies to believe that China was a rising threat, the reality is the gap between Washington and Beijing’s military capabilities remained wide.
NATO would be more useful and effective if it stayed in Europe and tried to shore up its budget to about 2 percent of its GDP for defense spending.
Many of its members fall short of the 2 percent benchmark and the real lesson learned in the Ukraine conflict was that NATO was not ready to support Kvyv all the way to expel Russian forces.
NATO should forget its Indo-Pacific ambitions. It lacks the capacity and capability to sustain its power projection in the region.
With limited resources, it is best to focus on Ukraine and build up Europe’s defense posture.
Europe must leave the United States to carry the burden of containing China.
It has other allies, like Canada, Australia, and India, to deal with China.