NATO and Japan : Strengthening Asian stability

Dr Masako Ikegami looks at the NATO-Japan relationship and offers her recommendations for improving East Asian security.

Bilateral meeting, January 2007: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with NATO Secretary General

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (© NATO)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Alliance headquarters in January 2007 - the first visit by a Japanese head of government - marked a high point in the NATO-Japan relationship, which has developed steadily since the early 1990s. The Alliance and Japan have started a strategic dialogue, with high-level officials meeting regularly. In addition, a series of NATO-Japan Security Conference have been held since 1990.

In my view, more NATO-Japan collaboration would be useful, given the importance of the Asia-Pacific region to global stability, and given both parties' complementary needs and interests. This was also the message brought back by 22 parliamentarians of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly to their capitals after visiting Tokyo and Osaka, Japan in June 2007.

Recent history

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has extended its operations - and collaboration with partners - in response to major threats to peace and stability such as terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Both the Alliance and Japan have been compelled to redefine their respective security policies and strategies. The overarching threat concept became less defined, while regional and ethnic conflicts were multiplying.

Security-related collaboration between individual Allied nations and Japan has become more concrete since 9/11, particularly in the global fight against terrorism. Tokyo has, since 2001, sent naval assets into the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea to help re-supply Western navies. Since 2003, Japan has also made a major contribution to the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of armed groups in Afghanistan, working in close proximity to NATO forces and pledging to provide humanitarian assistance as well as underwriting support to NATO-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

It is time for Japan and the Alliance to assume greater responsibilities together, and to engage more actively to promote global security and peace

Further, the Japanese Self Defence Forces have worked alongside several NATO member countries' forces in UN-led peacekeeping operations in the Golan Heights; in humanitarian and reconstruction assistance in Iraq at the request of the United States; and in earthquake disaster relief and rescue in Pakistan.

Changing security environments

In post-Cold War Europe, the risk of major armed conflicts has been significantly reduced. Unconventional threats such as terrorism now dominate European security concerns. In Asia the picture is much gloomier.

After the disintegration and transformation of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, it was inevitable that the Alliance would change and extend its mission scope. Without a grave, imminent threat, the 'softening' of the Organisation's mission was a logical result. The changing nature of the external menace - from the Soviet Union to shadowy, amorphous non-state actors - has also blurred NATO's threat definition. As a result, the Alliance was reformulated on the basis of "shared values and will".

The extension of the Alliance's collaboration with partners beyond the Euro-Atlantic area was to be expected as NATO's resources and operations spread into wider theatres. And so Japan and NATO have strengthened ties to promote effective burden-sharing in global security.

However, Japan's security environment changed in a very different way from that of Europe after the Cold War. Unlike NATO, Japan has gradually become exposed to new and more imminent military threats, while US forces have been increasingly engaged in the Gulf and in Afghanistan.

Asian instability

There are still two major flash-points in East Asia, the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait, where in a worst-case scenario, the risk of inter-state conflict involving WMDs cannot be ruled out. Additionally, the East China Sea and Spratly Island disputes, among others, count as risk zones for armed conflicts over territory and natural resources. And China's hunt for those resources is intensifying, backed up by its growing military muscle.

Meanwhile, the United States' overseas forces are undergoing global redeployment which affects the Asia-Pacific region, adding another factor of uncertainty for regional security in the coming years. The absence of credible regional confidence- and security-building measures only aggravates this already volatile situation.

Nuclear North Korea

Japan's concerns have been intensified by Democratic People's Republic of Korea's (DPRK) Nodong missile launches 1993, followed by the Taiwan Strait missile crisis in 1995 and 1996 and the Taepodong missile launch in 1998. With the subsequent missile and bomb tests in 2006, the North Korean nuclear crisis escalated significantly, crossing what was a 'red line' only a decade ago. Japan could soon be within range of a DPRK nuclear missile attack.

Despite ongoing diplomatic efforts, many experts believe that the current six-party talks will not persuade North Korea to completely de-nuclearise. The agenda of the talks caters to Pyongyang's needs, with the DPRK offering to deal with the nuclear issue in return for a security guarantee for the regime, as well as economic aid to ensure its survival. However, highly enriched uranium is easy to hide and cannot be rooted out without North Korea's complete commitment, which is unlikely.

On the other hand, any insurgency that might be caused by economic strangulation and consequent DPRK regime instability - or any North Korean offensive action in retaliation for economic sanctions - could easily escalate. In addition to the near-automatic involvement of both Koreas, China would almost certainly intervene. The risk of inter-state conflict on the Korean peninsula is still quite real.

China and Taiwan

The People's Republic of China (PRC) has deployed nearly a thousand short- and medium-range ballistic missiles targeting Taiwan and US forces based in Japan. Beijing claims that these missiles are intended to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence - but a surprise attack using hundreds of missiles is also regarded as an effective opening gambit for any attempt to seize Taiwan by force.

Further, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is increasingly procuring offensive weapon systems, including an amphibious assault ship which will significantly improve the Chinese navy's sealift and power projection capabilities. The PLA is also intensifying preparations for operations against Japan on the assumption that Tokyo would provide logistical support for any American intervention in a cross-Strait conflict.

In 2004, a Chinese nuclear submarine intruded into Japanese territorial waters, and PLA electronic warfare planes have frequently violated Japan's air defence zone. Measured by cases in which Japan's Air Self-Defence Forces scrambled against PLA aircraft, the frequency of air intrusions by China's air force jumped from 13 occasions in 2004 to 107 the following year. And in an unpleasant surprise in 2006, a submerged PLA attack submarine shadowed a Japan-based US aircraft carrier in the East China Sea undetected until the submarine surfaced.

These actions are allegedly for the purposes of collecting anti-submarine warfare (ASW) data and electronic intelligence. But the fact is that the PLA is intensifying actions that target US-Japan security cooperation, which is presently the only major obstacle to China's ambition for unification with Taiwan by force.

All of this has happened against the background of rapid growth in China's military spending over the last decade, with a 165 per cent rise in military expenditure since 1996. Beijing purchases large quantities of advanced weapons, including 43 per cent of all Russian arms exports in 2005. And in terms of the 2001 to 2005 aggregate imports of major weapons systems, China was ranked the top arms recipient with an import value of over US$13 billion.

China's rapid military build-up of advanced weapon systems, recent large-scale military exercises with Russia linked to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO; current members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), and repeated intrusions into Japanese airspace and territorial waters all suggest that the PLA's preparations for the use of force against Taiwan are not a bluff.

A joint security agenda

NATO-Japanese cooperation has thus far been mainly focused on support to post-conflict recovery work such as reconstruction and peacekeeping in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Since the Cold War, NATO has mainly been engaged in post-conflict settlement work rather than deterrence or conflict prevention, a fundamental change in direction for the Alliance. That said, given its powerful military forces, the Alliance is still able to exercise its deterrent capability for the purpose of conflict prevention.

Asian nuclear non-proliferation is a prime example of a pressing issue on which NATO and Japan could collaborate to good effect. A. Q. Khan's network, revealed in 2004, was a global, clandestine syndicate of nuclear-related technology. In Asia, many weak or failed states involved in the network tend to also get involved in, or provide a base for, people- and drug-trafficking. Thus, when virtually failed states seek to possess weapons of mass destruction as deterrents to major powers, WMD proliferation and clandestine business merge to form a proliferation network.

Asian nuclear non-proliferation is a prime example of a pressing issue on which NATO and Japan could collaborate to good effect

If this currently peculiar proliferation model - the combination of a military junta, isolationism, the "bunkerisation" of a capital, and WMD development, as in the cases of North Korea and Myanmar - spreads globally, it will pose a serious challenge to international security. It is therefore vital to find a comprehensive solution for the problem posed by the convergence of nuclear ambitions, trafficking, counterfeiting, etc.

This issue is beyond the scope of Asian efforts alone, and NATO-Japan cooperation could play a crucial preventive role. Measures could include such actions as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), cooperation for more effective border controls and economic containment of proliferators.

Another important potential area of cooperation is in the prevention of a cross-Strait conflict between China and Taiwan. Beijing's current calculation that only the United States and Japan will intervene in defence of Taiwan, combined with PLA's growing confidence, might well prompt the PRC to take military action.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has the potential to become a main adversary to both Japan and NATO

But if other major powers and organisations such as NATO begin to communicate 'strategic ambiguity' to China - namely that those powers might support the United States against the PRC in any such conflict - Beijing would probably abandon its intention to use force against Taiwan.

It is also worthwhile to note that since 9/11, China has been consistently upgrading the SCO from a regional conflict prevention organisation into a collective defence bloc. Recent joint military exercises, flows of oil resources and unregistered arms transfers between Shanghai Cooperation Organisation member nations, in combination with the organisation's nuclear capability suggest that the SCO has the potential to become a major adversary to both Japan and NATO.

Steps for Japan

Japan's unique political constraints prohibit it from maintaining any offensive or retaliatory military capability, but Tokyo has also set up a special commission to investigate whether Japan's Constitution could be reinterpreted to ease some of the restraints on the roles and missions of the Self-Defence Forces.

In addition, Japan has upgraded international peacekeeping operations from their previous status as "supplementary" to "priority" missions for the Self-Defence Forces.

Tokyo is creating a new National Security Council to coordinate security policy across various ministries, which have not always communicated well with each other in the past.

And lastly, the Defence Ministry has recently been upgraded from the status of an agency to that of a full ministry.

Beyond these recent actions, the main viable measures Tokyo can take against such serious security concerns are to:

  • reinforce US-Japanese security cooperation;
  • increase partnership with NATO to ensure credible deterrence;
  • improve the international security environment by increasing support to peacekeeping operations;
  • contribute to peacemaking with economic and humanitarian aid; and
  • remain firmly committed to international arms control and disarmament schemes.

In this context, Japan has been consistently expanding its contributions to major international security initiatives since the early 1990s. Closer collaboration with NATO is fully aligned with this set of measures.

Steps for NATO

In order to exercise effective deterrence, NATO should maintain a high degree of unity among its members and partners. If the Organisation overstretches its cooperation commitments with countries with widely differing positions, Alliance coherence might diminish. In other words, geographic expansion devoid of any overarching principle could be counterproductive for NATO, as would strong partnership with actors that do not share the fundamental values of democracy and human rights. In the worst case scenario, such partners could turn out to be 'Trojan horses' that would eventually erode NATO's unity.

A coalition composed of partners who share basic values will, on the other hand, strengthen NATO's implementation capacity and deterrent effect. In order to mitigate such risks and capitalise on resulting opportunities, NATO might decide to set up an affiliation system with two categories:

  • active partnership for global "security-making" with countries that share fundamental Euro-Atlantic values; and
  • association for the purposes of engagement and confidence-building with countries that do not adhere to Alliance principles, but are nevertheless significant actors in international or regional security.

Under such a scheme, Japan would fit into the first category, while Russia (or eventually China, if invited) could fit into the second. NATO could thus enhance confidence-building measures with some countries, while acting more vigorously for conflict-prevention with those close partners that share basic Euro-Atlantic values and commitments.

In summary, the NATO-Japan partnership, which has been developing steadily since the early 1990s, has entered into a new phase. In my view, it is time for Japan and the Alliance to assume greater responsibilities together, and to engage more actively to promote global security and peace.

The relationship is on the right track, but a clear joint vision and roadmap are needed in order to enable these crucial next steps.

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