Security arrangements in the Asia-Pacific are being realigned as NATO looks to the region for an Asian version of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
The latest move is a pact signed by Philippine President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr and Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida that allows their countries' armed forces to work together on disaster relief. This arrangement is being seen as a step toward a broader pact that could allow the two countries to deploy forces on each other's soil, Reuters reported.
In a joint statement issued on Feb 9, Marcos and Kishida vowed to strengthen the two countries' defense and security collaboration through "strategic reciprocal port calls and aircraft visits, transfer of more defense equipment and technology, continuous cooperation on previously transferred defense equipment and capacity building".
Marcos, at the end of a five-day visit to Japan on Sunday, said he saw no reason why the Philippines should not have a visiting forces agreement with Japan if it boosted maritime security.
This would allow Japan to develop security collaboration with countries in the region and beyond, and NATO to pay closer attention to Asia or the so-called "Indo-Pacific".
Japan says it plans to use its official development aid to help poorer countries with their maritime safety and other security capabilities. Its Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said it was "indispensable" for Japan to not only fundamentally reinforce its own defense power, but also to improve the deterrence capability of "like-minded" countries.
In April, Japan's Foreign Ministry will get 2 billion yen ($15 million) to help strengthen the national security of such countries. The money is primarily for "Indo-Pacific" militaries and separate from the 442 billion yen in development money that the ministry says is not to fund weapons, the Associated Press reported.
NATO's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, while visiting South Korea last month, referred to "like-minded democracies", a term covering some countries outside the trans-Atlantic alliance.
In a speech at the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies in Seoul on Jan 30, Stoltenberg said that what happens in Europe matters to the "Indo-Pacific "region, and what happens in Asia matters to NATO.
In February 2022, the White House released its Indo-Pacific report stating that the European Union and NATO are increasingly turning their attention to the region and will harness this opportunity to align approaches and implement coordinated initiatives, thereby multiplying their effectiveness.
As NATO's partners in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea attended the alliance's Madrid Summit in July, a historic first. In Seoul, Stoltenberg also publicly announced his intention to invite both South Korean and Japanese leaders to the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, later this year.
By declaring his intention to once again host this grouping of NATO Asia-Pacific partners at the annual gathering of allied leaders, Stoltenberg is signaling that this was not a one-off and could soon become part of NATO's new normal, Sara Bjerg Moller, faculty member of the Security Studies Program at the Edmund A.Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, wrote in a blog for the Atlantic Council.
On Jan 25, NATO launched an initiative named "Futures in the Indo-Pacific", which will consist of a series of discussions among experts from Belgium, Australia, France and Japan, over the next two years. Their exchanges will examine relevant developments in the "Indo-Pacific "and the potential implications for security in the Euro-Atlantic area, and also further NATO's cooperation with its partners in the "Indo-Pacific".
Carmen Romero, NATO's deputy assistant secretary-general for public diplomacy, stressed in her introductory remarks at the event at NATO headquarters in Brussels the importance of building strong partnerships with countries in the "Indo-Pacific", in line with the alliance's new strategic concept.
Three more events are scheduled for this year, in Canberra, Tokyo and Paris, with a final conference planned in Brussels in 2024.
Security initiatives such as the Australia-UK-US agreement and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprising Australia, Japan, India and the United States, have sparked concerns in the Asia-Pacific.
China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said on Feb 1: "While claiming to remain a regional defensive alliance, NATO has constantly sought to reach beyond its traditional defense zone and scope, strengthen military and security ties with Asia-Pacific countries and hyped China threats. Such developments call for high vigilance among regional countries. The Asia-Pacific is not a battlefield for geopolitical contests and does not welcome the Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation."
AUKUS, which is being called a "trilateral security partnership", is essentially about fueling military confrontation through military collaboration, Mao said. China is deeply concerned and firmly opposes the initiative, which creates additional nuclear proliferation risks, exacerbates the arms race in the Asia-Pacific and hurts regional peace and stability, she said.
Wang Sheng, a professor of international politics at Jilin University, said that Stoltenberg's visit to South Korea and Japan is a move to push forward an Asian version of NATO.
Last year, Japan and South Korea joined the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence, which is open to countries that are not part of the military alliance. The center now consists of 32 members, 27 of whom are full NATO members, and five contributors that are not part of the defensive alliance.
Liu Weidong, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of American Studies, said that Stoltenberg's visit is the beginning of substantial progress on NATO's Asia-Pacific version.
In addition to the US, South Korea and Japan, NATO allies of the US, such as France, Germany, Poland and the United Kingdom, are showing growing concern about security issues in the Asia-Pacific region.
The security environment in the region is already complicated, Liu said, adding that the intervention of powers from outside the Asia-Pacific will complicate matters.