Quiet but effective Japan – NATO relations: The enduring value of the Aso doctrine

Just recently, a group of Japanese academics and think tankers visited NATO and try to see beyond Afghanistan for ways to sustain Japan’s relationship with NATO. Issues arising included emerging non-traditional threats, Civil emergency planning, ‘Smart defence’ and Missile Defence.

But do these routine and low profile contacts belie a carefully calibrated, more substantial relationship?

Contrary to what one might guess, this relationship goes back to the Cold War era, when, as Dr. Nishihara Musashi records:

Japanese defense ministers visited NATO headquarters in 1979, 1981 and 1984, respectively. But, it was not until after the Cold War ended that NATO’s Secretaries General Manfred Worner, Javier Solana and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer returned the visit to Tokyo in 1991, 1997 and 2005, respectively.

Following the conclusion of the Cold War, Japan and NATO opened up a dialogue with NATO but also OSCE and the EC. Japan has become NATO’s longest-standing global partner, and a strategic dialogue involving high-level discussions held alternatively in Japan and at NATO Headquarters in Brussels has continued since then.

The stakes were raised by two Japanese Prime Ministers in the period following 9/11. In 2006, Prime Minister Aso Taro became the first Japaense Prime Minister to attend a meeting of the the North Atlantic Council. His speech included the following comments:

“September 11th, 2001, I believe, was a dawn of a new era. During the Cold War, we were familiar with the kind of danger that confronted us. However, in this post Nine-Eleven world, we realize the difficulty with which to forecast when and where new threats will emerge. Still, I must remind you that in my part of the world, the underlying security structure remains sharply different from that of Europe. I often hear that in the Asian region, remains of the former era, a Cold-War-type structure still exists. For example, North Korea admits developing nuclear capabilities. Taiwan Strait matters still remain as issues. What is new in this region is the rise of China. While we welcome China to play a responsible role regionally as well as globally, we must carefully watch transparency in its military build-up because of the possible implications to the East Asian security environment.”

Prime Minister Aso went on to note the various communications and visits between Japaense officals and NATO and Japan’s cooperation in Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean. He set the tone for this period of interaction with the following words:

“Let us enhance our mutual awareness, as we will most likely find ourselves working aside together much more frequently than in the past. Let us start talking to one another more often and much more on a regular basis, with a view of possibility for operational cooperation in the future.” 

This hint at future operational cooperation, facilitated by a gradually deepening familiarity, is what I refer to in the title as the ‘Aso doctrine’. It allows each side to maintain a watching brief while avoiding some of the burdens of a more formal commitment. I’ll admit that ‘doctrine’ may be too strong a word for it, but it whatever you call it, it is a deliberate statement of how Japan should approach NATO, and it sends a clear signal in all the right directions.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s speech to NATO in 2007 was the second obvious ‘peak’ in this post-9/11 ear. His speech was underpinned by the following logic – Japan is willing to pitch in on matters that have significance for security on a global level. Because we share your values (freedom, democracy, rule of law, human rights), we are likely to identify these matters in the same way. But we expect the same in return. E.g. we are helping you with Afghanistan. Please help us with North Korea. One wonders now about the conclusions drawn in Japan about the value of this ‘deal’.

Again, as with Aso’s speech, China merits mention:

“there are some uncertainties surrounding China, such as its increasing defense expenditures and continued lack of transparency. We need to pay close attention to the future of this nation. And we should continue to have dialogue with the Chinese government for increased responsibility it can share with us, to improve the regional security environment. Partners sharing fundamental values should enhance cooperation to this end”.

Over the last five years, the Japan-NATO relationship has settled into a regular exchange of views by officials and academics. It seems to be a level of intimacy that suits everyone. When you consider the following pros and cons of the relationship, it would appear that this is just about the appropriate pitch – not too close for friction and not too distant that the partners risk drifting apart.

The pros:

  • Enduring geostrategic principles. By this I mean the old logic of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ or ‘to confront the near, befriend the far’. This was as clear in 1902 when Britain and Japan allied against Tzarist Russia, as during the Cold War, when Mao is said to have advised a visiting UK defence minister that ‘you hold the Russian bear by the claws where it bites and we will hold it by the legs where it kicks’. It is just one way in which the NATO-Japan relationship shows how European and Asian security can be linked. For a post-Cold War instance: “Until about the mid-1990s, Tokyo feared that with the establishment of NATO’s Partnership of Peace (PfP) and better relations between Russia and NATO, Russia might shift its military personnel and arms to its Far East, thereby creating new tensions with Japan.”
  • New geostrategic factors: The un-freezing Arctic will bring NATO and Asia – principally Japan – much closer together.
  • Complimentarity. While NATO has military capabilities and Rules of Engagement Japan does not, Japan has things that NATO currently lacks, such as spending power and a huge latent capacity for civilian components of post-conflict stabilisation. Back to geography again, Japan also has its location, which has inherent strategic advantages for NATO as described in the above bullets.
  • NATO has developed a graduated scale of partnerships that mean it can accommodate almost any degree of entanglement with non-NATO countries. Japan has moved up the ranks to a point that best serves mutual interests for now, but equally there is nothing to stop NATO and Japan developing another ‘grade’ of partnership to suit the situation.
  • Apart from the US-Japan alliance, Japan has only the UN to look to for its defence. It is a lonely thought. NATO partnership has the potential to lead to something more, or at least to raise the prospect for friends and foes alike.

The cons

  • Japan has renounced war. Haven’t we all? (see article 2.4 of the UN Charter). The critical difference is that for the post WW II period, Japan interpreted this to mean it could not participate in collective self-defence organisations like NATO. This puts an upper limit on the NATO-Japan relationship. But this is not entirely a bad thing. There are some good reasons for keeping the relationship ‘low key’. As Nishihara cautions: “China, in particular, may see itself being sandwiched in byEurope and the Pacific, a feeling that may be at the root of its close cooperation with Russia and Central Asia to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)”. 
  • Japan already has a strong alliance with the United States, including a nuclear umbrella, without the burden of a ‘mutual defence’ commitment. Why complicate it (and risk provoking others) by getting more closely involved with a lot of European nations? As Nishihara observes“during the Cold War, Japan considered Western Europe as a strategic competitor. Situated at each end of the Eurasian continent, Western Europe and Japan, in a sense, competed with each other for U.S. protection”. It wouldn’t do to dilute this relationship with the US for the sake of less concrete benefits from a more distant region, would it?

Actually there is a lot to be said for a good old-fashioned hedge against future uncertainties. It would probably be a mistake to think that just because there has been little by way of high-flown rhetoric or flashy moves on the Japan-NATO relationship, that  its significance can be discounted. Human and institutional relationships and understandings reached through regular contacts across government and civil society, coupled with experience of operational cooperation in disaster relief or other humanitarian tasks can pay a big dividend in a crisis. These are exactly the elements of the relationship we see today. These customary contacts shorten the time-scale in which strategic and operational relationships can be intensified if the situation demands.

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