Nikkei Asia

Japan’s Tacit NATO Membership Acts as Bridge for Global Security

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 12, 2023. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 12, 2023. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will meet in Washington on Tuesday for what has essentially become an annual summit between the leaders of its member states. As one of the organization's few partners in Asia, Japan will once again join the summit.

Japan's participation in NATO has become a regular occurrence, as the country looks to anchor new security partnerships in Europe. Under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's leadership, Japan has increasingly become a bridge between Europe and Northeast Asia.

While Japan can never become an official member of the regional alliance, its participation in the organization's activities and cooperation with its member states is increasingly important as it develops its defense capacity.

There are limits to Japan's partnership with NATO. The organization cannot come to the defense of Japan, even if it were to enter conflict with Russia, China, or North Korea. But NATO's member states, especially the U.S., could certainly support Japan with military and nonmilitary support, if necessary. Beyond the mutual defense agreement of the NATO treaty (Article 5), there are other aspects of the treaty that allow for institution building and capacity training between NATO, its members and Japan.

Last year, Japan expanded its partnership with NATO by signing an Individually Tailored Partnership Program. This document highlights that Japan is a natural partner for NATO, and that both NATO and Japan agree to expand cooperation on security issues across all domains of warfare.

Beyond the limits of NATO, the organization, Japan has also been busy negotiating and signing new reciprocal access agreements (RAA) on defense training and capacity building with NATO's member states.

Japan signed an RAA with the U.K. in early 2023. It is currently negotiating an RAA with France. And while it is not an RAA, Japan and Italy have a 2027 Action Plan which includes various economic and defense-related matters, as Italy is also a core partner in Japan's development of their next generation fighter jet.

"Security is not regional, security is global," outgoing NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last year during a joint news conference with Kishida. Japan's interest in European security reflects this sentiment. And recent developments between Russia and North Korea manifests that sentiment into reality.

As recently noted by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, "Partners in Europe see challenges halfway around the world in Asia as being relevant to them, just as partners in Asia see challenges halfway around the world in Europe as being relevant to them."

A recent defense treaty signed between the leaders of Russia and North Korea reminds us that Russia's interests are not just in Europe but Asia as well. Japan is one of several countries that has a disputed border with Russia. And we cannot expect Russia's belligerence to stay isolated to Ukraine, especially as it continues to rely on its Asian partners.

Russia needs North Korea and China, just as they need Russia. Military and economic support from both countries, supporting Russia's industrial base and invasion of Ukraine, over the last several years has already been documented. Now, the new Russia-North Korea alliance encourages even greater cooperation. It gives each country a renewed confidence to build what they call a "multipolar new world order."

Of course, the implications of new Russia-North Korea alliance may still be exaggerated. The mutual defense between Russia and North Korea is not guaranteed. Technology transfer between the two states is of real concern but was likely to continue regardless of a treaty.

Still, the implications for Japan are real, as it and South Korea are the only two democracies between the East China Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk. Not unrelated, just within the last few weeks, we have already seen North Korea launch several missiles in Japan's direction as it continues to test its capabilities. What kinds of missile technology North Korea will get from Russia should not be understated.

This is why the new Russia-North Korea alliance will certainly be a major topic at this year's NATO leaders summit. And it is why one of the most intriguing side events to watch will be a trilateral summit between Kishida, Biden, and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

South Korea is also limited in its ability to partner with NATO and its members. But as alliance partners with the U.S., there is a lot of opportunity for trilateral cooperation between the U.S., Japan and South Korea, but there is still a lot more work to do. And as with most important things, politics weighs heavily on the trajectory of these meetings.

Many of the same dynamics of the 2023 NATO leaders summit still exist at the upcoming summit. That is why we can expect Japan to continue encouraging U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine, as Japan sees peace and stability in Asia correlate to peace in Europe.

Japan will also want to continue to show agency in developing its security partnerships. This means Japan will continue to work with NATO member states, beyond just the U.S., to develop its military capacity.

Already, Japan plans to host joint military exercises with forces from NATO members Germany and Spain shortly after the upcoming leaders' summit. These will take place on Hokkaido, one of Japan's main islands that lies just south of its disputed territory with Russia. Moscow has already protested the upcoming exercises.

Russia is a concern for Japan as well as NATO. But Japan has to also worry about North Korea and China. The partnerships it can build through NATO are more important than ever.

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