The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Despite being a Pacific power and many thousands of miles away from Brussels, Japan sees its future with NATO.

In June 2022, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Japanese Prime Mister Fumio Kishida said the following which raised a number of eyebrows: “Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow.” The statement generated extensive discussions, in large part due to its potential to have repercussions across the entire region.

A growing awareness that tensions could boil over into armed conflict has prompted countries like Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea to reassess their defense strategies. This is especially applicable to a country like Japan due to its pacifist constitution. A large part of this is associated with the need to balance constitutional constraints with national security goals. And to overcome these obstacles, aside from rewriting its constitution, Japan must strengthen cooperation with like-minded allies. While the rectification of Article 9 may seem daunting at the moment, Japan has made significant efforts to strengthen its alliance with NATO member states.

As the largest military alliance in the world, NATO holds a great deal of importance for many Western countries and beyond, including Japan. Numerous factors explain this, most notably the ongoing war in Ukraine, from which countries like China have seized an opportunity to take advantage. This can partly be explained by Beijing’s apparent tolerance for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and also by the fact that Beijing understood Russia would be weakened as a result of the war.

China is consolidating its dominance through military operations that threaten Japan’s territorial integrity. Therefore, despite Washington’s pledge of support for Tokyo, the latter must acknowledge that it can’t be wholly dependent on the U.S. for its own security. Japan is in a precarious position as it is compelled to choose between maintaining pacifist principles, enhancing its defense capabilities, and taking an active position in the international security arena.

Over the past few years, Japan has begun to flex its military muscle. Japan has engaged in joint training exercises with NATO warships in various locations, including the Baltic Sea and off the coast of Spain. By developing close partnerships with NATO members, Japan seeks to enhance its strategic capability, promote interoperability with allied forces, and contribute to the maintenance of regional and global security. In other words, the joint effort between Japan and NATO serves as a testament to their shared commitment to preserving democratic values, ensuring a rules-based international order, and tackling security challenges.

Despite murmurs and suggestions by some that Japan could join NATO in the future, there are a number of reasons that this isn’t likely in the immediate future. The most significant obstacle is geography but there is also the issue of Japan’s limited military, and at the moment it is not free of outstanding territorial disputes. While recognizing the hurdles, Kishida has pledged to deepen ties with NATO. Therefore, the country has been subject to ongoing debates about whether the country could become home to the first NATO liaison office in Asia. Assertions to that effect were echoed by Koji Tomita, Japan’s U.S. ambassador, who told reporters that the country “was working in that direction.”

Despite the diminishing support for NATO expansion in Asia, there is a general consensus that problems in Asia also impact Europe. The perspectives of certain Asian nations concerning alliance expansion differ substantially due to unique political settings and security priorities. For instance, China views the setting up of a NATO liaison office in Japan as confrontational.

Although opinions on the effectiveness of a NATO liaison office in Japan differ considerably, it is imperative that to be effective, it has to foster mutual understanding among its members. Unfortunately, the member’s joint commitment seems unlikely at the moment. The members’ divergent viewpoints can be attributed to different factors; including a lack of overlap in priorities, even when it comes to ensuring peace and security.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently said that Europe is already heavily involved in the region militarily – and opening a liaison office in Japan will only add to that burden. “NATO is a military organization, the issue of our relationship with China isn’t just a military issue. NATO is an organization that concerns the North Atlantic, China has little to do with the North Atlantic,” Macron said in 2021.

According to an Elysée Palace official, “As far as the office is concerned, the Japanese authorities themselves have told us that they are not extremely attached to it.” The official went on to say, “NATO means North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

In terms of security, NATO is less likely to deploy military capabilities in the region since the U.S., UK, and France maintain credible naval capabilities, negating the need to have NATO warships sailing through the region. However, one thing is for certain: Japan will provide the alliance an opportunity to prove its competency in the region and offer other like-minded democracies an incentive to join. Conversely, on the other hand, it can strengthen Japan’s defense capabilities and give the country an enhanced sense of security.

Japan’s commitment remains quite strong in light of the upcoming NATO summit in Lithuania, where Kishida will take part. Kishida’s willingness to take part is driven by the goal of enhancing relations with NATO, given the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the persistent aggression of China. In addition to deliberating on NATO’s liaison office in Tokyo, the summit will also involve the announcement of a number of initiatives.

These developments have not gone over well with China which publicly criticized Japan’s active participation at the summit. A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said NATO’s involvement in the region undermines regional stability. The spokeswoman also urged Japan to learn from its mistakes, keeping in mind its history of military aggression.

Arbenita Sopaj, PhD, is a Researcher at the Research Institute for Indo Pacific Affairs (RIIPA), a board member at GPAJ, and Director of Administration at Academic Council of the United Nations (ACUNS), Tokyo. Her recent publications include ‘Hiroshima G7 summit: A pivotal moment for Japan’s diplomacy,’ published by Japan Today in March 2023, and ‘More alike than not: Kosovo and Taiwan,’ published by Global Taiwan Institute in June 2022. Her areas of interest include U.S. security and diplomacy with the Asia region but in particular, Japan, and the Balkans as it relates to Kosovo.