Next Steps for Closer Cooperation

NATO and its Indo-Pacific Partners

June 26, 2023
Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and increasing security concerns in the Taiwan Strait have Atlantic and Pacific democracies ever more concerned about their security and defense.

For decades, the security theaters for both oceans have largely been separate, and the policy and expert communities working on each have often competed rather than cooperated. But this gap is beginning to close. Russia’s aggression, its closer ties with China, and the malicious actions undertaken by both in democracies worldwide, are bringing those democracies closer.

NATO has four partners in the Indo-Pacific: Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand. According to its 2022 strategic concept, the alliance seeks to develop deeper ties with this quartet “to tackle cross-regional challenges and shared security interests”. The partnerships are growing more substantive through increased high-level consultations, including the participation of the four countries’ political leaders at last year’s NATO summit in Madrid and more formalized cooperation, such as discussions about a NATO office in Tokyo.

The alliance’s upcoming Vilnius summit seeks to go beyond the significant commitments made in Madrid and establish agreement on concrete measures that deepen NATO’s ability to address the increasingly challenging global environment. A promising area for progress lies in partnerships with the Indo-Pacific.

The German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs brought together in April leading experts from the Indo-Pacific with NATO experts and officials to identify areas for deeper cooperation. The conference did just that, noting the importance of joint action on countering cyber threats and setting standards for emerging disruptive technologies, improving policy consultation and information exchange, and expanding learning through NATO’s Centers of Excellence network. But given the high stakes of deeper Atlantic-Pacific cooperation, participants were wary of overstating ambitions.

Two Theaters: Common Challenges

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine is a catalyst for closer security dialogue and cooperation. NATO’s Indo-Pacific partner countries, for which the conflict is highly relevant, have aided Ukraine’s effort to defend itself. A revanchist Russia can pose a threat to the Pacific where, despite waging war in Ukraine, it joins China in military exercises.

The Pacific partners are also concerned about the demonstration effect of Russia’s actions on other regional adversaries, including North Korea and China. As Japan’s ambassador to Lithuania said, Russia’s aggression is a “vital concern. … What happens in Ukraine today may happen in East Asia tomorrow.” South Korean Deputy Minister for Multilateral and Global Affairs Yongmin Park plainly stated the region’s worry by noting that “geopolitical winter is coming.” South Korea, like Lithuania, is a frontline state.

China is learning from NATO’s response and that of its partners to Russian aggression. Beijing currently enables the Kremlin’s war in Europe, but the full implications of their partnership remain unclear. Beyond joint exercises, the two countries could cooperate on developing dual-use and military technologies. Future developments may be difficult for NATO or its Pacific partners to track and counter on their own. Instead, NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners can learn from each other’s experiences and share lessons to understand quickly changing dynamics.

NATO allies and partners must also reduce vulnerabilities at home and strengthen internal resilience. Threats are growing against critical community infrastructure, from hospitals to banks, and against activities in space and at sea. The imperative to counter economic coercion and protect supply chains while creating and enforcing technological standards that are compatible with a rules-based international order grows more urgent.

The impact of state and non-state disinformation efforts is another concern in both theaters. Increasingly, Russia and China are coordinating such efforts and sharing false narratives about Ukraine and NATO through their media networks. Their manipulation of information is likely to grow as cooperation between NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners deepens.

Protecting societies in NATO member states and partner countries means defending against a wide range of potential threat actors. State and non-state adversaries must be confronted to prevent or counter cyberattacks. In this area, North Korea demands close attention, as do lessons learned from South Korea’s experience dealing with hits hostile neighbor.

Promising Areas for Deeper Cooperation

NATO members and their partners are eager to deepen partnerships in cybersecurity and defense, emerging disruptive technologies, information sharing, and political dialogue and consultation. The cyber realm is the most promising area of cooperation as all countries concerned are in the crosshairs of threat actors, state and non-state. Allies and partners can cooperate on improving defenses against cyber threats through their NATO partnerships and by joining exercises held by NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn.

Similarly, cooperation on research, innovation, standard-setting, and interoperability for emerging disruptive technologies would be beneficial. Collaboration on technology alone is critical for countering the spread of digital authoritarianism and maintaining battlefield advantages, while joint efforts on space-related issues could also be especially promising. NATO would benefit from support from Australia and New Zealand on, for example, launches and reconnaissance, especially that involving low-orbit satellites. Other partners eager to develop greater capabilities in space are limited by cost.

Deepening ties between NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners would also facilitate more political dialogue and greater exchange of information. The increasing complexity and interconnectedness of global challenges means that siloing or even concentrating political discourse in one theater is shortsighted, constraining awareness and responses when crises occur. One way of facilitating exchange would be through opening a NATO Centre of Excellence in the Indo-Pacific, perhaps in Southeast Asia, with joint backing from the alliance and host country. In parallel, Indo-Pacific partners should expand their participation in existing NATO Centres of Excellence.

Moves to expand information exchange would also help address two other areas of concern: addressing the vulnerabilities of undersea pipelines and cables, which requires significant resources, and confronting the challenges of climate change. Pacific island states face an existential threat from the latter and are in need of coordinated assistance, which NATO and an Indo-Pacific partner could provide.

Organizing Principles of Cooperation

The desire for cooperation between NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners is great, as are the stakes. At the same time, allies are concerned about protecting NATO’s core mission of deterrence and defense. They are also eager to avoid potential overreach and misperceptions about the intentions of cooperation.

For deeper partnership between NATO and the Indo-Pacific partners to be successful, the areas and scope of cooperation need to be defined by organizing principles:

  1. Given their geopolitical importance, the tasks NATO and its partners assume should lay a solid foundation for relationships that are valued and will grow. Moonshots with high likelihoods of failure are to be avoided. Concrete and efficient initial projects are preferrable.
  2. Areas of partnership should address a need that NATO and its partners can meet quickly and that would otherwise not be fulfilled. Where cooperation seeks to develop something new, such as capabilities or standards, the approach must improve efficiency and security for all involved.
  3. Partnership needs to be efficient and financially sustainable given available resources. This may limit cooperation in certain areas, such as space, which requires significant investment.
  4. Cooperation that addresses economic coercion and other sub-threshold threats touches on areas often covered by other multilateral or bilateral formats. NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners must work to complement and cooperate with other bodies, especially the EU, and they should select the format with the best reputation for addressing a given concern.
  5. Cooperation can reinforce the rules-based order against the threat posed by digital authoritarianism. The bedrock of common values should underscore partnerships. It will, however, be necessary to remain open to cooperating with like- and similar-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region. A comparable attitude of openness to the public at large is needed to dispel any attempt to label cooperation as untransparent.