Indo-Pacific and NATO

Special Report: NATO’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Needs Japan

NATO is arguably the most successful military alliance in history and has helped advance the rules-based order in the context of the transatlantic region. In other words, NATO has become a pillar of the global rules-based order. However, deepening power politics and the emergence of illiberal and autocratic powers is threatening the international rules-based order. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Indo-Pacific region.

As China finalizes its great power rise, this challenge to the status quo—the Indo-Pacific region’s economic liberalism, rules-based structure, and reliance on US security connections—which has guided Indo-Pacific affairs since the end of the Cold War, has been compromised. With the region housing roughly half of the global economy, many NATO powers—the US, UK, France, and Germany—have begun projecting their power in the Indo-Pacific by unilaterally pursuing their security, territorial and economic interests that contributes to the overwhelming congestion of the region by extra-regional and non-Asian powers.

However, NATO as a collective should prioritize more strategic and diplomatic engagements with Japan if it is serious about developing a practical and effective Indo-Pacific strategy for the coming decades. At the forefront of this regional engagement strategy should be increased interoperability with the Japanese as its history and diplomatic experience situate it as the optimal partner for NATO to preserve a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.

NATO-Japanese Relations

NATO-Japanese diplomatic relations are relatively new, despite sharing common values, a liberal economic system, and having the US as a principal ally. NATO-Japanese, relations strengthened in the final years of the Cold War and with Japan’s economic rise. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the US in 2001, NATO-Japanese diplomatic relations came together more meaningfully. For instance, following the US War on Terror, NATO and Japan cooperated extensively through bilateral activities that established a military-to-military dialogue through counter-piracy and anti-terrorism endeavours.

Diplomatic relations expanded in 2006 when then-Foreign Minister Aso Taro became the first Japanese foreign minister to attend a North Atlantic Council meeting, and again in 2007 when then-Prime Minister Shino Abe visited NATO headquarters to proclaim support for more-practical NATO-Japanese cooperation in certain out-of-area operations. Relations improved further in 2013 when NATO and Japan signed a joint political declaration—the first political document between the two that emphasized formalized partnerships—cementing their relationship through shared values, strategic interests in a rules-based order, and a common security challenge in securing the prosperity and stability of their respective regions.

In 2014, NATO and Japan entered into an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program (IPCP), which acknowledged the need for more substantial joint cooperation from NATO and Japan regarding emerging global and regional security challenges—climate change, maritime security, and conflict management. More importantly, however, the IPCP reinforced NATO-Japanese “shared strategic interests in promoting global peace, stability, and prosperity through pursuing a rules-based order.”

By 2018 the IPCP was revised to reflect Japan’s growing foreign policy objective of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” To consolidate support for this strategic oversight, NATO and Japan emphasized their relationship to maintain and strengthen “a free and open international order based on the rule of law.” It also promoted the possibility of NATO “contributing assets to Japanese exercises in the Indo-Pacific region”—a major strive forward in terms of its diplomatic origins.

The Key to the Indo-Pacific

With deepening strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific between China and the US, many policy analysts and scholars remark the need for deepened interoperability between regional like-minded nations and America. However, this streamline of thinking is outdated and poses more problems than rewards. For NATO to remain a pillar of the rules-based order and extend its functionality in the Indo-Pacific, strategic thinking needs to unfold around Japan.

Despite Japan’s post-war strategic pacifism—barely spending one percent of GDP on defence, and the Japanese constitution prohibiting military statecraft—the country is on the cusp of shifting its strategic outlook towards the region, its neighbours, and its role in regional security issues. Beginning in 2016, with then-Prime Minister Shino Abe’s declaration of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” Japan has transitioned its strategic outlook to resemble a competitive and cooperative attitude. Unlike past foreign policy endeavours, Abe’s 2016 declaration was the first strategic decision for which Japan took the initiative to lead. Following Abe’s strategy, regional actors such as Australia, India, the US, and ASEAN members began developing their own “free and open Indo-Pacific” policy.

Japan has also begun approaching like-minded neighbours and partners through more self-sufficient outreaching diplomacy. In 2020, Japan and Australia signed the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) due to China’s growing belligerent presence and militarization in the South China Sea (SCS). Although the RAA is not a formal treaty establishing an alliance, it does list an informal pact that will permit the Australian Defense Force and the Japanese Self-Defence Force (JSDF) to operate and allow greater military-to-military cooperation and interoperability. Japan has followed the RAA with more minilateral arrangements with like-minded partners that aim to acquire informal regional security interests by facilitating rapid decision-making and broader efficiency in investigating mutual security objectives without the formality of multilateral institutions—the QUAD, the Japan-America-India trilateral, and the Australia-Japan-India trilateral initiatives. These recent foreign policy initiatives highlight Japan’s growing readiness to lead and address pressing security and defence issues.

Contrary to traditional geopolitical understandings of power politics that observe Sino-US great power competition as the primary modus operandi driving regional affairs, issues over the geo-economic and geo-security of the Indo-Pacific should instead be observed through Sino-Japanese power politics. For one, Sino-Japanese power politics would greatly reflect the geo-security and geo-economic realities of the region, thereby displacing Western diplomatic and strategic notions of competition and cooperation. Second, Sino-Japanese power politics avoids a bipolarization that forces the small and middle powers of the region to choose between the US and China over control of Indo-Pacific affairs. Lastly, Sino-Japanese power politics cultivates flexibility in confidence-building over regional affairs, as it balances the outcome of further US disengagement in the region’s economic and security institutions and alliances. This alternative thinking has two driving factors to consider.

First, geography plays a major factor in how much power a state can project. The geographical distance of the US from its partners in the Pacific challenges its ability to coordinate with like-minded and sympathetic states strategically. Coupled with the economic realities of covering such a large geographic area, America’s ability to counter, hedge, or balance China’s assertive foreign policy has become compromised. During the finalization of the US military withdrawal in Afghanistan, the USS Ronald Reagan left its Tokyo port base to pivot towards the Middle East to gather withdrawing troops. Not only did this pivot extend the US navy’s growing problem of deploying aging carriers to back-to-back operations without repair periods, but it also left the geographical arms of the Indo-Pacific—SCS and East China Sea (ECS)—without an American aircraft carrier presence.

With China’s naval modernization almost complete and its numerical superiority over the US navy in total battleships—China’s 360 to America’s 297—the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is positioned to overtake America as the dominant sea power in the SCS and ECS. Although the US has an edge in larger and heavier destroyers and cruisers, ideal for oceanic warfare, the PLAN is supported by its maritime militia and coastguard vessels. In smaller waterways like the SCS and ECS, China is better suited for a regionalized contest over hegemonic dominance and authority until it can match America’s larger and heavier class of warships on the open ocean. These perspectives have led American military and political leaders to worry about China’s growing budgetary support for its navy when the US is recovering from the pandemic, investing in domestic infrastructure, and dealing with an aging navy.

These economic and geographical realities have informed China’s decision-making in exploring how much power they can project on the Indo-Pacific’s rules-based order without suffering direct consequences. For instance, the inability to counter China’s Great Wall of Sand in the SCS, the US feeble attempts to deter China from militarily unifying Taiwan, and its disposition to deter threats from China to hold ASEAN member and like-minded states’ economies hostage showcase America’s limited hegemonic projection to uphold the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. This current status is a long cry from when the US dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait, swiftly forcing China to immediately cease its armed operation of intimidation against Taiwan during the Third Taiwan Strait Cross of 1995-96.

In contrast, Japan is well-situated within the Indo-Pacific as its geographical barriers do not impact their economic or military projection. Instead, Japan shares and neighbours key geostrategic waterways, sealines, and trade routes in the region. As such, Japan can more comprehensively project its power through a multifaceted relationship that combines Asian economic, security, and cultural realities with the states that make up the Indo-Pacific. As a result, Japan’s position within these diplomatic areas can offer more direct consequences to China if it continued or amplified its assertiveness in the region—especially in the wake of a growing inward-looking America and a disengaged Europe.

These consequences can arrive from Japan taking larger leadership and pronto roles in terms of technological advancement, investments in economic and infrastructure development, to Japan directly challenging Chinese claims of territorial sovereignty in the SCS and ECS, along with Japan being more inclusive to Indo-Pacific security and defence interests that fall outside America’s regional strategy. The importance arriving from these Japanese-led consequences is the optics of an Asian power standing up to Chinese regional hegemony, thereby shifting the Indo-Pacific’s seemingly unipolarity to a multipolar setting that restrains the undisputed authority and power China can project. Lastly, these Japanese-led consequences widen the appeal of maintaining the rules-based order. Introducing a more prominent Asian perspective will be more conducive to the region’s small and middle powers’ belief in their role over regional affairs, rather than a US-led initiative salvaging its regional and global hegemonic status.

Second, due to Japan being outside the traditional sphere of Sino-US great power competition, Japan has room to maneuver for more inclusivity in upholding the region’s rules-based order. For instance, in 2020, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies remarked on Japan’s expanding favourability as a preferred strategic partner to hedge against growing Sino-US competition. That survey complemented the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ 2019 report that showed ASEAN’s expectation of Japan taking more leadership roles nearly equal to the US and China. Securing the commitments from ASEAN and its like-minded members is paramount for maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific based on a rules-based structure.”

Strategic Recommendations

Despite improvements to the JSDF and its expanded role in existing rules-based institutions—like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—Japan still faces certain limitations in its ability to form lasting and significant diplomatic relationships, outside the existing US-led hub-and-spoke system of alliance building. Thus, for Japan to become more central in upholding the rules-based order, the country requires increased interoperability of military-to-military relations and capacity-building programs. This gap is where NATO can assist Japan the most.

A NATO-Japanese joint cooperation bloc should be established with the key mandate to build up Japan’s military and diplomatic ability to attract and solidify like-minded partners’ resilience and unity against threats to the region’s rules-based structure. This initiative can be accomplished by NATO leaders and personnel preparing their Japanese counterparts to readily identify normative standpoints among ASEAN members and Indo-Pacific partners, thereby developing a network of diplomatic dialogues. From there, a collective and more inclusive bloc of Indo-Pacific actors can emerge without directly becoming part of Sino-US competition. These diplomatic dialogues will also fulfill the capacity-building programs that will decrease historical mistrust among ASEAN members, South Korea and Japan while promoting the importance of a rules-based order for each actor and the international organization.

Once confidence is established, NATO should train Japanese military and diplomatic officials in the interoperability of military-to-military relations. Having been the most successful military alliance in history, NATO possesses in-depth and niche knowledge in organizing, administrating, and projecting a collective of actors’ militaries in periods of tense diplomatic relations, armed conflict, and peace. Attributing these factors to Japan’s military and diplomatic institutions can help supply coordination and cooperation among the region’s like-minded actors to enforce the rules-based structure in maritime and geo-economic security, along with autonomous responses to distinct regional challenges.

NATO’s assistance to Japan in these areas will not be without reward. Greater cooperation between NATO and Japan through the joint bloc indicated above will provide NATO with vital sources of information on regional developments, situational awareness, and an overall better strategic understanding of the diplomatic and niche issues that drive the Indo-Pacific. This learning opportunity will permit NATO leaders and officials to anticipate ongoing and future challenges arriving from China and the region and develop an Indo-Pacific strategy that can adequately uphold the rules-based order and the international standards that have advanced peace and prosperity.


With more individual NATO members like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany following the US in developing an Indo-Pacific strategy, NATO needs to avoid the strategic pitfalls that are underway. For instance, certain strategic shortcomings that resemble the Cold War’s miscalculated policies of dividing the region into ideological blocs. The reality is that many nations residing in the Indo-Pacific rely on China’s hegemony for economic stability and prosperity. Moreover, many of these nations do not desire a bipolar order dominated by China or the US.

Instead, a multipolar region would better manage and facilitate the power politics in the Indo-Pacific. To successfully transition, the regional rules-based order must be upheld and protected from further degradation. Knowingly or unknowingly, Japan is primed for this role and has the regional influence, diplomatic presence, and military institutions to fulfill that mission. All Japan is missing is an extensive history and experience in organizing, administrating, and projecting a collective of states under the rule of law—luckily, Japan has NATO ready to help.

Photo: Flags of NATO and Japan. By NATO. Public Domain.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.


  • Andrew Erskine

    Andrew Erskine is a Research Analyst at the NATO Association of Canada and a Researcher for the Consortium of Indo-Pacific Researchers. He is also a Political Analyst for The New Global Order, a think tank for young academics and professionals based in Rome, Italy. Andrew is also an Analyst Director for the NATO Research Group, where he leads a case study on regional security in Southeast Asia. He holds a master’s degree in Global Affairs from the University of Prince Edward Island, concentrating in global and regional orders, hegemony and polarity. His work focuses on great power competition, the Indo-Pacific, and Canadian foreign policy.

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Andrew Erskine
Andrew Erskine is a Research Analyst at the NATO Association of Canada and a Researcher for the Consortium of Indo-Pacific Researchers. He is also a Political Analyst for The New Global Order, a think tank for young academics and professionals based in Rome, Italy. Andrew is also an Analyst Director for the NATO Research Group, where he leads a case study on regional security in Southeast Asia. He holds a master’s degree in Global Affairs from the University of Prince Edward Island, concentrating in global and regional orders, hegemony and polarity. His work focuses on great power competition, the Indo-Pacific, and Canadian foreign policy.