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France’s Macron Derails NATO-Pacific Alliance Plan—For Now
Stoltenberg determined to pursue intelligence-sharing, weapons integration
There were so many contentious issues at last week’s NATO summit in Vilnius, along with a large cast of colorful characters—Zelensky, Biden, Erdogan, to name a few—to play out the drama that most reporters didn’t even notice the presence of the leaders of four non-NATO countries—Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand—walking around the hallways. If they did notice, apparently few stopped to wonder what those leaders from far-flung Pacific nations were doing at a meeting of the Atlantic alliance.
There is no question that the elephant in the room at the Vilnius gathering was Russia, but it escaped most observers that there was another big elephant—China—invisible, perhaps, but very much present. That’s why the leaders from the Far East—known at NATO headquarters in Brussels as AP4, or Four Asia-Pacific Partners—were invited expressly by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who has been very concerned about China’s growing economic influence around the world and its military saber rattling on the other side of the globe.
Stoltenberg in the last couple of years has been pushing for NATO to forge closer partnerships with democratic powers around the Pacific Ocean to monitor and check Chinese expansionism, an idea pretty much endorsed by Washington. In fact, the NATO Secretary General sounded out Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and the other AP4 leaders earlier this year about a proposal to open a NATO liaison office in Tokyo, the first of its kind for the Atlantic alliance. With tacit approval by the U.S. and other alliance members, the plan was to be included in the joint statement in Vilnius, with opening of the Tokyo office scheduled for early fall.
The plan, however, was scuttled at the last minute by a strong objection voiced by French President Emmanuel Macron, exposing—to those who noticed—another rift within the Atlantic alliance. Macron’s vehement objection forced NATO to sweep the Pacific outreach idea under the rug in Vilnius—that’s why no unsuspecting reporter knew about it. But Stoltenberg isn’t about to drop his proposal, not only setting a stage for more discord within the alliance but also affecting the future shape of NATO as the perceived menace from China grows.
Stoltenberg disclosed the Tokyo liaison office proposal in an interview with CNN in May. “Japan is a very close and important partner for NATO,” he said. The office would be intended not just for cooperation between Brussels and Tokyo, but for coordinating NATO’s activities in the region with other partners, notably Seoul, Canberra and Wellington, reports say. The area of cooperation would include, besides aid to Ukraine, information sharing, interoperability of weapons, cyber security, destructive emerging technologies and climate change.
A Tokyo hub would have obvious advantages for NATO in the tactical intelligence realm, such as providing a direct channel of real-time tracking of Chinese maritime activities around the Senkaku Islands, where the PLA Navy transits from the East China Sea to the blue waters of the Pacific. Japan already shares intelligence with the U.S. under a bilateral treaty, but not with NATO per se.
Stoltenberg’s idea was obviously inspired by perceptions that China poses a threat not only to Taiwan but to democracies and rule-based societies around the world at a time when liberal democracy seems to be in retreat. Even though the joint declaration in Vilnius did not include the plan to open a NATO office in Tokyo, it had an earful about the menace of China.
“The PRC employs a broad range of political, economic, and military tools to increase its global footprint,” it said, adding, “(China’s) malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation target Allies and harm Alliance security.” Speaking with reporters at Vilnius, Stoltenberg called China a NATO “adversary,” and said, “China is increasingly challenging the rules-based international order, refusing to condemn Russia’s war against Ukraine, threatening Taiwan, and carrying out a substantial military build-up.”
Beijing immediately responded with a strongly-worded statement, saying the NATO declaration distorts Beijing’s policies and deliberately discredits China. “We firmly oppose and reject this,” it said, warning, “Any act that jeopardizes China’s legitimate rights and interests will be met with a resolute response.” It continues, sarcastically, “Despite all the chaos and conflict (it) already inflicted, NATO is spreading its tentacles to the Asia-Pacific region with an express aim of containing China.”
Some reports speculated that Beijing might have solicited Macron’s help to stem NATO’s new activism in the Asia-Pacific region. It’s more likely that Macron, having been warmly received and lavishly entertained by Xi Jinping when he visited China in April, acted on his own volition to put a monkey wrench in the Tokyo office plan. Some European commentators pointed out that Macron, who took along a large delegation of French business leaders, may be trying to protect French economic interests. Airbus recently announced a sale of 50 helicopters to GDAT, one of China's largest helicopter operators and lessors, and a deal to double its production in China by building a second assembly line at its plant in Tianjin. In addition, Électricité de France (EDF) renewed its contract with Chinese energy giant China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN), and water management firm Suez signed a desalination contract with Wanhua Chemical. Cosmetics company L’Oréal, on its part, sealed a deal with e-commerce platform Alibaba on “sustainable consumption,
But Macron’s deference to China is not limited to the liaison office issue. Following the grand tradition of French leaders, he has been trying to carve out a foreign policy of his own, more independent of the U.S. and other NATO allies ever since the war in Ukraine started.
Despite his failed attempt to persuade Vladimir Putin to seek a ceasefire with Ukraine, which elicited dismay and criticism from the European allies, he traveled to Beijing party to see if Xi Jinping was willing and capable of brokering peace in Ukraine, an effort that has no sign of producing a result. In Beijing, he called the relationship a “global strategic partnership with China,” and advocated a multipolar world without “blocs,” free of the “Cold War mentality,” and “extraterritoriality of the U.S. dollar.” On China’s threat to forcibly annex Taiwan, Macron told reporters on his return plane from Beijing: “The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic, and take our cue from the U.S. agenda and a Chinese overreaction.”
Thus, Stoltenberg had to shelve the Tokyo office idea this time, but Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and three other Asia-Pacific leaders who traveled to Vilnius were each rewarded with the “Individually Tailored Partnership Program (ITPP),” which stipulates areas of cooperation with Brussels. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said his country’s cooperation with NATO will focus on cybersecurity and ways to deal with threats from North Korea. Kishida said the areas of cooperation grew from nine to 16, including emerging and disruptive technologies (EDT) and autonomous weapons systems (otherwise known as killer robots). Standing with Kishida in a press conference, Stoltenberg said, “No other partner is closer to NATO than Japan.”
There is no indication that Stoltenberg has dropped his idea of opening the Tokyo office. In fact, his last-minute decision to keep his leadership position at NATO, after announcing his retirement a few months ago, may have something to do with his failure to have his idea executed this time, though there is no evidence of that. Japanese reporters in Vilnius were told by NATO sources that the Tokyo office will happen before the end of the year. Other reports say the target date now is 2024. The question: how to persuade Macron to come along, or what face-saving way Stoltenberg and his allies can offer for him to drop his objection.
Ayako Doi is the former co-founder of The Japan Digest.
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