Japan and NATO: An Inevitable Partnership?

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Japan and NATO: An Inevitable Partnership?

Japan may not be located in the North Atlantic, but it and NATO are natural partners with increasingly overlapping interests and with much to offer each other. 

Japan and NATO: An Inevitable Partnership?

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (left) meets Prime Minister of Japan Kishida Fumio, Jan. 31, 2023.

Credit: NATO

“Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow.” This chilling statement – uttered by Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio at the Shangri-la Security Dialogue summit in Singapore last year – perfectly encapsulates the growing sense of urgency over the security situation in Japan.

Policymakers in Tokyo, far from standing still, have made proactive efforts to increase Japan’s integration into regional and global security architectures and to promote friendly ties with countries sharing similar interests. From the recently conceived Official Security Assistance initiative to the push to restore ties with South Korea, the Kishida administration has accelerated the efforts of former prime ministers, and especially Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, to boost Japan’s security presence in order to head off and deter any potential conflict. The growing convergence between Japan and NATO is part of this overall trend.

The deepening of Japan’s partnership with NATO – traditionally limited to European security – began in the 1990s, but the manner in which it has accelerated signals the high value of the partnership for both Tokyo and NATO itself in Brussels.

The latest development in Japan-NATO cooperation is the planned opening of a liaison office in Tokyo, as reported by Nikkei Asia. That would replicate similar arrangements NATO has at the United Nations and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as in Georgia, Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, and Kuwait.  This step follows the visit by NATO Secretary-General  Jens Stoltenburg to Tokyo at the beginning of the year and participation in the June 2022 NATO Summit by Kishida, the first time a Japanese prime minister had ever attended.

Japan is not a North Atlantic country by geography, but it shares much with the alliance in that Tokyo is committed to democratic values, it is part of the U.S. alliance framework, and believes in collective security as a means of defense. Japan is not likely to actually join NATO since it falls beyond the geographical scope of the alliance, but NATO and Japan nonetheless have much to offer each other. For NATO, Japan offers a stable, reliable partner in East Asia and a powerful voice of advocacy for other potential partners in the region; for Japan, NATO offers another security partnership in what is already a rapidly growing list of such partnerships, and which would be second only to the formal alliance with the United States in terms of scale. In a sense, the deepening of the Japan-NATO partnership was an almost inevitable case of “the alliance partner of my alliance partner is also my alliance partner.”

What Japan Offers NATO

Japan’s appeal for NATO is twofold. It offers an increasingly powerful (albeit constitutionally-restrained) conventional military force, which will soon invest in line with the NATO guideline of 2 percent of GDP. Japan also offers NATO a bridge for further diplomacy in East Asia to connect with other countries with overlapping security interests.

While Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are beset by issues – from recruitment and experience problems to misconduct by male officers against female soldiers – they nonetheless represent a well-funded and well-equipped military force with the world’s ninth-largest military budget, ahead of all but four full NATO members on this metric.

Efforts to integrate with NATO countries in bilateral or minilateral formats have also already begun. For example, Japan will jointly develop a next-generation fighter jet with Italy and the United Kingdom, which will only further the level of interoperability of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force with NATO air forces in the decades to come.

While Japan cannot easily project its hard power due to constitutional restraints, it can increasingly play the role of a bulwark and a deterrent against shared adversaries, and it can offer a robust military force as an additional safeguard in the event of an actual conflict.

Actual military partnership capabilities aside, Japan is a strong diplomatic voice and advocate for liberal-democratic values in East Asia. NATO may be interested in Japan for this reason even more than its military capacity – Japan’s existing security partnerships in East and Southeast Asia, outside the rubric of the Japan-U.S. alliance, may allow it to act as a bridge for NATO values and perhaps even security cooperation in its own right.

Japan has security partnerships or other cooperative security ties with India, the Philippines, and Vietnam among numerous others, and it has actively attempted to deepen such ties and enhance such partnerships since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is also an important trade and development assistance partner for most countries in the region. Japan is the third largest source of foreign direct investment into Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, after only the United States and China, and the largest investor in major infrastructure projects, which are further aspects of the comprehensive strategy for countering the influence of adversaries.

Japan may build bridges in the physical infrastructure sense, but for NATO Japan itself is a bridge to these countries and an important counterbalance to the influence of countries where there are shared security concerns.

What NATO Offers Japan

The partnership with NATO offers Japan yet another powerful security partnership as a deterrent against its regional adversaries, as well as enhancing its prestige as an international security actor.

Deepening cooperation with NATO is but one part of a multifaceted approach being taken by Tokyo to develop relations with friendly powers both within Asia and farther afield. In addition to the aforementioned arrangements with India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, Japan has sought to deepen its security cooperation within major alliance groups such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (which Japan itself was a key player in formulating and then reviving) and it has penned entirely new agreements with countries such as the U.K.

In a sense, just as Japan offers NATO a bridge to Asia, NATO offers Japan a bridge to Europe. Adding yet another partnership to a growing list is in concordance with Japan’s National Security Strategy, which places heavy emphasis on the development of such partnerships and considers them key to upholding the Free and Open Indo-Pacific framework and the associated principles of rule of law, democracy, and free trade.

No less important is the prestige that accompanies partnership with NATO. Tokyo policymakers have long sought to boost Japan’s role in global security and – in the words of the National Security Strategy outline – have Japan “play roles commensurate with its national power.” From the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces to peacekeeping operations to Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s controversial dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq in 2003, Tokyo policymakers have long sought an increased profile for Japan overseas and sought to portray it as a reliable “normal” partner country, and one which would, as Abe would say, act in line with the principle of “proactive pacifism” to contribute to global peace.

Partnership with NATO – a long-established and explicitly defensive pillar of the global security architecture – is surely in line with these goals, and the deepening of ties with NATO lends them a degree of legitimacy both domestically and globally.

An Inevitable Partnership

Mark Twain once claimed that history does not repeat, but that it often rhymes. In a sense, the partnership between Japan and NATO shares some commonalities with the historical Anglo-Japanese Alliance, lasting between 1902 and 1922. In that case, the Japanese and British Empires entered into an alliance with each other to deter Russian expansionism. Britain gained a strong naval ally in the Pacific, and Japan gained a powerful international guarantor and international prestige.

Partnership between Japan and NATO is somewhat similar in form, although considerably different in character – rather than being an alliance of colonial empires, the new partnership flies the banners of liberal democracy and free trade against imperial aggression. As argued by Matthew Venoit some weeks ago, these links between NATO and Japan should be institutionalized so that they are as effective as possible and so that they can deepen further still. The establishment of the liaison office is a positive step in this regard.

NATO and Japan are natural and easy allies, with much to agree on and little to disagree on. With China’s rise and Russia’s expansionism, NATO-Japanese partnership can be a positive and effective force to counterbalance both. This partnership was inevitable in the face of such shared threats, and it is inevitable that the scope of the partnership will only continue to expand in the future.