How NATO is preparing its entry into the Indo-Pacific

Reproduction is authorized provided the source be quoted

(July 6, 2023)

Automatic translation from French to English with Deepl software. 

The reader should pay attention to the fact that this issue has been published in French on Asie21 website two days before the Vilnius NATO meeting

By Generals (2s) Daniel SCHAEFFERAsie21, former defense attaché in Thailand, Vietnam and China, and Grégoire DIAMANTIDIS, member of the Cercle de réflexion interarmées (CRI)

Preparations for NATO’s entry into the Indo-Pacific region, which are now under pressure to happen, began almost twenty years ago with meetings and exchanges with four countries: Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan. On an operational level, the four countries took part, in partnership with NATO, in the failed attempts to stabilize Afghanistan. This led to the familiarization of relations between the Organization and these four states, which became known as the four partners (Asia partners 4 / AP4). From there, it became easier to propose a strengthening of these relations through the adoption of bilateral partnership agreements, as proposed by NATO which, to this end, deploys a wide range of programs of varying degrees, either juxtaposed or interwoven, or proceeding from each other and constantly enriching each other. These are the tools of partnership.

NATO already has a foothold in the Indo-Pacific

Thus, since 2012, NATO – AP4 relations have been strengthened with each of the four, bilaterally, through « Individual Partnership Cooperation Programmes » (Individual Partnership Cooperation Programme / (IPCP), which are currently evolving into their new format of « Individual Tailored Partnership Programmes » (Individual  Tailored Partnership Programme / (ITPP) format.[1].


Of the three partnership tools presented, the IPCP comes out on top. It is the least demanding in terms of cooperation, even if the commitments made are clearly defined when the agreement is signed. These are not imposed by NATO, however, since it is the partners themselves who make their choices, indicating the specific sectors in which they wish to cooperate, from a menu of 1,400 training proposals. Generally speaking, however, as the Organization’s information site indicates, open initiatives enable partners « to cooperate with NATO, mainly in the fields of interoperability, capability building, and defense and security sector reforms ». Leaving aside all other considerations, such as exchanges, dialogues, visits and participation in meetings, the crux of the matter remains that of preparing partners for their operational contribution to military actions of all kinds: humanitarian relief, security at sea, crisis management, exercises, armed intervention, and so on.

Australian and New Zealand commitments

In this context, the most involved of the AP4s so far are New Zealand, which entered its first IPCP on June 4, 2012 [2]and Australia, which signed its own on February 21, 2013 and renewed it on August 19, 2019. With this renewal, Canberra is ratifying a strong historical relationship with NATO, based on its previous commitments in Afghanistan (2005 – 2014), in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, and since October 2018, as part of the NATO mission in Iraq (NMI). What’s more, its operational history with the Alliance in Afghanistan earned it co-optation as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner (EOP) at the Glasgow Summit in 2014, a status obtained as part of a cooperation strand parallel to that of the IPCP, the Partnership Interoperability Initiative (PII), rightly adopted in 2014. The emphasis on such an initiative is frankly military operational, since its aim is not to lose know-how previously acquired during joint operations and, on such bases, to open up to « partners the possibility of contributing to the management of future crises, notably in the context of NATO-led operations, and where appropriate to the NATO Response Force ».

Prior to this, however, such an operational commitment was already in place when Canberra joined the IPCP in 2013, since in point 1.3.5 of the selected areas of cooperation, the agreement covers « increased interoperability and participation in NATO exercises and operations ». On the New Zealand side, on the other hand, the operational nature of the IPCP adopted is limited to interoperability in logistics operations. In the near future, however, the commitment will be accentuated for both states when their IPCPs evolve into ITPPs, through which « cross-cutting security issues of global concern (including maritime security, new technologies, cyberspace, the impact of climate change on security and resilience) will be addressed through tailored political and military consultations, joint training and exercises, and cooperation in NATO-led operations and missions ».

Japanese and South Korean commitments

As for South Korea and Japan, whose first IPCPs to date were signed on September 20, 2012 and May 6, 2014 respectively, they are not as advanced in their partnerships as their two Pacific neighbors. Japan’s, renewed on May 31, 2018, is limited to general security issues such as cyber defense, maritime security, humanitarian aid, dialogue and exchanges. There is no information as to when it will mutate into an ITPP, but discussions on this are ongoing. South Korea’s position is much the same, and the move, announced on February 16, 2023, towards an ITPP will focus on strengthening cyber defense, new technologies, climate change and the defense industry. The two Asians are therefore being very cautious, even though Japan loudly proclaims its need for the « NATO » umbrella. To the tune of « let’s arm up and go », as it were!

The NATO-AP4 relationship established within the IPCP framework will then be set in stone in the NATO 2030 program, formally approved in June 2021 at the Brussels Summit.

NATO 2030: an increased focus on the Indo-Pacific region

It states that « NATO should deepen consultations and cooperation with » these four capitals as part of « the existing NATO+4 configuration or the NATO-Pacific Partnership Council. » [3]. Thus, by strengthening their ties with NATO, the four will become the anchor points for the Organization’s real entry into the Indo-Pacific, with the primary aim of countering the potential threat from China in the area, as denounced in the document.

While the growing threat from China is a reality that is far from false, because of the imposing progress of its economy, because of its conquering behavior around the world, and because of its rise in military power, it represents above all a danger to its immediate neighbors because of its illegitimate territorial claims.[4]. But if, as we say, it represents a global « systemic threat », it does not represent a military threat to Europe, since there are no real disputes between the two extremes of the island continent. If China were to one day pose a military threat in the Atlantic theater, the provisions of the Washington Treaty could indeed come into play, since this would apply within the agreement’s area of coverage. However, if the 2030 program suggests the need to intervene against China in the Indo-Pacific, it is clear that this would primarily serve the concerns of the United States and its allies, China’s immediate neighbors Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, who would be caught up in the turmoil of an armed Communist attack against democratic China.

But in any case, it is by no means in NATO’s vocation to set itself up as a coalition against China in the Indo-Pacific, even in the event of Beijing’s military aggression against Taipei.

Should NATO come to the rescue of the Taiwanese soldier caught in the Sino-American trap?

The risk of Article 5 going astray

In an extreme case, the common standards adopted in the Washington Treaty do not allow it to be applied to the Indo-Pacific.

  • This is not its coverage area.

As specified in Article 5: « the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them occurring in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against all the Parties and, accordingly, they agree that, if such an attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence, recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in agreement with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain security in the North Atlantic area. « 

  • The four marked partners are not members of the Alliance.

These are two considerations which a priori prohibit NATO from intervening alongside the United States in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, or a Russian-Chinese attack on Japan, or a North Korean attack on its southern neighbor.

That said, would this prevent NATO from intervening, as it has already done over the past two decades, either without a UN mandate, as in Syria in 2017, in the spring of 1999 in Kosovo against Serbia, or in Libya in 2011, exceeding and not respecting the mandate, normally limited to establishing a no-fly regime to protect civilians? [5] but de facto transformed into aid for regime change.

Without going that far, however, it would not be too difficult to circumvent the limits of Article 5 in the Indo-Pacific if an American aircraft or ship were to be attacked by a Chinese weapon in the region, or even worse, if the Chinese were to bomb the Okinawa base before it was emptied of its resources and dispersed at sea or elsewhere. This would be an attack on a NATO member, and would enable the United States to bring the Alliance into play in the Far East under Article 5, forgetting in the process that the incident and the call for support would be outside the scope of the Washington Treaty.

In order to avoid being drawn into such a vicious circle, NATO should not intervene in the Indo-Pacific, since the United States’ primary objective in the region is to defend its own interests against China. For let’s not be fooled: behind the rationale of protecting Taiwan, Washington’s aim is, against all odds, to maintain its declining supremacy in the face of a rising China. Although the other NATO members are right to be concerned about Taiwan’s future, they will not safeguard the island’s peace by supporting American defiance of the People’s Republic, even if Beijing is verbally aggressive towards it. For 74 years, the Taiwanese have lived with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, coping with it even if it’s not comfortable, and managing to maintain relations with their Communist brethren that, while politically lax, are nonetheless interesting from a business point of view.

So there’s no need, on the pretext of wanting to safeguard Taiwan’s quasi-independence, to arouse Beijing’s vindictiveness by increasing the number of official visits between American and Taiwanese politicians, meetings which appear to be veritable provocations that only fuel Beijing’s threats. Proof of this are the numerous, almost permanent Chinese air and naval intimidation manoeuvres in the vicinity of the island and its nearby dependencies over the past decade or more, culminating in a vast encirclement exercise, involving the firing of 11 missiles, carried out at the beginning of August 2022, following a visit to Taipei by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives.

While maintaining a vigil, the United States would be well advised to calm the situation by refraining from stirring up Beijing’s ire. This is what they seem inclined to do recently, with Secretary of State Blinken’s visit to China on June 18 and 19, even if the Chinese continue to refuse to resume military dialogue. The visit may have momentarily created a respite between the two states, but there is no guarantee that a return to exacerbated tensions will be contained. All it would take is for the Republicans to regain power in the United States in the next presidential elections.

Calm down on Taiwan but continue to defend the Law of the Sea

At the same time, calming the situation does not mean ceasing American, Japanese and other Western actions in the South China Sea. For there, as in the Taiwan Strait, it is first and foremost a question of defending the international law of the sea, a law which China is constantly flouting through spurious claims, claims which are not recognized by anyone, with a few exceptions, not only in Asia but throughout the world, contrary to what China’s peremptory propaganda asserts without tiring. As far as the South China Sea is concerned, such claims were rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in its judgment of July 12, 2016, in the case of Philippines v. China, a judgment that Beijing refutes since it does not go in the direction of its erroneous interpretation of the Law of the Sea, and therefore de jure erases its claims over almost the entire South China Sea. But, given such a position of denial, the problem is not solved de facto, any more than is that of the Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea.

A NATO response to serve the United States in the Indo-Pacific

Defending American interests against the Chinese through Taiwan is the real reason why the US government is influencing NATO to become more involved in the wider region. And France is right to be wary of such a reinforcement, given that the most worrying prospect is that of a possible subsequent military engagement against China. At this stage, and with such a potential, there are no plans to transfer forces. But there is a growing chorus of voices denouncing the Chinese threat and calling for closer ties with countries that are already NATO partners. Such is the case of the Netherlands, which, in its « Guidelines for strengthening Dutch and European cooperation with partners in Asia« , in which it practically sets itself up as the leader of Europe, wants to involve NATO outright, though for the time being with an orientation other than that of coming to Taiwan’s aid, in particular that of defending the international law of the sea. [6]. But it is a question of extending NATO’s dimension beyond the Atlantic theater. For its part, Germany’s Indo-Pacific policy does not reflect such insistence. But its recent and new military commitments in the region should be taken as a signal. Last but not least, the creation of AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) on September 15, 2021. So, little by little, a stronger NATO commitment in the Indo-Pacific is being built up, piece by piece.

But will this lead to its armed involvement on behalf of the Americans? The prospect of serving as auxiliaries or auxiliary forces for the United States in defending its interests in the Indo-Pacific against China through Taiwan is the argument that must be served up to the Washington government without batting an eyelid, since it has the upper hand in NATO, even if it means generating a bit of a row. Tomorrow’s Sino-American conflict in the Far East would no more be NATO’s war than the war in Ukraine is Japan’s, South Korea’s, Australia’s, New Zealand’s, Southeast Asia’s or India’s today, even if they are worried about it, and rightly so.

Escalation in progress: « non follower » France and the « followers

The call of Japan

The other argument in favor of NATO intervention in the region is the appeal of Japan, which necessarily and rightly feels threatened by the potential fallout of a Sino-Taiwanese conflict, since it is geographically on the front line. In his speeches, Fumio Kishida tries to convince people that the interests of Europe and Asia are strategically « inseparable ». To this end, he argues that the common enemy is Russia, since it has been both an enemy of Europe and an enemy of free Northeast Asia since 2014, when events in Kiev’s Maidan Square drove Moscow into the arms of Beijing. This has not, however, led to any formal agreements between Russians and Chinese, it must be stressed, such as a treaty, pact or other formal alliance format. But this in no way prevents the two partners from engaging in frequent naval and air exercises to intimidate Japan in its immediate international environment and around the archipelago state. Tokyo therefore has every right to express its fears. But this is not a good enough reason to call on NATO for help, since Japan already has the support of Washington, no mean ally. The argument that Europe and the Indo-Pacific are strategically intertwined is fallacious because of this hostile Russian, common to both poles of the Eurasian continent.

On the other hand, Japan has a point, in that Europe and the Far East are effectively intertwined economically, in terms of markets, trade and transport. But neither would this be sufficient reason to commit France militarily within a NATO framework to defend Taiwan, Japan and the Philippines, all of which are supported by the United States. An armed conflict in the region would seriously disrupt economic relations between the east and west of the Eurasian continent. But many previous conflicts have shown that the difficulties created by acts of war can technically be circumvented, even if the sudden economic turmoil puts a strain on national budgets.

AP4 invitation to NATO summits

In any case, this concern, this need to feel supported by a formation superior to that of the United States alone, was expressed by Japan for the first time in Madrid, at the 2022 summit, to which it had been invited along with the three other AP4 partners. No doubt Kishida will be voicing them again this year at the Vilnius summit, to which the AP4 have been invited. While Japan’s concerns about the threats from Russia and China are entirely understandable, the NATO summit is not the place to hear them. These invitations, which will no doubt be repeated in the years to come, are an encouraging precedent for justifying NATO’s future involvement in the Far East. They are a further step forward in a project that is gradually taking shape, as is the intention to welcome the Japanese side’s participation in the North Atlantic Council and regularly in meetings of NATO defense officials. [7].

Third step: the planned NATO office in Tokyo

Jens Stoltenberg’s visit to Tokyo on January 31, 2023, where he and the Japanese Prime Minister expressed their « commitment to increasing » NATO-Japan cooperation, is part of this process. [8]. Negotiations are also underway to set up a NATO liaison office in the Japanese capital in 2024. To accede to Japan’s request would be to give NATO a welcome foothold in the Indo-Pacific region. France is opposed to this, arguing in particular that Articles 5 and 6 of the Washington Treaty do not cover the same area. And it is right to do so, in the knowledge that, on the other hand, such a refusal does not mean a reluctance to contribute to joint cooperative actions in good understanding, in various ways, according to various configurations, bilateral or multilateral, with various partners, according to present or possible future situations, throughout the Indo-Pacific region. This is what we are already regularly demonstrating through the various actions we are carrying out in collaboration: combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden, monitoring illegal fishing in the South Pacific, contributing to monitoring compliance with Resolution 2375 against North Korea, etc. [9]international military exercises, such as the one in which the frigate Lorraine took part on June 9 with Japan, Canada and the United States in the Philippine Sea, to name but a few.

France must stand its ground without batting an eyelid

Faced with all these cumulative steps towards the introduction of NATO in the Indo-Pacific, France must continue to keep a close watch on the risks of the Alliance’s vocation being hijacked. All the more so since, with the endorsement of the NATO 2030 program, France’s original, personified position has been weakened. And it is likely to be swept away, given the undertones of aspiration to abandon consensus in favor of decision-making transpires in « NATO 2030 », even though it is written: « Consensus is one of the cornerstones of the Alliance. » [10]. But it also says: « Yet in recent years, it has become increasingly common for individual countries to block decisions on their own. » [11]. France is clearly the target, and there’s no reason to be impressed by such comments in the face of the underlying authoritarianism. To do so would be to resign under pressure.

France must also continue to monitor the other risks of circumventing the treaty, since NATO’s leadership, feeling constrained by its inability to take immediate decisions, is putting forward a number of proposals, such as :

  • « NATO should create, within the Alliance’s existing structures, a more structured mechanism for coalition-building. The aim would be for Allies to be able to place new operations under the NATO banner, even if not all wished to participate in a possible mission. [12]« . In other words, if we apply this reasoning to the Indo-Pacific theater, the project would open the door to NATO action, without France and without its advice, against China, regardless of which side is to be supported: Taiwan, the United States, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines.
  • « NATO should consider strengthening the Secretary General’s leadership role by delegating decision-making authority on routine matters and encouraging him to put sensitive issues on the table as early as possible. This would enable the Secretary General to devote more attention to strategic issues without undermining the consensus principle.[13]« 

As a result, everything would be in place for France to be drawn into a Sino-American conflict over Taiwan, against its will and even against its interests, by the knock-on effect of its NATO membership. Yet France would have no reason to get involved in a war against China instigated by the United States, and on its side, in the interests of Washington’s overriding interests, under the guise of defending Taiwan. In the event of support for Taiwan in difficult times, it would be up to Paris to decide freely, according to its means and capacity, without getting bogged down in the trap of a coalition. In light of the risk of deviating from the historic rules of the Alliance’s treaty, it is even more important not to « follow the lead » of the United States and its unconditional supporters in NATO. In this sense, the French President is right to take a firm stance, and should maintain it at the Vilnius summit.

This must be the case because, despite the depletion of its military capabilities as a result of the tendentious « peace dividend » argument, France still has some means at its disposal to demonstrate that it is still a power that counts. In fact, it is currently reinforcing this display with its Pegasus operations in the Indo-Pacific, and the 2023 operation will see it deploy 10 Rafales, 4 A400M transport aircraft and 5 A330 refuelling planes between June 25 and August 3, in parallel with France’s assertion of its presence in the South China Sea with the dispatch of the frigate Lorraine. This type of air power projection is currently underway, with stopovers in ten Indo-Pacific countries and joint exercises. There is therefore no reason why France, because it has arguments, cannot make its voice heard, even if it is dissonant and disturbing for the unconditionally NATO-minded United States and Europeans.

Germans in the Indo-Pacific

The latest project announced by German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius at the Shangri la 2023 dialogues is the deployment of two warships to the Indo-Pacific in 2024 to « strengthen cooperation to build a free and open Indo-Pacific ». Nevertheless, if the goal is indeed the one announced by Pistorius, and if it takes the form of a significant visible presence in the South China Sea and in transit through the Taiwan Strait, it is commendable. It is commendable in the sense that, unable to force Beijing to respect the commitments it has made by ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, such a demonstration is one of those intended to convince it to change its position, even if the idea is utopian today. But if the aim of such a programmed expedition is to carry out a screen operation for a possible project to transfer NATO capabilities to the Indo-Pacific, then another step will have been taken in the direction sought by the Organization, the United States and Japan.


All in all, under the pretext of supporting Taiwan against the Chinese threat, there is no reason for France to risk becoming involved in an eventual conflict that would be above all Sino-American, whether this conflict be instigated by one or the other, either to return the island to China, or to defend it against Beijing’s ambitions.

The Chinese threat to Taiwan does exist, but there’s no need to exacerbate it, as the United States has done until very recently. There’s no need to exacerbate it by planning to bring NATO into the Asia-Pacific region, a plan that could only be seen as hostile by Beijing, and with good reason.

To refrain from doing so would in no way be to resign in the face of Chinese ambition. But maintaining it can only heighten tensions, instead of bringing a modicum of serenity to the region, when the international objective is first and foremost to force China to respect the Law of the Sea, which it savagely flouts to the detriment of the countries of Southeast Asia, while displaying its contemptuous disdain for the UN and its dedicated institutions with a smoky rhetoric.

It is clear that France, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, will have to oppose this plan to give NATO a global role not envisaged by the North Atlantic Treaty, if it wants to retain its political freedom of maneuver within the UN, the only world organization whose multilateralism is essential to maintaining its full sovereignty over all its territories and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the Indo-Pacific zone.


[1] Taken from a press release from NATO, whose website gives no information on the content of these ITPPs. However, familiarization sessions are organized.

[2] IPCPs are subject to review every two years. However, from the information provided, it would appear that this is not always the case.

[3] P.74, § 14 of the section Partnerships in Asia and the Indo-Pacific

[4] Sino-Indian border in the Himalayas, East China Sea, South China Sea

[5] Security Council Resolution No. 1973

[6] Cf. p. 8 of the document

[7]Cf. Stoltenberg – Kishida joint statement of January 31, 2023, available at:

[8] Ibid.


[10] Cf. § 4.4.4 Political decision-making process

[11] Ibidem

[12] Cf. p. 75, Chapter recommendations, §§ 76-77, sub§ 1

[13] Ibid. sub-section 2