Among the fallout from China’s highly ‘provocative and threatening’ military drills around Taiwan, following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island nation, are growing concerns among EU countries. NATO regarding the security situation in the Indo-Pacific.
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Supposed to focus primarily on the Atlantic, NATO navies should now be more visible and active in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, as well as their “partner nations” such as Australia and Japan.
NATO, it may be noted, has links with its “partners around the world” to provide what it calls “cooperative security”. The most important Indo-Pacific “partners” are Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
With the rise of China and the nuclear/missile proliferation of North Korea, NATO formalized in December 2020 the so-called “NAC (North Atlantic Council) +4” meetings, involving these four countries at ministerial and official.
For example, in May 2022, a meeting of the NATO Military Committee in Chiefs of Defense Session with Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand was held at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
And above all, the last NATO summit in June saw the participation for the first time of the heads of government of these four Indo-Pacific countries.
Of course, NATO concerns about China are not exactly new. These even predate the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, whose main ally is currently China.
NATO 2030: United for a new era report clearly stated that “NATO must devote much more time, political resources and action to the security challenges posed by China – based on an assessment of its national capabilities, its economic weight and the objectives declared ideologies of its leaders”. Accordingly, NATO summits in 2021 and 2022 have taken note of this theme.
The 2022 Strategic Concept which was adopted at the Madrid Summit on 29 and 30 June 2022 (NATO 2022 – Strategic Concept) officially named China a “systemic challenge” and highlighted how China’s “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge [NATO’s] interests, security and values,” adding that “China is opaque in implementing its military modernization and publicly stated military-civilian fusion strategy. It also cooperates militarily with Russia.
Incidentally, the interest of NATO members in the Indo-Pacific did not manifest itself only in words but in deeds. In 2021, NATO members sent 21 warships to Asian waters, where they conducted joint operations with all regional navies worried about rising Chinese belligerence.
The most significant show of force would be the seven-month voyage (May-December 2021) of British Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21), based on the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth and her escort of two Royal Navy destroyers, two frigates, two support ships and a nuclear-powered submarine.
This led to a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) across the South China Sea, prompting Beijing to put its navy on red alert. But it was also an alliance effort. British naval forces have conducted exercises in the region with France, Japan, Singapore and the United States.
The task force included the US Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) and US Marine Corps squadron VMFA-22 (known as the Wake Island Avengers), flying F-35B Lightning II fighters of the British aircraft carrier.
France has also sent warships to the Taiwan Strait. French President Emmanuel Macron sees China as the most important challenge in the Indo-Pacific region. In total, France has territories in the Pacific and Indian Oceans that are home to 1.6 million citizens and an EEZ of nine million square kilometers.
It permanently deploys 7,000 military personnel, 20 naval vessels and 40 aircraft across its sovereign possessions. Paris understands that these forces are scattered as tensions rise with China’s push for influence among small island states in the Pacific. The regular presence of the French navy in the South China Sea is seen as contributing to a larger allied effort to undermine Chinese unilateralism.
In 2021, the deployment of the French SSN Emeraude and the amphibious exercises conducted with the United States, Japan and Australia were concrete actions in this regard.
Similarly, the French carrier strike group, built around the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, operated with the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean last year after conducting twin carrier flying operations with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower CSG in the Arabian Sea.
Moreover, a parliamentarian of 2022 report advocates doubling the number of patrol boats in New Caledonia and Polynesia, creating a corvette program to increase combat capability, and acquiring amphibious ships for power projection in the Indo-Pacific.
Germany is also turning its attention to the Indo-Pacific region. In fact, experts considered it to be Europe’s biggest naval deployment to the Indo-Pacific last year – the stay of the German frigate Bayern.
The German government’s “Policy Guidelines for the Indo-Pacific Region” published in 2020 endorsed the concept of “Indo-Pacific” for the first time. They reflected “the negative development of Sino-German relations and the growing dissatisfaction with China across Europe over its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the growing dependence on China for the ‘procurement of critical goods’.
Berlin has expanded bilateral relations with Australia and held security and foreign policy consultations with Canberra and Tokyo.
The Netherlands is the fourth NATO country to adopt a strategy for the Indo-Pacific region. The Hague is advocating for a more assertive approach to balancing and restraining China and to speak out “more often and more forcefully” for violations of international law in the Indo-Pacific.
To support its rhetoric, the Dutch government sent, in May 2021, the frigate HNLMS Evertsen to accompany the British Carrier Strike Group on its mission in the Pacific.
According to Hans Binnendijk, senior member of the Atlantic Council and former senior director of defense policy at the United States National Security Council; and Daniel S. Hamilton, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, there are many solid reasons for which NATO’s areas of concern now extend beyond the Atlantic to Indo-Pacific.
And these are precisely centered on China.
Most notable is the fear that China’s technological advancements and infrastructure investments could create dependencies with direct security implications for NATO. Chinese investors fear targeting Europe’s strategic assets, infrastructure and research and development networks.
“For example, the Chinese purchase of strategic ports in allied countries could complicate allied military mobility and reinforcement. Chinese purchases of tech companies can generate defense supply chain dependencies.
To address this threat, it is argued that allies can explore “further coordination under Article 2 of the North Atlantic Treaty”, an underused provision that commits them to promoting “conditions of stability and well-being” and to “encourage economic collaboration”.
Article 2 provides a framework within which allies could work to improve screening of foreign investment in security-related infrastructure, businesses and technology, as well as other measures to protect individual allied nations from dependencies related to security vis-à-vis China.
This endeavor responds to the need to oppose China’s challenges to NATO’s commitment to a free and open global common good, which, in turn, includes sea passages in the Indo-Pacific through which passes the vast majority of Europe’s trade with Asia, but which is disputed by China. .
“China’s aggressive territorial claims in the South and East China Seas and its threats to Taiwan’s integrity pose real risks of conflict. Critical sea lanes of communication, maritime transport and European trade interactions with China – and with Asia more broadly – would be completely disrupted in such situations.
The interests of various European allies in the Indo-Pacific would be threatened. Opportunities would be created for Russia, as US forces might not be available to adequately reinforce European allies against a simultaneous Russian military challenge.
European allies should quickly close these gaps. They have to plan how they would do it,” the argument continues.
However, this does not mean that NATO countries are ready to openly declare China as an adversary like Russia. They want to lay a “base of deterrence (which) must be strengthened beyond any doubt as to its integrity if peace is to be preserved in the Indo-Pacific”.
It is claimed that continued NATO naval deployments in the region will be key to this foundation.
- Veteran author and journalist Prakash Nanda has been commentating on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and a recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Fellowship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. CONTACT: [email protected]
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