Upcoming NATO Summit and the Great Game for the Asia-Pacific
An article appeared on the website of the Atlantic Council on March 26 entitled Opportunity knocks for NATO and its partners in the Asia-Pacific, which elaborates plans for continuing and qualitatively upgrading the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s steady but largely unnoticed penetration of that region through military partnerships, port visits and exercises with NATO naval groups and the establishment of Asia-Pacific nations’ liaison offices at NATO Headquarters in Brussels among other measures. It came as it did immediately after the recent two-day foreign ministers meeting at NATO Headquarters before and after which NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Anthony Blinken unrelentingly thundered against China and Russia, with Blinken casting them into the same category with Iran and North Korea as threats not only to the Asia-Pacific region where they’re situated but to the entire world.
The Atlantic Council, which is sixty-years-old this year, is considered to be the world’s preeminent pro-NATO think tank, one which has spawned dozens of mirror organizations in the post-Cold War period, especially in Eastern European nations and former Soviet republics where they have been instrumental in lobbying, almost always successfully, for their host countries’ NATO membership. Despite the Atlantic Council’s name, it has, reflecting and keeping pace with NATO itself, adopted an international purview and mandate over the past thirty years. It now has five regional bureaus: Europe and Eurasia, Americas, Africa, Indo-Pacific and Middle East. The term Europe and Eurasia would not have been employed during the Cold War when the NATO and transatlantic community were understood to be limited to North America and Europe. Similarly, the term Indo-Pacific has recently come to replace Asia-Pacific, as in the Pentagon three years ago changing the name of its largest geographical unified combatant command from Pacific Command to Indo-Pacific Command.
The article on NATO and its Asia-Pacific, or Indo-Pacific, partners was penned by Mirna Galic, identified (even reciting the initials would make one breathless) nonresident senior fellow at the Asia Security Initiative and the Transatlantic Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Throughout the piece she effectively employs a rhetorical technique that could justifiably be deemed dialectical; that is, she introduces an issue, or component of one, then cites problems and complications that would appear to make it impractical or insoluble, and finally intimates methods of resolving the problems she’s identified. For example, in her own words:
Proposition: “NATO’s Asia-Pacific partner countries – Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea – are easily among the Alliance’s most undervalued assets.”
Objection: “Although NATO and these partners have developed their relations over the past two decades, various constraints have limited the ambition and potential of these relationships.”
Resolution: “A recent report from a group of experts, charged by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg with identifying ways to strengthen the Alliance for the future, could lead to a change in this status quo.”
The 67-page NATO document she alludes to, NATO 2030: United for a New Era, will be examined later.
The four nations she mentions have for decades had individual partnerships with NATO (Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programs) and have to varying degrees supplied military assistance to NATO for wars and post-war deployments in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Afghanistan as well as to NATO naval operations in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. As the author also points out, the U.S. has treaties with Australia, Japan and South Korea that obligate Washington to go to war in defense of the three nations if they are or can be portrayed as being victims of military aggression. The U.S. also has troops and military bases in those three nations, those in Australia of recent date. Those countries are also part of the U.S. sea- and land-based anti-ballistic missile system. Galic mentions in addition that Australia, Japan and South Korea possess some the world’s largest and most sophisticated militaries, “outmatching those of the vast majority of NATO allies.”
Though she is adept at disguising it (see above), the author has really presented an advocacy paper, one with several concrete recommendations for strengthening NATO’s military presence and influence in the Asia-Pacific area through proxies to “enable NATO and its Asia-Pacific partners to maximize the potential of these partnerships going forward – both in regard to China and more broadly.”
From individual to group, from regional to global partnerships – and beyond
In 2012 the four nations she mentioned were upgraded from individual NATO partnerships to being members of NATO’s Partners Across the Globe, the military bloc’s first non-regional, non-geographical program whose name speaks for itself. The other four initial members – Afghanistan, Iraq, Mongolia and Pakistan – are also Asia-Pacific nations. (Here and elsewhere Asia is considered to include West Asia – the Middle East – but exclude the three nations of the South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.)
But this consolidation of eight NATO partners in the Asia-Pacific, and that moreover into a global military partnership, is not sufficient for Galic. She laments the fact that “These partners belong to a catch-all ‘Global Partners’ designation created for countries falling outside of NATO’s formalized, regionally based partnership categories: Partnership for Peace, Mediterranean Dialogue, and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.” The above, with forty nations altogether, is not enough. Though the other three NATO programs she mentions also include members in the Asia-Pacific as will be demonstrated later. She is indisputably advocating the further consolidation of NATO current and future partners into a military network as rigid and as exclusive as NATO itself.
Not Asian NATO but NATO in Asia
For years if not decades there has been discussion in think tanks and in the press about an Asian NATO. What has evidently been meant is an analogy to NATO: an Asia-Pacific equivalent of NATO; that is, a military alliance of pro-U.S. nations in the region.
That is definitively not what NATO and the U.S. are planning to do. They are accelerating the integration of individual, collective and NATO partnership programs into a military adjunct to NATO and the U.S. Not an Asian version of NATO, but Asian nations becoming allied with and subordinate to NATO. With an Asian NATO one would expect to see a revival of U.S.-led Cold War military alliances – themselves modeled after NATO itself – like the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) and the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS). Instead what has occurred is that members of those defunct blocs have become NATO partners, all of them now Partners Across the Globe: Australia, Iraq, New Zealand and Pakistan.
Extending NATO’s Asia-Pacific military network from all directions
The other three NATO partnership programs the author cites – Partnership for Peace, Mediterranean Dialogue, and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative – include nations in the Asia-Pacific region. Partnership for Peace was inaugurated in 1994, only three years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, to ultimately enmesh all European nations and former Soviet republics in NATO’s military (and political) network. The program has trained all sixteen members of NATO that joined the bloc after the Cold War, all in Eastern Europe. Five Central Asian former Soviet republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are members.
During what will soon be the U.S.’s and NATO’s twenty-year war in Afghanistan NATO nations ran operations out of air bases in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan (France) and Uzbekistan (Germany). During the height of the war, when NATO commanded 130,000 troops from 54 nations under the International Security Assistance Force, the U.S. and NATO were transiting 50,000 troops a month through the Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan. NATO could draw upon decades of partnership, training and joint military exercises in securing the assistance of the three above countries. A NATO partner can hardly decline a NATO request.
Asia-Pacific countries that had personnel serving under NATO in Afghanistan were Australia, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mongolia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Tonga and the United Arab Emirates.
NATO currently has more troops than the U.S. in Afghanistan, as it will soon have twice as many in Iraq.
The Mediterranean Dialogue consists of two Middle Eastern nations, Israel and Jordan, and five North African countries: Algeria, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. (In recent weeks and at the just-concluded NATO foreign ministers meeting the alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg detailed plans to intensify military ties with Jordan and Tunisia as well as Iraq.)
The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative was created at the NATO summit in the city that gives it its name in 2004. It is a program to solidify military ties with the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Its current members are Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The author of the Atlantic Council article expressed the view, above, that a “patchwork” of three regional and one global NATO military partnership would not adequately address the broader plans NATO has for the Asia-Pacific.
Here are the current Asia-Pacific members of the four NATO programs she listed:
Afghanistan: Partners Across the Globe
Australia: Partners Across the Globe
Bahrain: Istanbul Cooperation Initiative
Iraq: Partners Across the Globe
Israel: Mediterranean Dialogue
Japan: Partners Across the Globe
Jordan: Mediterranean Dialogue
Kazakhstan: Partnership for Peace
Kyrgyzstan: Partnership for Peace
Kuwait: Istanbul Cooperation Initiative
Mongolia: Partners Across the Globe
New Zealand: Partners Across the Globe
Pakistan: Partners Across the Globe
Qatar: Istanbul Cooperation Initiative
South Korea: Partners Across the Globe
Tajikistan: Partnership for Peace
Turkmenistan: Partnership for Peace
United Arab Emirates: Istanbul Cooperation Initiative
Uzbekistan: Partnership for Peace
She also alluded to a larger role for the bloc in the Indian Ocean (NATO had an earlier deployment, Operation Ocean Shield, in the Indian Ocean off the Horn of Africa) and “sending NATO observers to exercises held by Asia-Pacific partners.” About a decade ago a Standing NATO Maritime Group was scheduled to cross through the strategic Strait of Malacca connecting the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean before being reassigned at the last minute.
So as not to too transparently reveal the anti-China nature of NATO’s shift to the Asia-Pacific, she suggests this subterfuge to NATO leaders: “A more holistic and strategic approach to relations between NATO and the Asia-Pacific partners would substantiate the view that NATO’s increased engagement on China is part of a natural evolution of its relationships in the Asia-Pacific, rather than just a thumb in China’s eye. China may still bristle at NATO’s moves, but it will have a harder time seizing the narrative.” (Though in truth the shift is no less aimed at Russia, from the Caspian Sea to the North Pacific. The U.S. still intimates support to Japan in its dispute with Russia over the latter’s Kuril Islands, for example.)
The author summarizes her recommendations by urging, in the interim before this year’s NATO summit, that “Asia-Pacific partners and advocates of NATO’s engagement with these countries should take full advantage of this period.” As no doubt they are assiduously doing.
The NATO document the above author mentioned, NATO 2030: United for a New Era, was released in November of last year, and as such what it says of the Asia-Pacific region is clearly a matter of long-standing planning. It makes frequent mention of NATO’s Open Door Policy, the name of which seems almost intentionally chosen to further arouse Chinese suspicions.
It states in part, “NATO should leverage its strong partnerships not only in NATO’s neighbourhood but further afield in the Indo-Pacific [note the new language] in an era of intensifying geostrategic competition and global threats.”
For which read, NATO’s self-appropriated neighborhood including all of Europe, North Africa and Africa as a whole, the Middle East, the Caucasus, the Mediterranean Sea Basin, the Arabian Sea, the Arctic – NATO chief Stoltenberg routinely says, from the High North to the Sahel – and the Western Hemisphere assumed to be safely secured by the U.S. (though NATO has been relegated a role here, too) – the Asia-Pacific is its logical, its final target.
India: jewel in NATO’s Asian crown
The lengthy document mentions strengthening military relations, regional and global, with its main Asia-Pacific partners – Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea – as the author of the Atlantic Council article does, but goes further, indicating that it could be achieved by “using the existing NATO+4 Format or the NATO-Pacific Partnership Council, or through NATO engagement with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, potentially including other regional states such as India, as appropriate.”
The co-chairperson of the NATO 2030 Reflection Process, A. Wess Mitchell, recently wrote an opinion piece for a major Indian newspaper with the title NATO: India’s next geopolitical destination, in which he advocates making the world’s second-most populous nation a NATO partner, and urging that proposal to be endorsed at this year’s NATO summit.
If India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, it will most certainly be so for NATO in the Asia-Pacific.
In item 15 on NATO partnerships the paper states:
“NATO should begin internal discussions about a possible future partnership with India, as the world’s largest democracy and a country that shares fundamental interests and values with the Alliance, assuming India’s willingness to engage in such a dialogue. It should begin a similar internal discussion about NATO’s future relationship with the countries of Central Asia, some of whom are already NATO partners.”
21st century Great Game: control of the world
Central Asia exists where Russian and Chinese – and Indian and Iranian and Turkish – interests converge. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan border China; Kazakhstan borders China and Russia.
A new Great Game is underway. This time not between Victorian England and Czarist Russia, but between the U.S. and NATO on one hand and Russia and China on the other. A geopolitical contest of this dimension and with such inevitable consequences has never occurred before.
The Asia-Pacific region is home to 60% of the world’s population. Regarding 4.5 billion people in the region, their plight may prove to be best expressed in the words of a story by Rabindranath Tagore: when elephants fight, the grass suffers.