Atlantic Council
February 6, 2023

NATO is entering a new phase in the Indo-Pacific

Last week, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and the Philippines’ National Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez announced plans to accelerate the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA)…granting US rotating forces access to four additional military bases, bringing the total number of EDCA sites to nine. It’s the latest example of the Biden administration’s strategy to harness the United States’ “unmatched network of allies and partners” in competing with China. While the US-Philippines announcement is getting plenty of air time, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to South Korea and Japan last week is not – but it deserves equal attention. Indeed, of the two, the latter development could prove to be more consequential.

[T]he United States already has access to five air bases, including the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan…as well as Cesar Basa Air Base and Fort Magsaysay near Manila on Luzon Island….

The strategic implications of Stoltenberg’s visit to Seoul and Tokyo….While diplomatic relations between the two northeast Asian countries and the Alliance are nothing new – both South Korea and Japan have been members of NATO’s “partners across the globe” for more than a decade – Stoltenberg’s visit shows that the transatlantic Alliance’s strategic approach to the Indo-Pacific is entering a new phase.

…As the secretary general told an audience in Seoul, his delegation’s visit is “a strong expression of the great importance we attach to the partnership between the Republic of Korea [South Korea] and NATO.”

Throughout his visit to the region, the secretary general argued that NATO’s security and East Asia’s security are interconnected….

Stoltenberg’s language and tone when referencing China this past week was particularly noteworthy. China only appeared on NATO’s agenda for the first time at the Alliance’s London Summit in December 2019….Skip ahead to last week and the language Stoltenberg used to describe China represents a noticeable shift. The secretary general told reporters in Tokyo that Beijing, together with Moscow, is “leading an authoritarian pushback against the international rules-based order.” In case his point was lost on the assembled journalists, he continued: “What is happening in Europe today could happen in East Asia tomorrow…and noted the “scale of the challenge” that China presents requires the Alliance and Japan to “work together to address it.”

…All of this is a far cry from just a few years ago. In Alliance terms, the shift in NATO’s strategic messaging on China has occurred at lightning speed.


Stoltenberg’s visit marked more than just a shift in rhetoric. It marked a growing realization since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February on the part of both NATO and US allies in the Indo-Pacific that the security of the North Atlantic and Asia are “inseperable.” There have already been tangible results, such as progress toward a new Individually Tailored Partnership Programme between NATO and Japan, a framework agreement that outlines each NATO partner’s objectives for its relationship with the Alliance. Stoltenberg also used his trip to publicly announce his intention to invite both the South Korean and Japanese leaders to the NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, later this year. In a historic first, leaders from Japan and South Korea – together with leaders from New Zealand and Australia – attended the Madrid Summit last summer where NATO unveiled the new Strategic Concept….