NATO and the Asian powers: Cooperation and its Limits
Presenting an integrated view of NATO-Asia relations can be a deceptive exercise. The patchwork of initiatives established between NATO and countries in the region has never been framed by any overarching Asia-specific rationale. Insofar as there is a strategic imperative driving outreach in the region, it has been an effort to draw in "global partners" into closer cooperation with existing alliance operations - primarily in Afghanistan - rather than any broader process of identifying shared security concerns either with the major Asian powers or even with traditional partners in the region.
In Asia itself, interest in NATO has waxed and waned. The partnership with greatest potential - that with Tokyo - has been hampered by Japan's recent political turbulence, and the high-level impetus provided by former prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso has yet to be re-established under the new Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government. Beijing's attention levels have closely corresponded to its degree of anxiety about alliance military presence in China's periphery and the state of NATO's relationship[s with its regional rivals. New Delhi has been consistently sceptical about the virtues of closer engagement. While cooperation with Australia, New Zealand and South Korea has a more consistently positive dynamic, the net result is nevertheless a notably underdeveloped framework of ties between the transatlantic alliance and the most significant emerging global security actors.
In theory, NATO's new strategic concept should provide an opportunity to redress this. While there are likely to be a few elements in the concept directly concerned with the Asian region as such, it will at least provide the platform for a conversation about shared security threats that lifts sights beyond the all-consuming subject of Afghanistan. Whether it be energy security, maritime security, terrorism, non-proliferation, or the future of the greater Middle East, it is clear that all sides have goals in common and various capabilities that could be deployed in a more complementary fashion. Likely moves to consolidate the confusing array of partnership categories will also help. And this will also be assisted by the new NATO Secretary General's initiative to develop dialogues of a more political nature with major Asian powers such as China and India, neither of who is yet interested in the sort of operational cooperation that governs talks with other partners.
There are, however, significant obstacles to overcome. NATO's experience in Afghanistan, which was once a driving force for its relationships in Asia, is now arguably an inhibiting one. Scepticism about the institution has grown both in the region and in the United States, while the appetite within NATO for continued presence in South-West Asia, or for future operations of a similar nature, has diminished. But even if there is a resurgence of the vision of NATO as a globally networked alliance willing to conduct out-of-area operations, a basic question still needs answered - given the challenging legacy to overcome with the two largest powers in the region, should NATO really be the institution of choice when looking to develop security partnerships in Asia?
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