Will more NATO support increase tensions in Asia?

Tuesday, 31 January 2023 (12:47 IST)
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg began a four-day trip to South Korea and Japan over the weekend, addressing military threats from China and North Korea, while seeking to deepen the alliance's political ties with its top Asian allies.
Stoltenberg kicked off his trip in South Korea on Sunday and was received by top South Korean officials in Seoul. During his meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin, Stoltenberg addressed North Korea's "reckless" nuclear and missile programs.
NATO's challenges are 'global'
Stoltenberg also said he believes North Korea is helping Russia in its war on Ukraine, and added this highlights how Europe and Asia are "interconnected." Both North Korea and Russia have denied that Pyongyang is providing any assistance.
The NATO chief also urged South Korea to "step up on the issue of military support" for Ukraine, and urged Seoul to greenlight direct arms exports and reverse a rule on sending weapons to conflict zones.
South Korea has been supporting Ukraine with non-lethal aid. It has also signed arms deals to provide tanks and fighter aircraft to NATO member Poland. However, the South Korean president has reiterated that it is against his country's policy to provide arms to countries in conflict. 
Speaking at the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies in Seoul, Stoltenberg highlighted that "if we don't want autocracy and tyranny to win, then they need weapons, that's the reality."
"We need to address these global threats and challenges, including the challenges coming from China, and one way of doing that is, of course, to work more closely with partners in the region," he told South Korea's Yonhap news agency in a separate interview.
Later this week, the NATO chief is expected to hold further security dialogues with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and other officials in Tokyo.
Jim Townsend, US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO under former President Barack Obama, and currently an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, described Stoltenberg's Asia trip as one of "reassurance" to Asian partners.
"The timing of Stoltenberg's visit is important. The war in Ukraine has had an effect on Asian countries and China's close relationship with Russia is also a threat that needs to be addressed," he told DW.
"Stoltenberg's presence in Tokyo will show that NATO is keen to strengthen its partnership with Asia," he said.
"These visits also signify unity because it shows that NATO and Asia are willing to work together. This trip signals a stronger partnership seeking to deal with China, North Korea and Russia's influence in Asia," he added.
Growing tensions in Asia
At last year's NATO summit in Madrid, leaders from Japan and South Korea expressed an urgency to address challenges in East Asia.
At the summit, Japan's Kishida expressed a "strong sense of crisis" over the likelihood of conflict in East Asia amid China's military buildup and growing presence in the East and South China Seas, according to Japan's Kyodo news service.  
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol shared a similar view, and together with Japan and Australia, expressed the importance of improving security in the Indo-Pacific region together with NATO. South Korea also opened a diplomatic mission to NATO a few months after the summit.
Since then, both Japan and South Korea have faced a more emboldened North Korea, which carried out an unprecedented number of missile tests in 2022. China's military show of strength in the waters surrounding Taiwan last summer also set off alarm bells.
All of this has made building closer ties with NATO "a necessary military strategy" for both South Korea and Japan under the current circumstances, according to Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a professor of international relations specializing in Asia security at King's College London.
"Both Japan and South Korea have expressed that security in Europe is linked to Asia, amid Russia's close links with China and North Korea," he told DW.
"They're keen to boost their partnership with the world's largest military alliance to address these security threats and also focus on building their partnership in maritime security and cybersecurity in the Asia-Pacific region," he said.
"NATO has also always been keen to engage further with its partners in Asia and use their expertise on what sort of cyber technology and military intelligence could be used to address challenges from China or North Korea," he added.
In a big step for a country that for decades has embraced a policy of pacifism, Japan recently doubled its military expenditures and unveiled plans to increase its defense partnership with the United States.
China, North Korea speak out against NATO in Asia
Meanwhile, North Korea's state media called Stoltenberg's visit a "prelude to confrontation and war as it brings the dark clouds of a 'new Cold War' to the Asia-Pacific region."
A similar sentiment was expressed after last year's NATO summit by both China and North Korea.
"NATO's five eastward expansions after the Cold War have not only failed to make Europe more secure, but also sowed the seeds of conflict," China's UN envoy, Zhang Jun, said before the summit.
"We firmly oppose certain elements clamoring for NATO's involvement in the Asia-Pacific, or an Asia-Pacific version of NATO on the back of military alliances," he added.
Townsend said this kind of rhetoric coming out of North Korea and China amid Stoltenberg's visit this week is to be expected. 
"A warning to Japan and South Korea about how relationships with a Western military alliance is not good was expected and they will say the NATO chief's visit is a propaganda tour," he said.
"But for NATO, this trip is purely one of reassurance to the people of South Korea and the people of Japan, to let them know that they have friends in Europe and the US who care about the security of this part of Asia," he added.

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