The NATO Summit brings it closer to the Indo-Pacific - Hindustan Times

The NATO Summit brings it closer to the Indo-Pacific

ByHindustan Times
Jul 24, 2023 03:54 PM IST

This article is authored by Tara Kartha, distinguished fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

After the popping of champagne corks and a spate of speeches, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, arguably the only effective defence alliance in the world, wrapped up a two-day summit at Vilnius. That’s in Lithuania, a place that was as peaceful as it is beautiful, but is now at the edge of a gathering storm. Because this summit is about authorizing again, the militarization of Europe. And you know where that went last time around. There’s also a thrust to militarise parts of Asia, with China as the bait. That’s where we come in.

NATO flag (AFP)
NATO flag (AFP)

For the western media, this is all about Ukraine, with President Zelensky ramping up the pressure as he arrived with a tweet that castigated the alliance for not setting a time frame for the country’s entry. That Ukraine would not be given membership was an open secret, though Zelensky desperately tried to force the pace by charging Russia with mining the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant. International inspectors soon vetoed that, but members like Lithuania who are on the new border with Russia, supported him. Others like France and Germany are cautious with President Biden himself seeming unenthusiastic about extending the mutual defence clause. The final statement probably went further than intended, noting Ukraine would become a full member, and shortening the time frame by dropping the requirements of ‘Membership Action Plan’ - which in the case of Macedonia took 20 years to fulfil - but still lays down conditions before it is accepted. Given Ukraine’s shaky democratic and governance institutions its going to take a while, but meanwhile the establishment of a NATO-Ukraine Council is a step forward, as is a promise of EUR 50 bn through 2027, which should held Zelensky back home. Being a war time President is a risky business, especially as casualties mount. And when everyone knows that commitments are shaky. The estimate for reconstruction is $400 bn. That’s not coming anytime soon as Europe struggles with getting its act together.

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Much of the hard work, which is essentially persuading everyone to spend more on defence, and deciding where and how that should be spent. In 2022, only 7 of then 29 countries had reached the 2 per cent NATO guideline on defence spending. Unsurprisingly, five of these were Baltic countries quite literally on the edge. The defence ministers meeting in June this year, couldn’t agree on the new military plans being drawn up for responding to new threats. Consider that NATO’s border with Russia has doubled with the addition of Finland to its ranks, while the troops on readiness has gone up from 40,000 to 300,000 troops all of which means more money for logistics. NATO’s logistics is reported to be struggling to catch up in terms of infrastructure and ammunition. Reuters reported that Brussels has allocated just 1.6 billion euros ($1.67 billion) as against a requested 6.5 bn euros for military mobility projects, an initiative which began in May 2022,as part of the 25.8 bn euro transport sector for the wider ‘Connecting Europe Facility’. That’s big money for boosting the economy, but as military planners say, its simply not enough. Besides, the US National Security Strategy 2022, clearly states that it expects increased commitments from Europe, which in turn means some sort of ‘European capacity’ that has been debated but never implemented for decades.

Though the bulk of the Joint Communique is against Russia, there is a unusually sizeable section on China with the PRC mentioned 14 times as against once in the Madrid joint statement in 2022. It charges Beijing with a series of offenses including “projecting power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up”; malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation’ which ‘target allies’ and of using its “economic leverage to create strategic dependencies and enhance its influence’. The last is probably a reference to China’s steady incursions into much of Europe with its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, which includes 35 European and Central Asian countries including such ‘heartland’ states like Austria. In other words, Europe is objecting to China in its ‘sphere’ of influence, which is ironic , considering its official position on Russian grabbing of former Soviet space.

All this just got more intense with NATO plans to open a ‘liason office’ in Japan. That is opposed by French President Macron, on the grounds that this was so far ‘out of area’ as to make it senseless. Japan itself doesn’t seem to be too keen on the idea, and China was clearly furious. This proposal followed the February visit of NATO secretary general Stoltenberg to Japan, and the signing of a Joint Declaration which said “the security of the Euro-Atlantic and of the Indo- Pacific is closely connected and stress the necessity of further strengthening cooperation between Japan and NATO”. Notably, those who signed on to NATO’s Strategic Concept 2022, which for the first time identified China as a threat, included Heads of state of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. They also attended the Vilnius summit making it the second time in a row. All are NATO Asia Pacific Partners ( AP4) but will now transition to a new Individually Tailored Partnership Programme ( ITPP) which according to Nikkei Asia will be through a “tailored political and military consultations, joint training and exercises, and cooperation in Nato-led operations and missions”. In other words an effort to link up regional allies in a “spoke to spoke” model, rather than just a hub centred model. What each will negotiate remains to be seen, and meanwhile Australia has already stated it is looking for a more ‘ambitious’ partnership.

All this brings NATO much closer to Indian shores, even as the Foreign Ministry subtly changed its stance on the South China sea by asking Beijing to abide by the 2016 ruling that Beijing sees as null and void. As analysts note, India has had considerable interaction with NATO in past, and on piracy in particular, and that NATO till very recently had even more interaction with China. Now with a new menu that is ‘a la carte’, there is space for Delhi to discuss core concerns like cyber security, and maritime domain awareness with NATO ‘s structures, even while staying out of any formal partnership agenda in what will admittedly be a unique position. Its doable. The question is whether it’s worth the diplomatic expense incurred in various capitals including Moscow. Beijing’s views need not be a consideration, since it has so far, had no qualms about chatting up to NATO, or making big money out of its decadal relationship with Washington. True, it may b India’s turn to take these advantages; but not in tandem with raising of tensions in the Indo-Pacific which underlines an expanding NATO agenda. That’s the problem. Peace with profit is a difficult act to follow. Washington carried it off once, though it now falters. For Delhi, it may result in achieving neither.

This article is authored by Tara Kartha, distinguished fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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