NATO and East Asia

Speech by NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP) in Stockholm, Sweden

  • 12 Jun. 2015 -
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  • Last updated: 15 Jun. 2015 08:42

Thank you Niklas [Swanstrom – Director ISDP]. It is a pleasure to be here to speak about NATO’s relationship with Japan and our other partners in East Asia. I’m here at the invitation of Lars Vargo, with whom I have been friends for many years. We were both our countries’ Ambassador to South Korea at the same time and I share his passion for the people, politics and culture of East Asia (although I haven’t written quite as many Haiku!).

It’s not so very long ago that talking about Europe and East Asia was like talking about different planets.  For centuries, and especially before the construction of the Suez Canal, political and economic ties remained limited, simply because of the vast distances between the two continents. 

But today, that has changed far beyond what was once thought possible.  You can now take off from Stockholm and fly to Tokyo in less than half a day – hardly longer than it takes to drive across Brussels or Stockholm in the morning rush hour. As a consequence, Europe and East Asia are now more closely connected than ever before.  And their fates are also more intertwined than ever before.  Seventy years of relative calm, international trade and globalization have led to unprecedented levels of development for both continents.  We have become increasingly dependent on each other’s stability and prosperity.

But while Europe has experienced an unprecedented level of political, economic and military cooperation and integration, this did not happen to the same degree in Asia.

Today, Asia is home to a myriad of security challenges: from maritime and territorial disputes, to a hostile North Korea actively pursuing its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.  The rise of China has brought enormous economic and trade benefits to us all but it has also introduced a new level of geopolitical rivalry as it builds up its military and asserts its power in the region. 

Here in Europe, these past few years, the principles that have guided European security for decades are being challenged. 

To our south, we see the daily barbarism of terrorist groups like ISIL and Boko Haram.  These groups have spread quickly across the Middle East and North Africa, bringing violence and hatred in their wake.

And to the east, an aggressive Russia has illegally annexed Crimea, part of a sovereign nation, and it is continuing to destabilize Eastern Ukraine by arming and training so-called separatists, through subversion and disinformation, and through direct participation of Russian military forces masquerading as “volunteers.” 

NATO continues to stand firm against the challenge posed by Russia.  At our last Summit in Wales, NATO leaders agreed to a far more visible military presence within the eastern members of the Alliance.  We are doubling the size of the NATO Response Force, with a Spearhead force ready to move at very short notice.  And we are holding more and larger exercises to ensure our forces are ready to respond to any threat from any direction. 

But it would be a mistake to think that NATO was turning inward or has become somehow exclusively Russia-centric.  We must now do both collective defence and crisis management beyond our borders, including maintaining our ongoing commitments to Afghanistan, the Balkans and to countering piracy of the coast of Somalia.  Cooperative security, working closely with our partners, also remains one of the three core tasks of the Alliance.  It has been an indispensable part of NATO’s success in the past.  And it will be equally critical to our success in the future.   

Both East Asia and Europe face an increasingly volatile security environment.  So it is important for NATO Allies and our partners in the region to discuss how we can meet new challenges, manage crises, and project stability, including by working more closely together.

I want to start by discussing NATO’s relationship with one of our closest partners:  Japan.

Japan and NATO are united by common values and a common commitment to the international rules-based order.  Japan is NATO’s most senior partner, having started political consultations in the early nineties.  In 2013, to cement our relationship, we signed a Political Declaration.  And, as Prime Minister Abe put it when he addressed the North Atlantic Council last May, NATO and Japan are “natural partners”. 

Ours is an intensely practical partnership.  By working together, we are keeping the bonds between our nations’ armed forces strong.  Japan (like Sweden) is a key player in NATO’s Interoperability Platform, which is aimed at strengthening our ability to tackle security challenges together with our partners.

Over many years, Japan has proved itself to be a steadfast and reliable partner.  Successive governments have supported – directly or indirectly – international efforts in East Timor, the Golan Heights, the Indian Ocean, the Balkans and Afghanistan. 

We have a very clear, shared interest in a stable and secure Afghanistan – an Afghanistan that no longer offers a safe haven for terrorists threatening our nations.  Since 2001, Tokyo has contributed some US$5 billion to Afghanistan, and it has committed a further $3 billion up to 2017.  It has shouldered 30% of the salaries of the Afghan police, and sent refueling vessels under Operation Enduring Freedom.

Japan is one of our select partner nations that can actively contribute to our capacity-building efforts for other partners, to help them to become stronger and more able to defend themselves with strong forces and institutions.  Along with Australia, Japan is potentially a key partner as we develop Defence Capacity Building packages for our southern neighbours.

This is why NATO welcomes Japan’s policy of “Proactive Contribution to Peace”. It is the next logical step towards Japan assuming a role commensurate with its importance in maintaining international peace and security.  This new legislation, if approved by the Diet, could lead to a significant widening of NATO’s practical military cooperation with Japan.  Japan could benefit more from NATO’s partnership tools and programmes, including further participation in NATO courses and military exercises.  These are vital for any future multinational peace support operations, and vital to maintain the readiness of our forces.

Last year, NATO and Japan concluded an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme.  This describes our common interests and concerns, and offers a blueprint to enhance our practical cooperation.  

To date, we have made important progress through cooperation on civil emergency planning, non-proliferation, and on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.  You can see this in the appointment of Lt Col Chirzu Kurita of the Japanese Self- Defence Forces to work with the NATO Secretary General’s Special Representative on Women, Peace and Security, the first person to be sent by the Japanese government to work at NATO .

But NATO’s partnership work in Asia stretches beyond Japan.  Australia, South Korea, and Mongolia all sent forces to Afghanistan as part of ISAF; Mongolia and Australia continue their support as part of our current Resolute Support mission, while – just like Japan – South Korea provides essential financial support for the Afghan Security Forces.

Australia, in particular, has made significant contributions to our operations in recent years, from the Balkans to Afghanistan.  Beyond operations, Australia works with NATO on a wide range of exercises, numerous science and technology projects, and on the implementation of UNSCR 1325.  And Julie Bishop, Australia’s Foreign Minister, recently attended a meeting of the North Atlantic Council at NATO Headquarters. 

And both Australia and Japan stand shoulder-to-shoulder with NATO in their condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and on the imposition of sanctions to encourage an end to Moscow’s aggressive policy towards its neighbours.  We welcome this solidarity and the recognition that Russia’s actions are not just a threat to Europe and NATO but to the entire rules-based global order.

Though not a partner, NATO is also reaching out to China.  For example, the Chinese navy has taken part in NATO training exercises for submarine search and rescue.  It attends NATO’s annual WMD conference.  And we coordinate with the Chinese navy in dealing with counter-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa.  China has a huge interest in maintaining open and secure sea lanes, and by working together we have been able to cover a far wider area far more effectively. 

We must hope that China’s constructive attitude in the Gulf of Aden can be reflected in a more cooperative stance in the East and South China Seas.  If China rightly wishes to be recognised as a global power, it must also demonstrate a willingness to accept the responsibilities that go with that status.

In the last few years, we have also extended our cooperation with Mongolia beyond Afghanistan, building a long-term partnership and helping it to modernize its armed forces.  We have several ‘Science for Peace and Security’ projects with Mongolia and are working with them to improve their military education and training programmes.

NATO supports the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative – or NAPCI – that was launched by President Park Geun-hye of South Korea.  This is an ambitious attempt to involve South Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, Russia and the United States in something similar to the Helsinki Process, which provides a baseline for predictable and peaceful behavior among nations in the Euro-Atlantic area.

By providing a platform for nations to take forward concrete security cooperation projects, NAPCI has the potential to make a significant contribution to regional security, and to evolve into a regional security institution for Northeast Asia. NATO is not a direct stakeholder in NAPCI, but we are able to provide advice and technical expertise given our long experience with the Helsinki process, confidence-building, transparency and arms control.  Of course, no model of regional security can be transposed wholesale on another part of the world.  But there is always value in the sharing of experience.

This is a significant contribution to regional security.  Of course, the door is open for North Korea to join the NAPCI, but so far they have declined to step through it. 

Although NATO members and our East Asian partners have our own regional concerns and much of our focus is on our large neighbours – Russia and China – we also face many of the same global challenges: challenges like terrorism, cyber, migration and piracy; challenges where the European and Asian theatres are interlinked and where we have a shared interest in protecting what is sometimes called the Global Commons.

We and our Asian partners cooperate here too.  We run joint training exercise, for maritime and cyber defence and we share intelligence.  This is an area where we can and should go further.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

By supporting our partners across the globe – near and far, practically and politically – the NATO Alliance can help to foster stability around the world.  By forging a clear understanding of where our common interests lie, we can continue to shape world affairs for the better. 

We often say that NATO is not seeking become an actor in Asia, but with Asia.   By working together with our East Asian partners, we can help to strengthen nations who share our values of liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and bolster the international rules-based order that has served our nations and our peoples so well for such a long time.