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The Sun Sets Over the NATO Liaison Office in the Land of the Rising Sun

Summary

The 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius (July 11–12, 2023) brought together alliance’s member countries and their like-minded partners from the Indo-Pacific, the so-called IP4 (Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand). As cooperation between NATO and IP4 intensifies, it was expected that the summit would move forward with the opening of the NATO liaison office in Tokyo, the first of its kind in Asia. Yet, there was no mention of it in the joint communique. One of the main reasons is the opposition of France. Paris has recently sought to strengthen its ties with Beijing, which opposed the idea of the NATO liaison office in Tokyo.

 

Analysis and Context

The “no-limits friendship” declaration between Russia and China, followed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, triggered fears among Indo-Pacific nations that “Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow.” Parallels have been drawn between Ukraine and Taiwan, which Beijing considers a part of China’s territory, although the PRC never ruled the island. This development illustrates the interconnection of Transatlantic and Indo-Pacific security. As NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said, “China, in particular, is watching to see the price Russia pays, or the reward it receives, for its aggression.” 

Japan is particularly worried about the situation, as its position in the Indo-Pacific region is strategically challenging. Taiwan is located within the so-called first island chain, which plays a vital role in Japan’s national defense. Additionally, Tokyo’s relations with Beijing have been recently quite tense. Apart from long-term issues such as territorial disputes, Japan criticizes China’s ties with Russia, while Beijing is concerned about Japan’s military build-up stimulated by Russian aggression against Ukraine and the aforementioned “no-limits friendship.” After all, Russia poses a security threat to Japan as well. “As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, Russian forces are also becoming more active in the Far East, including Japan’s vicinities,” said Japanese foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi. In addition to China and Russia, North Korea and its ballistic missiles also constitute a challenge to Japanese security, which is why Japan warned it would shoot down any projectile that enters its territory.

 

Given the threats Japan is currently facing, the country has been looking for allies even outside of Indo-Pacific. Deeper cooperation with NATO is a logical step, as both Japan and the alliance share the same concerns. At the 2022 NATO summit in Madrid, the alliance adopted its new Strategic Concept, describing Russia as “the most significant and direct threat” and calling China a “systemic challenge.” Given the shared interests of NATO and Japan, opening of the NATO liaison office in Tokyo would improve communication and coordination with Japan, increase understanding of regional security dynamics in East Asia, and provide the opportunity to strengthen partnerships and cooperation in areas of mutual interest. NATO and Japan already agreed to cooperate in 16 areas such as improving capability development and interoperability. However, the opening of a new liaison office requires a unanimous agreement, which the NATO states currently do not have. Hungary, for example, is pushing for closer bilateral ties with China. Similarly, France does not want to upset Beijing either, as it strives for stronger economic cooperation. It is also one of the countries that believe Zhongnanhai can persuade the Kremlin to stop the war against Ukraine. This means that while the room for cooperation between NATO and Japan is open, the Tokyo liaison office’s door will remain closed. For now.