Japan-NATO Ties: For What End?

commentary

Jul 8, 2024

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg meet during a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 12, 2023, photo by Yves Herman/Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg meet during a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 12, 2023

Photo by Yves Herman/Reuters

This piece is part of a commentary series on the upcoming NATO summit in Washington in which RAND researchers explore important strategic questions for the alliance as NATO confronts a historic moment, navigating both promise and peril.

When the NATO summit opens this week, it will include not just NATO members, but Indo-Pacific partners as well. This is not the first time, but the inclusion of states like Japan raises reasonable questions of why NATO has an interest in developing closer ties with states that are not signatories to the North Atlantic Treaty, and which lie far outside of the area of responsibility for NATO members.

It is commonly believed that stronger Japan-NATO cooperation benefits both sides. But this begs an important question: Why? Much of the motivation has been well documented, including Russia's aggression, an ever-provocative China, and the growing ties between those two. But to what end? In other words, what are the practical areas of cooperation for Japan-NATO ties?

Strengthening Ties

As I detailed in a 2020 RAND report, Japan is in fact NATO's longest-standing non-European partner. But despite this fact, beyond exchanges and dialogues, practical cooperation only dates to the post–September 11th world with Japan's noncombat support for allied operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In subsequent years, the two sides have sought to put more substance into their relationship. For example, in 2010, the two signed an agreement on the Security of Information and Material (PDF). Four years later they signed the Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme (PDF) that, among other things, specified a commitment to promote practical cooperation in nine specific areas, such as cyber defense, HA/DR, and counterterrorism. Following from this, Japan's Self-Defense Forces began conducting combined exercises with European counterparts in NATO's Operation Ocean Shield, the counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. Most recently, in 2023, the two staked out their path of future cooperation under the Individually Tailored Partnership Programme (PDF), which is meant to enhance cooperation in 16 areas, including cyber defense, strategic communications, emerging and disruptive technologies, and space security.

In addition to the strengthening of practical areas of cooperation, Japan and NATO have increasingly shown alignment in their worldviews and the interconnectedness of their individual security. For example, in 2017, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg agreed “that the security environments of Asia and Europe are closely linked.” Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine provided further impetus to this. Not only did the invasion lead to a Japanese prime minister attending the NATO summit (a first), but NATO also then adopted a Strategic Concept in which NATO members agreed that “the Indo-Pacific is important for NATO, given that developments in that region can directly affect Euro-Atlantic security.” Importantly, NATO members recognized China as posing a “systemic challenge” to Euro-Atlantic security. A similar sentiment of the interconnectedness of the two regions was echoed by Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, who said that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow (PDF).”

In addition to the strengthening of practical areas of cooperation, Japan and NATO have increasingly shown alignment in their worldviews and the interconnectedness of their individual security.

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And yet, despite this increasing closeness, neither side has expressed any type of concrete form of commitment should a conflict break out in their region. Despite all of Japan's protestations about Russia, its expansive support (PDF) for Ukraine has been limited to nonlethal support, setting a precedent that would be easy for NATO to follow, should a conflict break out over Taiwan. In other words, it is unlikely that NATO as an organization will send troops to fight China. Individual member states, perhaps. But not NATO.

This should not come as a surprise. Article 6 of the North Atlantic Treaty limits the geographic boundaries of invoking Article 5's collective self-defense commitment to an armed attack to Europe, North America, and the North Atlantic. It does not cover the Indo-Pacific region. And despite Japan's unprecedented—and continuing (PDF)—support for Ukraine, no senior Japanese official has indicated an appetite to provide lethal support of any kind to Ukrainians. Further, at a time when U.S. officials and analysts question the extent Japan would even involve itself in a fight to defend Taiwan, it is unthinkable that Japan would provide combat support to some future war in Europe.

And yet, as shown in the 2020 RAND report, both Japan and NATO are opposed to revisionist countries attempting to change the status quo by force. Based on their strengthening ties, what, then, could we expect the two can do to cooperate should a conflict break out over Taiwan, or if another war engulfs Europe?

Economically, and probably through the vehicle of the European Union or individual states, Japan and Europe could bring their economic prowess to bear, exacting sanctions against select entities, trading activities, and investments (i.e., trade in debt and equity instruments; investments in sensitive technologies), freezing credit and access to the global banking system for individuals and the aggressor country's banks, and passing legislation to bar the aggressor nation's companies from doing business in one's own country.

Diplomatically, the two can name and shame states and work to shape world opinion against aggressors to isolate it in the court of public opinion. Making it difficult for leaders of an aggressor nation to travel abroad through visa restrictions also helps contribute to its pariah status. Applying restrictions on access to one's airspace and shipping could be an even more severe application of this pressure.

Closer to operational support, Japan and NATO could cooperate in the areas of cyber, space, and disinformation. For example, building on many years of cybersecurity collaboration, including Japan's participation in NATO's cyber defense exercise and its Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence in Estonia, they could exchange information on distribution networks, tactics, and collaborated responses.

By continuing to strengthen bilateral ties today, Japan and NATO are positioning themselves to be able to threaten real consequences when necessary.

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In space, with today's networks of communication, navigation, and command and control systems all connected by space-based systems, Japan and NATO could work on improving the resiliency of their own satellites to withstand jamming and spoofing. They could also work to integrate their separate Space Domain Awareness capabilities to ensure broader situational awareness for U.S.-led activities. And with disinformation, the two sides could exchange information on any known disinformation campaigns against themselves and other like-minded countries to rapidly identify—and respond to—disinformation campaigns. The faster that like-minded countries can share information, the better they can coordinate a proactive response. In the longer term, they can co-develop technology to better recognize disinformation attacks.

All of these collaborative opportunities suggest that the decades-long effort to strengthen Japan-NATO cooperation does promise a tangible impact in a future conflict. Namely, it helps raise the costs for aggressors that attempt to disrupt the status quo by force. This does not guarantee those aggressors will not act, but it does promise real costs that could be brought to bear immediately. Japan did that when Russia invaded Ukraine. NATO could do something similar, should China invade Taiwan.

By continuing to strengthen bilateral ties today, Japan and NATO are positioning themselves to be able to threaten real consequences when necessary. The more both work together in peacetime, the more credible their threats will appear when a conflict breaks out.


Jeffrey W. Hornung is the Japan lead for the RAND National Security Research Division and a senior political scientist at RAND. He is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.