Executive Summary

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and its four partner countries in the Indo-Pacific—Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and New Zealand—have entered a period of increased engagement. This engagement is taking shape in the context of the war waged by the Russian Federation (Russia) against Ukraine, NATO’s growing awareness of the security challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China (China), and important structural changes in the international system, including the return of strategic competition between the United States and China and Russia. It is occurring not only in bilateral NATO-partner relations but also between NATO and these Indo-Pacific countries as a group, known informally as the Indo-Pacific Four (IP4).

Pictured left to right: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol
Pictured left to right: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol

NATO interest in the Indo-Pacific partner countries—bilaterally and collectively—makes sense considering increased attention to the Indo-Pacific region by the United States, Canada, and the European Union. In addition to the unique insights and perspectives on the region these partners bring, they boast qualities that make them attractive counterparts for NATO nations: professional militaries subject to the rule of law, high levels of economic development, and status as established democracies with strong human rights records. For Europe, hearing directly from partners in the Indo-Pacific region about China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), and regional security realities is invaluable and may be more compelling than hearing about those same topics from the United States—and less influenced by any concerns about US positions vis-à-vis China. For the United States, as the major partner on deterrence and defense for allies in both the Indo-Pacific and Europe, greater understanding between European and Indo-Pacific partners about security dynamics in both regions helps increase resilience and preparedness on both sides. US national security also benefits from US partners around the globe sharing the interoperability, threats assessments, and consultation platforms that engagement at NATO offers. For NATO as a whole, these partners not only provide insight and access to a region of growing strategic importance but also enable the alliance to pull together a more global, like-minded coalition of the kind that has proven critical for Ukraine.

An important element of these developments that remains underexplored is the views of the Indo-Pacific partner countries themselves. To increase understanding of Indo-Pacific partner perspectives on NATO as well as the dynamics of NATO and Indo-Pacific partner relations, the United States Institute of Peace convened an expert study group on NATO and Indo-Pacific Partners. The study group brought together experts from Australia, Europe, Japan, the ROK, New Zealand, and North America, many of whom have focused on NATO, the specific nexus between NATO and the Indo-Pacific, or NATO’s relations with their individual countries. Between June and November 2022, the study group met three times as a whole, holding additional meetings on a by-country or NATO basis, its deliberations informing this report.

The report also draws on additional research and interviews with officials in Brussels, Canberra, Seoul, Tokyo, and Wellington between January 2022 and May 2023. It examines national-level partner interests in NATO relations given changes in the global security environment, key areas of overlap or dissonance between the four Indo-Pacific partners, the IP4 grouping, and strategic rationales for engagement between NATO and the Indo-Pacific partners that speak to shared interests and concerns. The report may help NATO officials and national policymakers shape their thinking about Indo-Pacific partner and NATO relations going forward as this important engagement continues to evolve.

Key Takeaways

NATO’s interests in the Indo-Pacific are both historic—based on relations with regional countries, operations, and transnational threats—and current. These interests precede the alliance’s focus on China as a security challenge.

NATO began regular contact with Japan in the 1990s, with New Zealand in 2001, and with Australia and the ROK in 2005. It has also had regular contact with China since 2010. Australia, the ROK, and New Zealand all contributed personnel to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan (2003–2014), while Japan was a significant financial contributor for Afghanistan. In addition to ISAF and a follow-on mission in Afghanistan, NATO led three counter-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean, including Operation Ocean Shield (2009–2016). Australia and New Zealand participated in Ocean Shield, and Japan and the ROK, as well as China, ran or participated in parallel counter-piracy missions that coordinated with Ocean Shield. 

NATO formalized its partnerships with Australia, Japan, the ROK, and New Zealand by signing Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme documents with each of these countries between 2012 and 2014. Beyond NATO’s operations in the region and Afghanistan, the four countries and NATO connected over shared values and over transnational threats such as terrorism, challenges to maritime security, and cyberattacks, as well as North Korea’s nuclear and missile program, which has been a regular subject of NATO summit declarations and North Atlantic Council statements since 2006. NATO did not mention China in a high-level public document until December 2019, after a period of reckoning within Europe about security challenges posed by the country’s behavior and ambitions. By June 2022, China as a challenge to alliance interests, security, and values was formalized in NATO’s Strategic Concept. Aside from China, North Korea, existing and emerging transnational threats, and relations with its partners in the region, NATO’s contemporary Indo-Pacific interests are based on growing perceived ties between security in the region and in the Euro-Atlantic.

NATO engages with its Indo-Pacific partners both on a bilateral basis and, increasingly, as a group, the IP4. Each partner country’s bilateral relationship with NATO is of primary importance and is the product of unique priorities, perceptions, and circumstances. Although the IP4 format, which brings these countries together, is not new, the frequency and levels at which the group meets have increased over time, as have its relevance and visibility.

In terms of bilateral relations, Australia is the most integrated into NATO’s military operational structure of the Indo-Pacific partners and enjoys the status of an Enhanced Opportunities Partner.  Canberra sees NATO as a partner for crisis response and protecting the rules-based international order, as a more effective way of engaging with the European security community than bilateral efforts with individual nations, and as a platform for specialist technical and professional resources. Japan has had the longest relations with NATO of the Indo-Pacific partners and is the most openly enthusiastic about its association with the alliance. Tokyo’s priorities for NATO include informing European understanding of China and of the importance of Indo-Pacific security, and coordinating on transnational security challenges. NATO is also relevant to Tokyo’s interest in increasing ties between US alliances in response to China’s growing power relative to the United States. Relations between the ROK and NATO have been relatively superficial until recently. Seoul has viewed NATO in a positive light as an extension of the US-ROK alliance and as an organization of states with which it shares values and can undertake political dialogue and cooperation on transnational threat issues of mutual relevance. NATO has seemed largely incidental, however, to Seoul’s main security focus, North Korea, and therefore of limited priority. That said, ROK-NATO relations are currently in a dynamic state as a result of external and internal changes, including the war in Ukraine and the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s interest in cultivating supportive partners in Europe. The key benefits of NATO relations for New Zealand include interoperability, capability enhancement of its armed forces, information exchange and dialogue, and the ability to contribute to the global security environment and to the protection of the rules-based international order. Various contextual realities have colored Wellington’s perceptions of NATO, including New Zealand’s antinuclear stance, its small size, and its attachment to an independent foreign policy. Wellington has traditionally seen the direct practical benefits of NATO partnership as limited for its regional security interests, especially in the South Pacific.

NATO began to engage intermittently with the Indo-Pacific partners as a group of four at least six years before the IP4 grouping burst onto the global stage in June 2022 with the historic participation of the leaders of Australia, Japan, the ROK, and New Zealand in the summit of NATO heads of state and government in Madrid. Although initial meetings focused on North Korea, engagement in the IP4 format subsequently expanded to include such things as transnational threats and China and has picked up considerably since 2019. Meetings have taken place at various levels of the North Atlantic Council, from ambassadors to ministers and leaders, as well as with the NATO Military Committee. The IP4 grouping is not meant to replace or be privileged above bilateral relations between NATO and each of its Indo-Pacific partner countries, but understanding of the grouping outside narrow policy circles remains limited.

Indo-Pacific partner countries are a relatively cohesive grouping, but their views and interests are far from uniform. In this regard, the four countries’ perspectives on China are similar in some respects but differ in others; they have similar basic expectations of NATO on the Indo-Pacific but various nuances beyond these; and they share the most consistency in views on Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The expert study group examined the relevant perceptions and positions in the partner countries on several key areas of overlap with NATO—China, expectations of NATO on the region, and Russia’s war against Ukraine. All four partner countries appear interested in being invited to participate in relevant internal discussions on China at NATO, although none appear to want their cooperation with NATO to be characterized in terms of China. More broadly, perceptions and positions regarding China reflect each country’s unique circumstances, with varying overlap, just as they do for NATO member states. Canberra and Tokyo both proactively engage on China at NATO and tend to see the alliance’s increased interest in China as highly positive. Wellington and Seoul both feel vulnerable to disruptions of trade relations with China and have been careful about managing relations with Beijing, although each is growing more willing to push back against China. Traditionally, Seoul’s threat perceptions of China have been fundamentally different from those of the other Indo-Pacific partner capitals because of China’s perceived importance in addressing the ROK’s greatest security threat, North Korea. Although Seoul is cognizant of the threats China poses in the longer term, these concerns have come second to the immediate danger posed by North Korea.

Regarding NATO on the Indo-Pacific, none of the partner countries appear to expect NATO to be a significant direct actor in the region. Instead, they expect the alliance to coordinate with them on issues of mutual concern in, stemming from, or affecting the Indo-Pacific. In this regard, all four appear interested in coordinating with NATO on identified areas of mutual concern such as cyber defense, emerging and disruptive technologies, and resilience. There is also interest in all four countries in NATO increasing public diplomacy efforts toward them and the region. More broadly, Indo-Pacific partner views on NATO and the region are nuanced and varied. On the Russian war against Ukraine, meanwhile, the four countries hold largely similar views. Their governments make up four of only six outside the Euro-Atlantic area to place sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. All have provided financial assistance and nonlethal military aid, and all have channeled some of that assistance through NATO. The war in Ukraine and its impacts on the Indo-Pacific region have greatly raised awareness in all four countries about the security implications of events in Europe on the Indo-Pacific. The war has also raised concerns in all four about growing China-Russia relations. Successful cooperation between Indo-Pacific and European partners on Ukraine may provide a model for potential coordination between the two regions on a contingency in the Indo-Pacific. European understanding of expectations the unified response to Ukraine might create for a future contingency with China in the region appears nascent.

There is little indication that Indo-Pacific partner countries currently see the IP4 grouping as a strategic asset beyond its tactical utility as a platform for information sharing, coordination, and cooperation. The extent of NATO’s ambition for the grouping is also unclear. What is clear is that neither NATO nor the partner countries appear interested, at this time, in formalizing the IP4.

Relevant officials are fleshing out areas of practical cooperation between NATO and the IP4. Additionally, the IP4 format has already been valuable as a platform for discussion, consultation, information sharing, and exchange with NATO. The IP4 and NATO have also coordinated positions on issues such as North Korea. The IP4’s role as a talk shop and coordination mechanism may have particular added value when demonstrating widespread support and unity on a topic is seen as critical, when all four countries have a stake in an issue and hold similar views or can benefit from one another’s input, and when coordination between the partners before engagement with NATO may be beneficial.

Partner country participants were able to identify strategic benefits of IP4 engagement, such as the access, inclusion, and safety in numbers the grouping provides. The four countries get much greater attention and space at NATO as a group than any of them would enjoy alone, and the grouping facilitates valuable diplomatic opportunities on the sidelines of high-level meetings. The IP4 has also served as a platform for Japan-ROK engagement that would have been controversial bilaterally due to tensions between Tokyo and Seoul at the time. Increased ties within the group may also make it more difficult for China to pressure individual countries against closer relations with NATO. However, despite these benefits, there is little indication that Indo-Pacific partner countries see the IP4 grouping as a strategic asset for maximizing national and regional gains from NATO engagement.

Similarly, the extent to which NATO sees the IP4 as a useful unit rather than as just a collection mechanism or a way to emphasize the importance of the Indo-Pacific remains unclear. This may relate to differing views within NATO, where some allies are more ambitious about the IP4 format and some less so. Despite its increased prominence, the IP4 grouping also remains informal, unlike NATO’s regionally based, formalized partnership frameworks (Partnership for Peace, Mediterranean Dialogue, and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative). This appears consistent with the views of both allies and partners, however, with no current demand from either side for greater formalization. The benefits of informality include greater flexibility and providing less of a hook for China to raise false alarms about a so-called Asia-Pacific version of NATO.

Understanding of NATO and the benefits of NATO partnership in Indo-Pacific partner countries remains limited, and public diplomacy aimed at these countries has been uneven. Growing disinformation efforts by Russia and China about NATO increases the significance of this issue. 

Understanding of NATO’s remit, processes, and relevance to national interests is relatively limited at public levels in all four countries and varies even within policy circles across countries. Similarly, although NATO has been meeting with the IP4 grouping for a number of years, this was not readily visible outside diplomatic circles in Brussels or a topic of much discussion in capitals. Since the relatively sudden emergence of the IP4 into public view in 2022, awareness of the grouping has largely exceeded understanding of it within the partner countries. Although part of the reason for this lack of understanding is a result of domestic factors such as bureaucratic silos, finite government resources for NATO, and sparse interest within expert communities, part is also due to NATO’s limited reach into Indo-Pacific partner capitals, including through public diplomacy efforts. In this regard, the contact point embassy model—through which NATO shares information with partner governments and coordinates public diplomacy in partner countries via a designated NATO member state embassy—has not functioned well or consistently across Indo-Pacific partner countries in the past.

High-profile visits by NATO officials to capitals and participation by national officials in high-level NATO events, meanwhile, have raised NATO visibility in public discourse and interest in NATO at all levels in each of the Indo-Pacific partner countries. Intermittent visits by delegations from the NATO Parliamentary Assembly have also provided opportunities to engage lawmakers and the public. It is significant that NATO is aware of shortcomings in its public diplomacy outreach to Indo-Pacific capitals and is working to address them. The inclusion of public diplomacy goals in Individually Tailored Partnership Programs may also help. Such efforts become even more important in light of Russian disinformation efforts and as China increases its negative messaging about NATO.

NATO has used two main narrative frames to communicate the strategic rationale for its relations with Indo-Pacific partner countries over time: transnational threats and shared values. Although these frames are still relevant today, there is room to identify new strategic benefits for mutual engagement between NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners.

Structural changes to the international system that have solidified in recent years and affect both NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners suggest space for the identification of new strategic benefits to mutual engagement that may resonate with both sides. Three additional strategic rationales stem naturally from the changed geopolitical circumstances. One centers around an exploration of the connections between the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic regions that make them more relevant for each other’s security than previously understood. A second has to do with the critical role of the United States in deterrence and defense in both regions and how—given that the return of strategic competition in the international system means that the United States and its allies need to deter two major power competitors simultaneously—deterrence dynamics in the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific are more interdependent today than during the Cold War. A third links transnational threats to the return of strategic competition and notes how existing transnational threats may be more acute or take on different relevance in the face of strategic competition and how responses to transnational threats like cyberattacks can have implications for both the threats themselves and for strategic competition.

Policy Options

As Indo-Pacific ministers and leaders meet increasingly in the IP4 format with NATO, partner governments can seize the opportunity to advance national and regional agendas in areas of agreement. To do so, Indo-Pacific partner governments should identify any common agenda or goals for NATO engagement, given both similarities and differences between these partners on key issues like expectations for NATO’s role on the Indo-Pacific and threat perceptions regarding China. Track 1.5 dialogues involving experts and officials from the Indo-Pacific partner countries may be a helpful way to approach this task, increasing mutual understanding of national perceptions and highlighting areas where all four countries could benefit from working together with NATO.

Relatedly, while continuing to maintain a focus on advancing bilateral relations with NATO, Indo-Pacific partner governments should consider internally and then in consultation with one another how they can take greater strategic advantage of the IP4 grouping. Indo-Pacific partners generally recognize the tactical utility of the IP4 grouping as a platform for information sharing, coordination, and cooperation. The grouping does have strategic benefits as well, however, and is a fact on the ground, even if informal. Rather than interpreting the IP4 format as a convenience for NATO, partner countries should consider how they can take better advantage of its strategic potential so as to maximize the effectiveness of engagement with NATO for their own national and regional benefits.

NATO should increase regular public diplomacy outreach to Indo-Pacific partner countries about what NATO does and how relations with NATO benefit each country’s national and regional interests, as well as shared global priorities. Public diplomacy efforts could, inter alia, focus on increasing the consistency and effectiveness of contact point embassies in partner capitals, taking advantage of more regular participation by national officials in high-level NATO events, and, as with much of the effort to deepen relations with the Indo-Pacific partners, making greater use of existing mechanisms such as exchanges between national parliamentarians and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. In this regard, NATO’s already increased efforts regarding public diplomacy for Indo-Pacific countries should be recognized and welcomed. A NATO liaison office in Tokyo, if approved by the alliance, could help further shore up public diplomacy outreach to Indo-Pacific partners.

Relatedly, given Chinese and Russian disinformation about NATO, NATO officials should publicly both highlight the alliance’s long-standing engagement with these partners and their region and clarify the nature of the IP4 grouping. Messaging about the Indo-Pacific could underscore that NATO’s engagement with its Indo-Pacific partners and the region precedes the alliance’s acknowledgment of China as a security challenge. Messaging about the IP4 grouping might explain that it is not a formalized, regionally based partnership framework, is not new, and is not meant to replace or be privileged over bilateral relations with Indo-Pacific partner countries. Such messaging is relevant not only for the broader Indo-Pacific region but also for media and domestic audiences in Indo-Pacific partner countries, whose familiarity with both NATO’s history regarding the Indo-Pacific and with the IP4 grouping remains low.

In light of the changed geopolitical circumstances that have brought them closer together, NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners should explore new strategic rationales for their mutual engagement that go beyond shared values and transnational threats. Three potential strategic rationales are worth exploring: connections between the regions that make them more relevant for one another’s security; the growing interdependence of deterrence dynamics in the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific with the rise of strategic competition between the United States and China and Russia; and the impact of strategic competition on transnational threats. More systemic discussion between NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners on these issues would also help improve each side’s situational awareness and coordinate perceptions.

NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners should explore, at least privately, the relevance of successful cooperation between Indo-Pacific and European countries on Ukraine as a potential model for coordination on a contingency in the Indo-Pacific and clarify views and expectations on all sides. NATO and its Indo-Pacific partners have recognized Russia’s war against Ukraine as not only a regional European problem but also one with global reach that affects the Indo-Pacific. Any contingency involving China and the United States in the Indo-Pacific region will similarly have global reach and inevitably require economic, political, and diplomatic coordination between Indo-Pacific partners and Europe, as well as the coordination of any nonlethal military assistance. NATO, along with the European Union, is an important Euro-Atlantic institution relevant for this kind of coordination and one through which regular avenues for security consultation with Indo-Pacific partners already exist. 

About the Expert Study Group on NATO and Indo-Pacific Partners

The dynamics of influence, deterrence, and defense in the Indo-Pacific have changed, with potentially far-reaching consequences for peace and security in the region. European allies’ recognition of the strategic challenges posed by China; US efforts to invigorate alliances with Australia, Japan, and South Korea; Russia’s war in Ukraine; and China’s reactions to these developments will play a major role in shaping the Indo-Pacific’s future. To increase understanding of these changes and their impacts, the United States Institute of Peace convened a study group consisting of experts from NATO countries and Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea—the alliance’s partners in the Indo-Pacific. The group explored Indo-Pacific partner perspectives on NATO and the opportunities and challenges of NATO and Indo-Pacific partner relations.

Expert Study Group Members

Mirna Galic, Chair
Senior Policy Analyst, China and East Asia, United States Institute of Peace

Joe Burton
Professor of International Security, Politics, Philosophy, and Religion, Lancaster University

David Capie
Director, Centre for Strategic Studies and Professor of International Relations, Victoria University of Wellington

Jean-Dominique Dulière
Former Head, Crisis Response Systems and Exercises Section, NATO

Stephan Frühling
Professor, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University

Gorana Grgić 
Senior Researcher, Center for Security Studies, ETH Zürich; Senior Lecturer, United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney

Yoko Iwama
Professor and Director, Strategic Studies Program, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies

Kwang-Jin Kim
Brigadier General (Retired), Republic of Korea Air Force; Chair Professor, Sookmyung Women’s University; Consultant Board Member, Republic of Korea Joint Chiefs of Staff

Geunwook Lee
Professor of Political Science, Sogang University; Advisory Board Member, Republic of Korea Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Joint Chiefs of Staff

Jonathan Berkshire Miller
Senior Fellow and Director of Foreign Affairs, National Defence, and National Security, Macdonald-Laurier Institute; Senior Fellow, Japan Institute of International Affairs; Senior Fellow on East Asia, Asian Forum Japan; Director and Co-founder, Council on International Policy

Philip Shetler-Jones
Senior Research Fellow for Indo-Pacific Security, International Security, Royal United Services Institute

Luis Simón
Director, Centre for Security, Diplomacy, and Strategy, Brussels School of Governance; Director, Brussels Office, Elcano Royal Institute; Senior Nonresident Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Michito Tsuruoka 
Associate Professor, Faculty of Policy Management, Keio University; Visiting Fellow, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University; Senior Fellow, Centre for Security, Diplomacy, and Strategy, Brussels School of Governance

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