Making the case for NATO Indo-Pacific cooperation

Japan Maritime SDF destroyer JS Kurama leads a formation of U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyers.

First published by The Japan Times

Much of the postwar free world did not seriously concern itself with issues of national security. It didn’t have to, in a world where the U.S. was the only military superpower, its open border trade policy lifted global livelihoods and mutually assured destruction deterred major wars.

Shifts in the balance of power, slowing world growth and increasing income inequality have changed the calculus of war and peace. Experts now worry that autocratic leaders will follow Vladimir Putin to pursue imperial conquest over weaker neighbors.

“We have to wake up from the dream that wars are no longer possible in the nuclear age,” says Yoko Iwama, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS).

Iwama is director of GRIP’s Strategic Studies and also its Maritime Safety and Security Policy Programs. She argues Japan relies too heavily on the U.S., its only ally, against threats from North Korea, Russia and China and must do more to prevent local crises from occurring. She proposes that NATO and its Indo-Pacific allies band together in a coordinated way to reduce the possibility of a local crisis escalating into nuclear war.

China only became a significant military threat to Japan after 2010, when it surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy (after the U.S.). China’s military now outspends Japan’s 3 to 1 in nominal terms. Its maritime and aerial firepower equals or surpasses that deployed by the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific too and leverages its growing might to extend control over the East China and South China seas.

Yet the U.S. response to China over the past decade has been erratic. President Barack Obama promised an Asian pivot. President Donald Trump also talked about containing China, but did little more. U.S. military focus is now shifting to Eastern Europe in response to the Ukraine crisis. Even if the U.S. increases its Indo-Pacific presence, “We don’t know what capacities the American’s wish to strengthen,” says Iwama.

She also thinks the U.S. may not be willing to protect Japan or its other allies in every crisis. “America is not the America of the 1960s,” she notes — citing U.S.’ social problems, weathered infrastructure and political divisiveness. “If you asked them to fight for our sake, maybe that’s a bit too much in every possible scenario. We need to do our part.”

“We need to do whatever it takes to protect our society, our land and our country,” she adds.

What Japan can do

China has 1,250 intermediate-range missiles that are a serious threat to Japan. Japan, however, has no similar missiles. This power gap resulted from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the U.S. and Russia, which prevented the U.S. from deploying intermediate-range missiles — nuclear or conventionally tipped — until the treaty expired in 2019.

Iwama proposes filling that gap with longer-range conventional strike missiles that can reach military installations in China. Japan does not need its own nuclear missiles just yet, she argues. “At this stage, as long as we can rely on American nuclear deterrence, we don’t need it.”

Conventional missiles may deter local crises before they escalate, because China must think twice before invading the Senkaku Islands, for example. Japan’s only defense option against such an attack should not be the threat of nuclear war, she believes. “When does the moment come when it’s worth having a nuclear war?” she asks. “Better not to have one.”

Currently, Japan has few other choices. It keeps short-range missile defenses on Amami Oshima, an island located south of Kyushu and north of Okinawa. These aim to knock out incoming projectiles before they hit their target. But the defenses are neither efficient nor effective, she says. “There is nothing to deter Chinese approaching our waters because we can’t do anything until they come into 200 km range of the missiles.”

Further, Japan’s Self-Defense Force operates modern equipment, but has no battle experience. It is better known for providing humanitarian aid and helping out with domestic natural disasters. Nor does the country have the budget or manpower to build its military or to fight a major war, because the nation’s population is shrinking and aging. “There is only so much we can do,” Iwama admits.

Japan is slowly waking up to realize it must do more to defend itself. Its ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, aims to double defense spending to 2% of GDP. It now debates acquiring controversial longer-range missiles. Expect many Japanese to object, as will China — a country on which Japan’s economy heavily depends.

Policymakers have difficult choices to make, but the nation is running out of time. “Will we make it?” Iwama asks. “That, I don’t know.”

What the world can do

Iwama proposes that NATO and its Indo-Pacific democratic allies band together, forming a new global institution she calls the ‘NATO Indo-Pacific Cooperation Council’, to counter growing local threats posed by North Korea, Russia and China.

Under her proposal, the group would commit to nuclear disarmament by making those who threaten its members a global offer to disarm, starting with intermediate-range missiles. If disarmament talks stall, NATO and its Indo-Pacific allies would start by rolling out hundreds of nonnuclear intermediate-range missiles in Europe and Asia.

Couching the offer as a “collective self-defense” measure might ease public concern over potential warmongering, she argues. The collective efforts would also lighten the U.S.’ burden to police the free world.

Iwama doesn’t expect a global arms-control agreement to be signed anytime soon. Long term, she hopes her double-track proposal will make the world a safer place.

Would it work?

Iwama’s proposed NATO Indo-Pacific Cooperation Council might hatch, if the U.S.-led NATO is a founding member. The U.S. is already part of two other strategic coalitions, “the Quad,” a strategic security dialogue between the U.S., Australia, India and Japan and AUKUS, a security pact comprising Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S., both shared efforts to secure group interests in the Indo-Pacific. A NATO Indo-Pacific Cooperation Council could connect these efforts under one umbrella organization.

Grand coalitions, however, are difficult to make — which may be why the U.S. chose to join the Quad and AUKUS to begin with.

Attempts by Japan to build a club without NATO seem pointless. No other party is large enough to lead the group and all march to their own local political agenda. Would South Korea, for example, consider joining the coalition without the prodding of a U.S.-led NATO? Tokyo and Seoul have squabbled for years.

If Japan is not to stand idly by, it must lay the groundwork for constitutional reform, allowing for the use of intermediate-range missiles for collective self-defense purposes. Such reforms need public support. They also need sufficient support from coalition and opposition parties.

A recent national opinion poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun found the Japanese majority, while still pacifist, now favors constitutional reform. However, the nation’s main opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, will likely object to any constitutional changes. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is meant to address the subject later this year.

In the meantime, the Chinese military gains in strength. “It took this horrible tragedy (in Ukraine) to happen for the Germans to wake up,” Iwama says. “I hope that we, although slower, can wake up in the next months.”

Richard Solomon is an author, publisher and spokesman on contemporary Japan. He posts Beacon Reports at

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