NATO’s summit in Madrid, Spain, in June 2022 marked the first time the four leaders of NATO’s Indo-Pacific partner countries — Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea (ROK) — joined NATO counterparts for a meeting at the heads of state and government level. July 2023, at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, will mark the second. The high level of media attention paid to the attendance in Madrid of the Indo-Pacific partners, known informally as the Indo-Pacific Four or IP4, is likely to be repeated in Vilnius. Beyond this, what should Indo-Pacific watchers expect from the Vilnius Summit in terms of NATO-IP4 developments? The answer depends on where one looks. More is going on behind the scenes at NATO in terms of Indo-Pacific partner relations than is likely to play out on the public stage at Vilnius.

NATO Secretary-General  Jens Stoltenberg (center) with the heads of state from Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, June 2022. This marked the first time the leaders of the IP4 countries joined a NATO leaders’ level meeting. (NATO)
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (center) with the heads of state from Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, June 2022. This marked the first time the leaders of the IP4 countries joined a NATO leaders’ level meeting. (NATO)

NATO-IP4 Relations

Although the appearance of the Indo-Pacific partners at Madrid and now in Vilnius is certainly significant, NATO’s relations with these countries, both bilateral and in the IP4 format, are not new. Dialogue and cooperation with NATO dates back to the 1990s for Japan, 2001 for New Zealand and 2005 for Australia and the ROK. These countries formalized their respective partnerships with NATO with the signature of Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme (IPCP) documents between 2012 and 2014. NATO began meeting intermittently with the IP4 as a group in 2016, with initial meetings focused on North Korea, and such engagement has picked up considerably, in frequency and level, since 2019. While not new, relations between NATO and its partners have taken on greater salience in the past few years in the context of strategic challenges posed by a more assertive China, the impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine, and new challenges in realms such as cyber, space, and emerging and disruptive technologies. These developments underscore, as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said, that “what happens in Europe matters for Asia, for the Indo-Pacific, and what happens in Asia and the Indo-Pacific matters for Europe.”  

As a result, NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners have been working to deepen their bilateral relationships, including through the development of Individually Tailored Partnership Programme (ITPP) documents, an update from the IPCPs. The ITPPs will be longer and more detailed than the current IPCPs and include more elements, such as strategic objectives, concrete partnership goals and associated milestones, and a public diplomacy element, according to NATO officials. Greater coordination between NATO and the IP4 as a group is also being explored. This includes agreed areas of priority where NATO and the IP4 countries will look at how they can work better together, such as cyber, maritime security, spaceemerging and disruptive technologies, disinformation, climate change and resilience. It also includes the effort to open a NATO liaison office in Tokyo — currently opposed by France — which would make it easier for NATO to engage with its partners in the region even just for practical reasons like the significant time differences between the Indo-Pacific and Europe. These developments are playing out irrespective of the Vilnius Summit. 

What to Watch for in Vilnius

At the summit, going by what took place in Madrid, the Indo-Pacific partners will convene with NATO leaders for a joint North Atlantic Council session with partners, which will likely both highlight the Russian war against Ukraine and note shared concerns about Russia’s and China’s efforts to undermine the rules-based international order and the alignment between Beijing and Moscow. There has also been some speculation that the Indo-Pacific partner countries might associate themselves with the Vilnius Summit declaration, in a show of common views and positions. As it was in Madrid, the presence of the Indo-Pacific partners at Vilnius is highly symbolic. It highlights links between like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic, demonstrates that Ukraine has the normative and practical support of powerful actors in the Indo-Pacific and that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is widely condemned, and underscores that NATO is paying attention to the Indo-Pacific despite its focus on Ukraine. 

It is important to remember, though, that the Vilnius Summit is different from the Madrid Summit in a key respect. The latter featured the debut of NATO’s new Strategic Concept, a strategy and planning document for the alliance last updated in 2010. Unlike the 2010 version, which discussed only Russia —and mostly in cooperative terms — the new Strategic Concept strikes a different tone on Russia, and also includes China, noting that Beijing’s “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.” This threw the presence of the Indo-Pacific partners into the limelight in a different way than is likely at Vilnius, where China as an area of NATO interest will no longer be as much of a novelty. 

At Madrid, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the ROK also met together separately on the sidelines of the summit, where they “coordinated how we should cooperate with NATO,” according to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who reportedly convened the gathering. Such a meeting is likely to happen again on the sidelines of Vilnius, leader schedules permitting. If it does, it will be interesting to see if the leaders issue a joint statement, something which they did not do last year. Such a statement might focus on Ukraine, security and stability in the Indo-Pacific, and/or the importance of protecting the rules-based international order. 

If the leaders do not issue a statement, it is likely due to a desire to keep the IP4 format informal. Despite its increased prominence, the IP4 grouping remains informal, unlike NATO’s regionally based, formalized partnership groupings, Partnership for Peace, Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. This informality has benefits, including greater flexibility. Keeping the group informal also undercuts China’s ability to cry foul over an “Asia-Pacific version of NATO,” one of its talking points against the alliance. China has opposed NATO’s regional partners deepening their relations with the alliance, suggesting such actions are dangerous for the region. Meanwhile, these countries tend to view China’s actions and ambitions as the factor of concern.      

Whatever comes out of the Vilnius Summit regarding relations between NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners, the important thing is that work in this area continues on a regular basis, and not just around high-profile events. The signaling benefits of publicity aside, it is such substantive engagement that is critical to advancing dialogue, consultation and coordination between these Indo-Pacific countries and Euro-Atlantic counterparts. Making sure they are aware of security dynamics in one another’s regions and coordinating responses to threats against the rules-based international order is the task for NATO and its partners, even long after the lights of Vilnius fade. 

This article was originally published by Korea on Point.

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