Evolving Japan–NATO Relations in the Leadup to the Madrid Summit

Joining the gang: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida with fellow leaders before the start of the G7 meeting at NATO headquarters in March 2022. Image: dpa picture alliance / Alamy

In response to growing security concerns in East Asia, Japan has increased its engagement with NATO at both the organisational and individual member-state level.

The war in Ukraine and drastic turn of world events has instigated a closer review of security arrangements and flashpoints, not only in the European neighborhood but across the globe. East Asia, a region defined by large economies and populations, deep-running historical tensions, territorial disputes and the presence of the US military, has been a natural part of this review. In particular, the longstanding absence of a NATO-like organisation and the number of flashpoints with potential for conflict has led to an increasing sense of regional insecurity in recent years. To address this, Japan, a key actor in the region, has adopted a strategy of heightened engagement with like-minded states via bilateral and multilateral arrangements such as the QUAD, the EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement, ASEAN+3 and NATO.

A recent upswing in Japan–NATO relations, including the confirmation of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s attendance at the impending Madrid summit – a first for Tokyo – and deepening collaboration on a number of issues, has put the burgeoning partnership into focus. As Tokyo attempts to prevent Europe’s events of today from becoming East Asia’s events of tomorrow, Japan–NATO relations should be analysed on both organisational and member-state levels, and in the broader context of the evolution of Japanese security policy.

Japan’s Expanding Security Role: Policy, Instruments and Presence

A series of recent security policy upgrades, most notably the introduction of collective self-defence in 2015, is suggested as evidence of Japan parting with its anti-militarist identity. However, it has also been argued that they are evolutionary adjustments within the boundaries of Article 9, the pacifist clause of Japan’s Constitution. While the degree of the radicalness of Japan’s evolving grand strategy is an ongoing and longstanding debate, what is clear is that Japan is enhancing deterrence and elevating its response capabilities.

Over the past decade, Japan’s foreign policy repertoire has extended to include a number of military instruments, most notably the purchase of 147 F-35 fighter aircraft variants and the refitting of the Izumo-class helicopter carriers to operate with F-35Bs. A US F-35B conducted historic takeoff and landing trials on JS Izumo in 2021. Tokyo has also indicated an interest in upgrading its amphibious capabilities. The 2020 delivery of the US military's V-22 Osprey made Japan the first country outside of the US to use the tilt-rotor aircraft.

While the degree of the radicalness of Japan’s evolving grand strategy is an ongoing debate, what is clear is that Japan is enhancing deterrence and elevating its response capabilities

Japan’s upgrading of its defence equipment has paralleled the country’s more expeditionary presence in the Indo-Pacific. In mid-June, a Japanese fleet consisting of the Izumo, destroyers and a submarine embarked on the four-month-long Indo-Pacific Deployment 2022, which involves port calls in Australia, Vietnam, the Philippines and various South Pacific islands.

The Kishida government’s Basic Policy 2022 proposes to double Japan’s defence budget from 1% of GDP (the ninth largest globally) to 2%, the same level of contribution expected of NATO states. Such an increase could be significant in responding to security issues in the region, namely China’s military buildup and unilateral attempts to change the status quo and Russia’s increasingly assertive posture.

Japan–NATO Relations as a Two-way Trajectory

When it comes to Japan’s relations with NATO, an important distinction is made between relations on the organisational and member-state level.

On an organisational level, NATO and Japan have been engaged in dialogue and cooperation since the early 1990s, with their commitment to strengthening cooperation inked in a joint political declaration in 2013, followed by an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme that was agreed in 2014 and renewed in 2020. These agreements paved the way for today’s practical cooperation on a number of issues, including cyber defence, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and non-proliferation.

NATO has recognised Japan as one of nine countries beyond the Euro-Atlantic area – often referred to as ‘partners across the globe’ – with which it is developing relations, and NATO’s top leadership has consistently described Japan as a ‘natural partner’ over the years. Organisational-level contact takes place primarily in the European region, with Japanese political leaders and defence representatives increasingly participating in NATO meetings. Japan’s inaugural participation in a NATO Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in December 2020 and again in April 2022 to discuss the shift in the global balance of power and the rise of China was a particularly notable exchange. In recent years, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force has also exercised twice with NATO fleets in Europe.

As a creeping sense of insecurity and the lack of a multilateral security organisation loom large in East Asia, the role of NATO in the region is increasingly debated

While NATO may not yet be pivoting towards Asia in a physical sense, it is doing so on a policy level with the imminent introduction of its 2022 Strategic Concept, which addresses global challenges emerging from China for the first time. The inclusion of China’s coercive policies on the Madrid agenda indicates NATO’s concern about developments emanating from Japan’s neighbourhood. The Chair of NATO’s Military Committee also paid an official visit to Japan in June 2022.

On a NATO member-state level, Japan is urging for more cooperation and presence in Asia, both on paper and in practice. Specifically, Tokyo is calling for military visits from NATO members to Japan, and has expressed an interest in conducting joint exercises in the Indo-Pacific region. In addition to collaboration with their main security ally, the US, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces have recently exercised in the Pacific with forces from Canada, the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands.

As a creeping sense of insecurity and the lack of a multilateral security organisation loom large in East Asia, the role of NATO in the region is increasingly debated. In the leadup to the Madrid Summit, NATO–Japan relations should be viewed as coinciding with the broader trends in Japanese security policy, namely heightened engagement and interoperability with partners in the Indo-Pacific and vis-à-vis NATO member states. In evaluating relations, the distinction between NATO engagement on an organisational and member-state level is important, as it indicates the constraints but also pragmatic approaches to cooperation on pressing security issues.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Wrenn Yennie Lindgren

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Colonel (Ret'd) Per Erik Solli

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