Build an Atlantic-Pacific Partnership

 In China, Indo-Pacific, NATO

Wed, Oct 14, 2020

Build an Atlantic-Pacific Partnership

NATO 202020 by James Hildebrand, Harry W.S. Lee, Fumika Mizuno, Miyeon Oh, and Monica Michiko Sato

Related Experts: Miyeon Oh,

NATO Standing Maritime Group One con­ducts a pass­ing exer­cise with Japan Maritime Self-Defense squadron in the Baltic Sea. (Source: NATO)

The West is rec­og­niz­ing that China’s rise has fun­da­men­tal­ly shift­ed the global bal­ance of power. For the first time, the European Union (EU) declared China as a “sys­temic rival” in 2019. NATO lead­ers also men­tioned China for the first time in the 2019 London Declaration, iden­ti­fy­ing both the “oppor­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges” of China’s grow­ing influ­ence. As the West grap­ples with a strat­e­gy to address China’s rise, it faces a full-spec­trum chal­lenge from China in tra­di­tion­al and non-tra­di­tion­al secu­ri­ty spheres that NATO is best posi­tioned to con­front.

In the tra­di­tion­al secu­ri­ty sphere, China has con­tin­ued its aggres­sive actions in the South China Sea while expand­ing its naval power beyond the waters of Asia to the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic, and the Arctic. This activ­i­ty is accom­pa­nied by an increas­ing­ly global mil­i­tary foot­print — includ­ing the devel­op­ment of over­seas bases and strate­gic sea­ports. Such actions and their poten­tial con­se­quences pose an increas­ing threat to the mar­itime secu­ri­ty of NATO allies, as well as their access to global seaborne trade. Beijing’s grow­ing mil­i­tary coop­er­a­tion with Moscow in both the Asian and European the­aters also com­pli­cates allied con­tin­gency plan­ning by rais­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a coor­di­nat­ed hor­i­zon­tal esca­la­tion. 

In the non-tra­di­tion­al sphere, Europe will face a par­tic­u­lar­ly acute chal­lenge from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) global influ­ence oper­a­tions. While the CCP’s efforts to shape the global infor­ma­tion envi­ron­ment came to the fore in Europe at the outset of the COVID-19 out­break, it has long engaged in more malign and sur­rep­ti­tious forms of influ­ence oper­a­tions. These include cyber war­fare and espi­onage, dis- and mis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns, elec­tion inter­fer­ence, co-opting inde­pen­dent media, and brib­ing public offi­cials.

Europe is not alone in facing this chal­lenge from China. Much like the indi­vid­ual coun­tries of Europe, not all Indo-Pacific states are equipped to counter tra­di­tion­al and non-tra­di­tion­al secu­ri­ty threats from Beijing. In order to pro­tect their eco­nom­ic free­dom, demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions, and nation­al secu­ri­ty, transat­lantic and Indo-Pacific states share the common task of respond­ing to China’s rise. The inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty needs a cred­i­ble, mul­ti­lat­er­al cham­pi­on that can form an “Atlantic-Pacific Partnership” and serve as a strate­gic coun­ter­weight to Beijing’s grow­ing mil­i­tary assertive­ness, whether it’s in the South China Sea, the European the­ater, or the Arctic. Given its insti­tu­tion­al struc­ture, capa­bil­i­ties, and capac­i­ty to link Indo-Pacific part­ners under a cohe­sive mul­ti­lat­er­al mech­a­nism, NATO is the insti­tu­tion best suited to take on this role.

In the coming decade, NATO should estab­lish itself as the cen­tral node of a global net­work ded­i­cat­ed to coun­ter­ing China’s hos­tile and malign activ­i­ties by for­mal­iz­ing an Atlantic-Pacific Partnership (APP). This effort should first be focused on inte­grat­ing NATO’s exist­ing bilat­er­al rela­tion­ships with Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand into a mul­ti­lat­er­al “30+4” con­sul­ta­tive net­work, while still seek­ing other oppor­tu­ni­ties for col­lab­o­ra­tion in the region and beyond. As it devel­ops, the habits of coop­er­a­tion built through the APP would create a foun­da­tion for coor­di­nat­ed plan­ning and response to China’s tra­di­tion­al and non-tra­di­tion­al threats in Europe and Asia. NATO should lead this effort for sev­er­al rea­sons: 

Structural resilience to Chinese pressure

First, as an insti­tu­tion focused on secu­ri­ty, NATO is unique­ly resilient to Chinese pres­sure in ways other orga­ni­za­tions are not. A notable exam­ple is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a major region­al mul­ti­lat­er­al insti­tu­tion whose mem­bers’ eco­nom­ic depen­dence on, and geo­graph­ic prox­im­i­ty to, China pro­vide it deep incen­tives to avoid con­fronta­tion. Furthermore, pri­mar­i­ly due to the his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment of the region, secu­ri­ty in the Indo-Pacific is char­ac­ter­ized by a web of dis­joint­ed secu­ri­ty group­ings and bilat­er­al alliances. As China grows increas­ing­ly assertive, this lack of a uni­fy­ing, cred­i­ble, mul­ti­lat­er­al enforcer in the region will become a major chal­lenge. 

NATO’s cred­i­bil­i­ty in this con­text lies in its mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism and diver­si­ty. Compared to a uni­lat­er­al US-led response to Chinese aggres­sion, a NATO-led, and there­fore con­sen­sus US-European response, would have global legit­i­ma­cy in the eyes of many. At the same time, lead­er­ship from a US-led mul­ti­lat­er­al orga­ni­za­tion like NATO would reas­sure US allies and part­ners in the Indo-Pacific that the United States remains com­mit­ted to a coor­di­nat­ed effort among democ­ra­cies. 

Existing capabilities to counter traditional and non-traditional security threats

NATO has exist­ing capa­bil­i­ties to counter tra­di­tion­al and non-tra­di­tion­al secu­ri­ty threats. In the realm of tra­di­tion­al secu­ri­ty, not only does NATO have the mil­i­tary capac­i­ty to uphold mar­itime secu­ri­ty in regions beyond Europe, but it has also proac­tive­ly sup­port­ed and par­tic­i­pat­ed in mil­i­tary oper­a­tions con­cern­ing global secu­ri­ty. NATO has led the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (now the Resolute Support Mission) and pro­vid­ed train­ing to nation­al mil­i­taries in the Middle East as a member of the Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Since 2008, its naval forces have also active­ly con­duct­ed anti-piracy oper­a­tions off the shores of Africa. 

Further, NATO allies like the United Kingdom and France have indi­vid­u­al­ly stepped up their pres­ence in the Indo-Pacific. The United Kingdom con­duct­ed its first joint exer­cise with the United States in the South China Sea in 2019 and deployed the HMS Albion to con­duct Freedom of Navigation (FON) exer­cis­es near the Paracel islands in August 2018. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018, French and British defense min­is­ters announced they would sail war­ships through the South China Sea to chal­lenge China‘s mil­i­tary expan­sion. As the lead­ing member of NATO, the United States has spear­head­ed many of NATO’s global mil­i­tary oper­a­tions and con­tin­ues to work with its allies in Asia to counter China’s mar­itime expan­sion in the Indo-Pacific. The admin­is­tra­tion of US President Donald J. Trump has pur­sued mea­sures to deepen secu­ri­ty coop­er­a­tion with allies and part­ners with stakes in the South China Sea. For exam­ple, the United States has pro­vid­ed over $300 mil­lion through the US Department of State’s Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, and con­duct­ed a record number of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea in 2019. NATO’s largest allies are clear­ly cog­nizant of, and will­ing to address, China’s mil­i­tary threat.

Further, NATO allies like the United Kingdom and France have individually stepped up their presence in the Indo-Pacific.

In the sphere of non-tra­di­tion­al secu­ri­ty, NATO allies have expe­ri­ence work­ing togeth­er to counter Russian gray-zone threats, includ­ing influ­ence oper­a­tions. At the NATO Foreign Ministerial meet­ing in 2015, NATO adopt­ed a strat­e­gy to counter hybrid threats in coop­er­a­tion with the European Union. Member-states were encour­aged to map poten­tial vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties borne out of Russia’s involve­ment in their “busi­ness, finan­cial, media, or energy con­cerns,” and share lessons learned within NATO. More recent­ly, in response to Russia’s dis­sem­i­na­tion of dis­in­for­ma­tion relat­ed to the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, NATO has inten­si­fied dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions across all plat­forms, host­ing online events and pro­duc­ing arti­cles, trans­lat­ing fact­sheets, and broad­cast­ing videos (even in Russian) to counter false nar­ra­tives. NATO also stepped up engage­ment with the European Union, G7, United Nations, and the US Department of State to orga­nize a coor­di­nat­ed response to mit­i­gate Russian dis­in­for­ma­tion. 

Although the strat­e­gy and tac­tics of Russian and Chinese influ­ence oper­a­tions differ, and NATO’s track record of respond­ing to influ­ence oper­a­tions is varied, this expe­ri­ence and exist­ing response mech­a­nisms pro­vide a frame­work for coun­ter­ing non-tra­di­tion­al threats from China. This makes NATO the ideal insti­tu­tion through which Atlantic states can part­ner with Indo-Pacific states, trans­fer insti­tu­tion­al knowl­edge, rig­or­ous­ly inves­ti­gate best prac­tices through infor­ma­tion shar­ing, and build resilience. 

Mechanisms for enlisting allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific

NATO can lever­age its exist­ing insti­tu­tion­al con­nec­tions to coor­di­nate key US allies and part­ners in the region. US allies in the Indo-Pacific, and their prox­im­i­ty to China, posits these nations as the first line of defense against Beijing’s aggres­sion, a real­i­ty that makes them essen­tial to any mul­ti­lat­er­al effort to main­tain the rules-based inter­na­tion­al order. Additionally, NATO main­tains six indi­vid­ual chan­nels for engag­ing key Indo-Pacific nations as “global part­ners:” Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, and Mongolia. However, these part­ner­ships oper­ate pri­mar­i­ly on a bilat­er­al, siloed, and con­sul­ta­tive basis, focus­ing on issue areas tai­lored to each coun­try and each dif­fer­ing in the inten­si­ty and nature of part­ner­ship activ­i­ties. Certain NATO member states also have part­ner­ships with coun­tries in the Indo-Pacific through mech­a­nisms such as the Five Eyes, the Five Power Defense Agreement, the Quad, and sev­er­al other strong but dis­parate bilat­er­al secu­ri­ty agree­ments. 

A cohe­sive mech­a­nism that con­nects these indi­vid­ual part­ner­ships around a shared cen­tral threat does not yet exist. This presents a crit­i­cal gap that NATO can bridge to unify and deepen these exist­ing mech­a­nisms. Individual Southeast Asian coun­tries not involved in the pre­vi­ous­ly listed arrange­ments may also be more amenable to join­ing a NATO-led ini­tia­tive in the Indo-Pacific rather than a US-led one.

Policy recommendations

As NATO and its allies adapt to a more com­pet­i­tive, mul­ti­po­lar world, the Alliance and its lead­ing mem­bers should advance the fol­low­ing pri­or­i­ties:

Establish an offi­cial Atlantic-Pacific Partnership that pro­vides like-minded Indo-Pacific coun­tries the oppor­tu­ni­ty to par­tic­i­pate in a NATO-coor­di­nat­ed region­al net­work. NATO should focus ini­tial efforts on inte­grat­ing its exist­ing bilat­er­al rela­tion­ships with Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand into a mul­ti­lat­er­al “30+4” con­sul­ta­tive net­work. The APP would pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for mul­ti­lat­er­al dia­logue to address the most press­ing chal­lenges facing the transat­lantic-pacif­ic com­mu­ni­ty. Modeled after NATO’s exist­ing efforts with Finland and Sweden, secu­ri­ty coop­er­a­tion under the APP could include “reg­u­lar polit­i­cal dia­logue and con­sul­ta­tions; exchanges of infor­ma­tion on hybrid war­fare; coor­di­nat­ing train­ing and exer­cis­es; and devel­op­ing better joint sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness to address common threats and devel­op joint actions, if needed.”

Modeled after NATO’s existing efforts with Finland and Sweden, security cooperation under the APP could include “regular political dialogue and consultations; exchanges of information on hybrid warfare; coordinating training and exercises; and developing better joint situational awareness to address common threats and develop joint actions, if needed.”

Tiananmen Square (source: Nick Fewings Unsplash)

Early coop­er­a­tive efforts can lever­age NATO’s strong track record on mil­i­tary coop­er­a­tion to estab­lish a reg­u­lar­ized mech­a­nism for dis­cussing strate­gic issues and shar­ing intel­li­gence on China’s mar­itime capa­bil­i­ties and activ­i­ties in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, joint mil­i­tary coop­er­a­tion between China and Russia, and China’s over­seas influ­ence oper­a­tions. These mech­a­nisms could then be used as a plat­form to devel­op a col­lec­tive Atlantic-Pacific secu­ri­ty pos­ture toward China or a coor­di­na­tion mech­a­nism for respond­ing to tra­di­tion­al and non­tra­di­tion­al secu­ri­ty threats.

At the same time, seek oppor­tu­ni­ties to expand rela­tions with ASEAN, while remain­ing real­is­tic about the lim­i­ta­tions on coop­er­a­tion. Prior inter­ac­tions by NATO allies with ASEAN member states have been lim­it­ed to arms sales to spe­cif­ic coun­tries that met inter­na­tion­al stan­dards on human rights. In light of this his­to­ry, early efforts could focus on expand­ing exist­ing mech­a­nisms such as the ASEAN+3 Defense Ministers Dialogue and deep­en­ing people-to-people ties through enhanced inter-gov­ern­men­tal and inter-insti­tu­tion­al exchanges. As it builds a rela­tion­ship with ASEAN, NATO also could target out­reach to key mem­bers who are likely to be more inter­est­ed in proac­tive­ly respond­ing to Chinese secu­ri­ty threats. Working along­side the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF), NATO could assist in capac­i­ty build­ing and equip­ment trans­fers to Southeast Asian states while respect­ing ASEAN’s oppo­si­tion to exter­nal mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the region. Even if ini­tial efforts do not count on strong insti­tu­tion­al buy-in from ASEAN, it will be crit­i­cal for NATO to main­tain chan­nels for build­ing greater levels of sup­port over the long-term, should ongo­ing geopo­lit­i­cal trends deepen the institution’s con­cerns about undue Chinese influ­ence. 

Combat non-tra­di­tion­al threats by expand­ing resilience. In a world where secu­ri­ty threats increas­ing­ly come from non-tra­di­tion­al, non-mil­i­tary sources, focus­ing coop­er­a­tion among NATO part­ners on con­ven­tion­al defense and secu­ri­ty has proven insuf­fi­cient. NATO must work within the APP to pre­pare soci­eties for a wider range of threats. NATO’s seven base­line require­ments for resilience cur­rent­ly empha­size sup­port for con­ti­nu­ity of gov­ern­ment, the pro­vi­sion of essen­tial ser­vices in NATO member states, and civil sup­port to the mil­i­tary. Thus far these require­ments have proven valu­able in address­ing cer­tain vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties to Chinese influ­ence, con­trol, or espi­onage, par­tic­u­lar­ly in 5G net­works. However, they do not address the per­va­sive­ness of Chinese influ­ence oper­a­tions in supply chains, soci­ety and pol­i­tics, cyber­space, busi­ness, infra­struc­ture devel­op­ment, and many other areas. NATO cannot be caught flat-footed in response to these chal­lenges, which demand a dif­fer­ent strat­e­gy. 

The APP should be the forum through which a more expan­sive approach to resilience is explored. Using insights from Indo-Pacific coun­tries that have faced more exten­sive Chinese influ­ence efforts than Europe, these dis­cus­sions should explore a new con­cept of resilience that would focus specif­i­cal­ly on iden­ti­fy­ing, expos­ing, and coun­ter­ing a broad range of influ­ence oper­a­tions. This con­cept would expand the scope of resilience to account for activ­i­ties not yet addressed by NATO, but rou­tine­ly direct­ed by the Chinese gov­ern­ment against for­eign states, includ­ing coer­cive diplo­ma­cy, med­dling in elec­tions, co-option of edu­ca­tion­al and cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions, and indus­tri­al espi­onage. 

Looking for­ward to the Alliance’s strate­gic oper­a­tions in 2030, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “we need to work even more close­ly with like-minded coun­tries like Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea to defend the global rules and insti­tu­tions that have kept us safe for decades.” Both unchecked mil­i­tary expan­sion and malign Chinese influ­ence oper­a­tions will qui­et­ly erode demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples and insti­tu­tions world­wide in the coming decade, leav­ing the demo­c­ra­t­ic guardians of the rules-based inter­na­tion­al system unable to defend it effec­tive­ly. NATO can and must imme­di­ate­ly take the lead in becom­ing the nec­es­sary strate­gic coun­ter­weight to China’s rise.

* * *

The authors com­prise the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative, in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Miyeon Oh is direc­tor and senior fellow. James Hildebrand is assis­tant direc­tor. Monica Michiko Sato and Harry W.S. Lee are pro­gram assis­tants. Fumika Mizuno is a former intern.

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