Security in the Asia-Pacific: What Role for NATO?

On 26 October, YPFP Brussels held a NATO-sponsored event on security in the Asia-Pacific. The event was moderated by Smiljana Cujic, Security and Defence Officer at YPFP Brussels, with the panel consisting of: James Bernardi, First Secretary of Defence, Australia Mission to NATO and the EU; Lt. Col. Aaron Thomas, Defence Policy Advisor, U.S. Mission to NATO; and Dr Tongfi Kim, Programme Director of the BA in International Affairs at Brussels School of Governance.

Main takeaways:
● Partnerships are an important way for Allies to cooperate with like-minded countries in the Asia Pacific region.
● The current attention shift to the war in Ukraine means there is less international attention paid to China’s actions within Asia.
● It is important for NATO to keep an eye on China, which has been becoming stronger and more assertive within the region over the years.

The discussion started with Dr Kim giving an overview of the region and its security challenges, as well as the U.S.’ role in it. There has been a big shift in military balance in the Asia-Pacific, which is the background of all geopolitical considerations in the region. China, the only competitor with intention to reshape the international order with means to do so, has been assertive in its maritime movements as well as its overall positioning within the security framework of the region. Within this background, the U.S. has been recently perceived as having lost some of its deterrence and assertiveness in the region which will be exacerbated with the current attention shift to Russia.

Meanwhile, Lt Col Thomas highlighted the importance of the region as it hosts three of the biggest economies, and second and third most capable militaries in the world. He reflected on the mutual support between China and Russia and how that means China has a role to play in any Western disputes with Russia, including the war in Ukraine. He also stressed that NATO is active in the region through various partnerships, focusing on dialogue and cooperation with like-minded countries.

These relationships constitute a two-way street: Asia-Pacific partners receive training, best practices, support and cooperation with innovation, while NATO gains support from like-minded countries in the region.

Finally, Mr Bernardi gave the perspective of Australia – a NATO partner country. He pointed out partners do not expect NATO to support them in a military sense. Rather, they see NATO as an opportunity to share best practices, exchange support with innovation, and overall have a strong global partner with shared values.

During the Q&A session, the discussion was diverse, but mostly focused on how each ally and partner contributes according to their competitive advantage; how ASEAN cannot replace NATO due to its nature and internal dynamics; and how the U.S. internal political division sometimes takes precedence in concern over threats in the Asia-Pacific, like North Korea.