Many of NATO's new partners come from in or around Asia. How does each side see each other - and what's the way to ensure both benefit from working together? Michito Tsuruoka looks into this from an Asian standpoint.

NATO’s relationships with the countries outside the Euro-Atlantic region have developed rapidly in the last few years. Cooperation in Afghanistan has driven the development. Countries like Australia, New Zealand and Singapore are now troop contributors to the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan. Others, like Japan and South Korea, are making direct and indirect contribution to the Alliance’s effort there. These countries are now called “other partners across the globe.”

While countries like Australia and Japan are often seen as objects of the Alliance’s partnership policy, it is NATO who is the partner from those countries’ perspective. This article will examine how NATO is perceived as a partner by the Alliance’s new “partners across the globe.” Why have those countries strengthened relations with NATO? What kind of partner is NATO in the eyes of those countries? And what do they expect from NATO?

It is Japan’s intention to use NATO as an additional venue to raise international, particularly European, awareness of the Asian security situation

NATO as a political Partner
To begin with, each country has a different set of motivations regarding its relationship with the Alliance. When Japan made an overture to NATO in 2006 and 2007, it was predominantly a diplomatic move. It is true that both Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe mentioned the possibility of operational cooperation between Japan and NATO during their respective addresses to the NAC (North Atlantic Council). It should be remembered, however, that both men spent much time there explaining the Asian security situation, including China and North Korea. Abe even directly “requested” the Allies “to urge North Korea to take sincere steps towards the resolution” of the issue of abduction of Japanese citizens by the North Korean authorities.

It is Japan’s intention to use NATO as an additional venue to raise international, particularly European, awareness of the Asian security situation. That is why Tokyo appreciated the NAC statements condemning the North Korean missile launch in July 2006 and the nuclear test in October the same year. Despite highly bellicose languages from Pyongyang, dealing with the country remains a diplomatic game, where international solidarity matters a lot.

NATO may not be a political actor in its own right. But as the world’s biggest and most capable political-military alliance, it carries a certain—both intended and unintended—weight in international security affairs. This also explains why those who are sceptical about NATO, not least those who do not share values with NATO, fear the expansion of the Alliance’s area of activities and influence. NATO’s image in the outside world as an influential security actor is arguably stronger than NATO itself recognises. But precisely because of this, Japan sees NATO as an important new political partner. Other partners may follow suit.

Afghanistan is a place where partners have been able to offer real tangible links with NATO © Reuters/Omar Sobhani

NATO in operational cooperation
Australia’s and New Zealand’s relationships with NATO have developed largely based on their troop contribution to ISAF. As a result, operational cooperation is the main pillar of Australia-NATO and NZ-NATO relations, unlike Japan-NATO. These countries use NATO as an international framework too. Without NATO, Australia and New Zealand would not have been able participate in international military efforts in Afghanistan. NATO has enabled these countries’ contribution to international efforts there. Once in the ISAF, it is legitimate that Australia and other contributors demand more information-sharing and more involvement in policy-shaping and eventually decision-making. Australia, a country which has more than 1,000 troops in the South of Afghanistan engaged in combat missions, has been the most vocal partner in making these cases, which NATO has tried hard to accommodate.

Both at the political and strategic level and the theatre level, the level of information-sharing and involvement seems to have improved substantially in the past year. Ministerial (mainly Defence Ministers’) meetings in the ISAF format have become a regular event and working level troop contributors’ meetings such as in the PCG (Policy Coordination Group) framework serves the venue for more substantial consultation.

However, the question of to what extent NATO is prepared to involve non-NATO contributors in the Alliance’s internal processes will not be solved in a clear fashion in the foreseeable future. For NATO, to accommodate the partners’ demands and satisfy them is necessary to secure their continued contribution. The principle of “no taxation without representation” holds true here.

It is certainly no coincidence that so far, most of the Alliance’s new partners beyond the Euro-Atlantic region are in fact US allies, such as Australia and Japan

NATO as a means of cooperation with the US
When countries such as Australia and New Zealand decided to send troops to Afghanistan, the partner they chose did not have to be NATO. In fact, when NZ deployed troops to Afghanistan for the first time, it was done under the framework of the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in close bilateral cooperation with the US. There was no secret that it was a decision to support specifically the US and to show solidarity with the country in the wake of the 9/11, which had nothing to with NZ-NATO cooperation at that time. As a result of the geographical expansion of the ISAF in late 2006, the NZ troops stationed in Bamyan province had to move from the OEF command to the ISAF. From NZ’s point of view, the resultant cooperation with NATO was largely an unintended by-product of what it had been doing regardless of the ISAF.

This clearly shows another critical value that NATO has as a framework to cooperate in international peace operations and other areas. It is that NATO offers an additional route to cooperate with the US. Cooperation with NATO including troop contribution to NATO-led missions and operations can take place in the context of cooperation with the US. This should not be a surprising element given that even among the Allies, contribution to the ISAF and other NATO-led activities are often seen as a way to ensure positive relations with the US. “Partners across the globe” are not an exception here.

It is certainly no coincidence that so far, most of the Alliance’s new partners beyond the Euro-Atlantic region are in fact US allies, such as Australia and Japan. Australia-NATO and Japan-NATO cooperation are new faces of these countries’ bilateral security relations with the US. A Joint Statement of the US-Japan 2+2 (Security Consultative Committee: SCC) of May 2007 placed Japan-NATO cooperation in the context of ‘common strategic objectives’ of the two allies.

NATO as a multilateral school
Cooperation in Afghanistan is one thing, but it needs to be remembered that it is not the whole story about the relationships between NATO and the partners across the globe. In the first place, conducting operations like the ISAF is still a new business for NATO and the Alliance has many other things to do. In such fields as interoperability, standardisation, joint procurement, research and development, multilateral planning and defence planning, NATO has an unparalleled unique set of expertise and experience. These are the areas, in fact, where the partners can benefit most from cooperation with NATO.

The key is NATO’s multilateral nature. Countries outside the Euro-Atlantic area generally lack multilateral experience in security and defence. For example, in the Asia-Pacific region, where most of NATO’s new partners are situated, multilateral security cooperation is still weak if not totally absent. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) only conducted the first ever real joint exercise on civil emergency (disaster relief) in May 2009. Multilateral planning and operation is still a new idea in the region and the militaries in the countries of the region have limited multilateral experiences.

In this context, practical cooperation with NATO—participating in NATO’s exercise and seminars—provides a good opportunity for the partners to become familiar with multilateral ways of planning and operations. Also, in this globalised world and the period of limited resources to military, research and development and procurement of defence equipment need to be approached multilaterally with cooperation with other countries. NATO’s history in this regard is far from perfect. But still, it provides a useful platform to advance multilateral approach to security, which the partners can take part in.

Challenges ahead for NATO
NATO’s new partners outside the Euro-Atlantic region see NATO very differently from the Alliance’s traditional partners in the PfP (Partnership for Peace) framework. New partners do not seek membership. They are not countries in transition from communism either. They do not need NATO’s advice on how to ensure the democratic control of armed forces, etc. NATO has been successful in assisting partners aspiring to become a member of the Alliance. However, it is still a new business for NATO to cooperate with non-European advanced democracies.

On NATO’s side, there is still no consensus on what way NATO should go in terms of relationships with its new partners outside the Euro-Atlantic region. Getting more help, both military and civilian, to the ISAF and other NATO-led missions and operations from those countries is one thing. Given the diverse nature of motivations those countries have in moving closer to the Alliance, however, it is now evident that NATO needs a clearer idea of what it wants to achieve through the development of the new partnerships. The development of its new Strategic Concept in 2010 provides an opportunity.

At the very least, NATO needs to think through how it can respond to the partners’ expectations toward the Alliance. A window of opportunity is now open for NATO to take part in shaping a new international security network. It is up to NATO whether it will seize it.