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Is NATO Good for Asia, or Is Asia Good for NATO?

September 23, 2021

Over the past six months or so, I’ve gotten a lot of pings about NATO and the “Big 3” (UK, France, and Germany) taking on a role in Asia — and specifically a bigger military presence in the region. The issue has come up a few times on my podcast. I got an early preview of a book about a closely related question by a European scholar. I’ve had EU parliamentary staffers reach out to me about this. And I gave an interview to a lefty newspaper in Norway that was trying to make sense of NATO’s approach to China/Asia/Indo-Pacific. It keeps coming up.

Then, of course, the big Australia-US-UK (AUKUS) trilateral defense cooperation announcement dropped on September 15 — which made the media lose its mind with embarrassing proclamations — in the process creating a rift between France/EU and AUKUS that complicates the larger NATO calculation.

I think I’ve commented slightly differently in every interaction I’ve had about this topic, so I thought I’d try to set down something logically consistent below.

Reasons to Favor a NATO Presence in Asia

Multilateralizing U.S. Power. One upshot of European defense engagement in Asia is that it enmeshes America’s regional posture in webs of democratic multilateralism. The U.S. brand of liberal internationalism is prone to cowboy cosplay, often with tragic consequences. Multilateralism is no guarantee against reckless U.S. judgment, but the more America’s friends can bridle its unilateralist impulse, the better off we’ll all be. Yes, America has the “Quad” as a multilateral thing organic to Asia, but let’s be honest — India’s claim to democracy at the moment is thin (not throwing stones!) and Australia and Japan…well, they haven’t exactly encouraged American military restraint. Much the opposite, in fact. And yes, the United States now has AUKUS too, but as of now it’s just an intelligence- and technology-sharing thing.

We’re way past the point of the United States being able or willing to carry the burden for regional stability alone.

Post-Unipolar Burden-Sharing. European presence is also welcomed for its peacetime burden-sharing. This is desperately needed. American officials have long complained about allies not spending enough or contributing enough toward burden-sharing (I’ve written those talking points!)…but it was always in a context where the United States had no intention of disentangling from its security commitments.

That world is gone. We’re way past the point of the United States being able or willing to carry the burden for regional stability alone. I’d go so far as to say that, contra the unipolar moment, relying too much on the United States will actually destabilize Asia in the next few years. U.S. global commitments are internally contested as part of U.S. politics in a way that they didn’t used to be.

And even beyond legitimate contestation over policy differences, our politics are too demonstrably volatile now to entrust that the United States will deliver on being “the security provider of choice” around the world indefinitely. Worst of all, we need a reckoning with how allowing one state to accrue so much overwhelming power helped poison American society with a militarism that — in a perverse way — ultimately gave us not just Trump’s strongman politics, but also the Capitol insurrection itself.

In light of all these reasons for pricing in expectations of high American volatility, NATO in Asia could be the offset. Sure, you can count on Biden to keep the ship steady. Probably. But military balancing games transcend individual presidencies. Such decisions must be driven by trends. And the trend that matters more than any other is the trend of growing U.S. strategic insolvency.

Makes China More Than Just a U.S. Problem. The other boon from military involvement of NATO/”Big 3″ in Asia is its potential to dilute the dyadic rivalry quality to the current pattern of Sino-U.S. competition. To the extent China is a problem, it’s a problem that should not fall to the United States to manage on its own. And the more outside powers can be involved, the more room Asia’s smaller states will have to maneuver without locking into a Cold War-like binary of “us” and “them.” If we want to have any legitimate standing in Asia, we need to make sure smaller states have options.

Reasons for Skepticism About a NATO Presence in Asia

Trivial to the Balance of Power. It’s no secret that the preponderance of NATO’s hardware capability is America’s capability. Given that China has been on a naval modernization binge, the NATO/”Big 3″ contribution to the regional correlation of forces will be…not decisive. I’m not throwing shade at NATO capabilities, but all that counter-insurgency prowess built up from the War on Terror doesn’t stretch very far in a high-end conflict.

for people who care about history, Europe doesn’t have a good track record in Asia.

The U.S. military shortfall in a real fight with China is primarily an issue of positioning and secondarily an issue of missile inventory (China’s got too many, and a lot of smaller-class ships to target). If you think about the hard problems for U.S. forces, like Chinese air superiority over Taiwan, it’s usually an imposition of geography that no amount of ally capability will rectify. And when we think about where France in particular might park its military presence, it’s probably the Pacific side of the Indo-Pacific, where the United States already enjoys untrammeled primacy and China has…zero bases. Don’t get me wrong, in a fight, the more the merrier. But the difference NATO makes in the balance of power is marginal.

Looks Very White Man’s Burden-y. Like AUKUS, the “Big 3” showing up to take on China has a civilizational hue to it. I’m not saying racism is motivating NATO interests in Asia per se, but it doesn’t look good. For some, the whiteness of the coalition is at the heart of the problem. For policy wonks, the subtle racial dimension is a blind spot; something to which they pay no heed. But for people who care about history, Europe doesn’t have a good track record in Asia.

Red Gets a Vote. By NATO’s own proclamation, its interest in the broader Indo-Pacific is all about supporting the “rules-based order.” I get it. But why is defending the principle of freedom of navigation the only way that the West ever seems to be able to manifest its interest in a rules-based order? More broadly, you have to ask how militarizing the region further actually advances any kind of measurable goal, especially because China will adapt to whatever Europe brings to the region and grow both its capabilities and regional presence based on what its perceived enemies do. That’s why the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has had a semi-worrying growth spurt in the first place — they’re trying to catch up to the United States! This is obvious. It’s the security dilemma in action. But it’s also the truest thing that we ignore, and we do so at our peril.

Distracts From the EU-Military Question. As long as NATO is gainfully employed worrying about Asia, there will be plenty of incentives to dodge the real question about the future of an EU defense force. America is simply too volatile to be the centerpiece of European security indefinitely, and there’s no shortage of organic interest in an EU military. But that difficult conversation is too easily thwarted by the immediate focus on China.  And conversely, if NATO didn’t have a play in Asia, it would heighten the urgency of actually moving toward a European defense force.

So does a European presence makes sense in Asia?  Lots of pros, lots of cons.  How you weigh these different factors will depend on what kind of baggage you bring to the issue.  Given the row with France, the EU and AUKUS will not be a single strategic entity. That may well tip the scales toward the negative. For me, there’s just no winning here if there’s no plausible strategy.  What I see is an impulse toward Asia rather than a clear wager explaining how a military presence would help realize goals of whatever kind…and yet there are upsides. So while I wouldn’t die on a hill opposing Europe’s military re-entry into Asia, the fact that it’s a mixed-bag proposition means that it’s hard to cheerlead for.

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Van Jackson is a professor of international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and a think tanker at lots of places around the world: a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada; a senior associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Nonproliferation & Disarmament (APLN); and the defence & strategy fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies in New Zealand. He also hosts The Un-Diplomatic Podcast.