NATO in the Indo-Pacific: Will India become second fiddle to the US military alliance system?


Even as France became the spoilsport of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) ambition to make its permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific with a liaison office in Tokyo, it would likely to play as reinforcement in a US-China military confrontation in the region. Actually, Quad was conceived as a soft NATO in Asia , aka hard balancing and soft balancing in  realism,  to perform as a counter-balancing mechanism against China’s hegemonic ambition in the Indo-Pacific. NATO has already started its military presence by sending naval ships of individual countries to the region.

Peace and stability in any region is largely depended on the military contribution to meet the challenges, and those who deliver militarily to establish peace become the stakeholders in regional peace. With ‘security’ being expunged from the Quad’s agenda, military security is increasingly becoming a responsibility of the US and its allies. US allies Japan and Australia are strengthening their military capabilities, while NATO has been expanding its presence in the Indo-Pacific region in partnership with the US military allies to secure a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific.

The main challenge in the Indo-Pacific is the attempt to reshape the existing liberal order and establish one nation’s will and supremacy. Under Xi Jinping, China is looking to achieve “Two Centenary Goals” and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation by 2049. This will lead to contests and confrontations with the neighbouring countries, as China has been involved in territorial disputes with India, Japan, and Southeast Asia. It will be a challenge for the US as to question will be raised of its ability to guarantee the security of its military partners.

The US and its military allies and partners, including India, are trying to constrain China with different levels of counter-mechanisms, which include internal balancing, bilateral to quadrilateral groupings, and consortiums for customised military equipment. India mostly prefers non-military mechanisms in this balancing act, largely focusing on internal balancing, and seeks US technical support to bolster its military capabilities to counter the Chinese threat.

To provide an ideational foundation for the Indo-Pacific, former Japanese Prime Minister, the late Shinzo Abe, propounded ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP)’ in 2016 as a counter to China’s military assertiveness in the disputed East and South China Seas and its attempted unilateralism in the maritime domain. The FOIP has since been endorsed by the US and all its allies as a constructive proposition for the future of the Indo-Pacific. India’s official stance was announced by Prime Minister Modi at the Shangri La Dialogue in 2018, where he propounded ‘open, free, and inclusive Indo-Pacific’. This marked India’s ideational deviation from the other Quad members’ about how to view China and the mechanisms to deal with Chinese military threats. It is touted that India is hesitant to confront China militarily in the maritime sphere as India wants to see the Indo-Pacific more ‘inclusive’ – open the region to everyone, including China- than the ‘counter China’ narrative of the US.

Given the lack of a coherent regional security mechanism in the Indo-Pacific and the Washington’s ‘America first’ strategy which gives less commitment to the regional security than the American continental security, the regional countries are courting the NATO for a rules-based order in the region.   Four leaders from the Indo-Pacific region- Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand- attended NATO’s annual meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11-12, second time in a row, and decided to collaborate on cyber security, space, and tackling disinformation with NATO. It is indeed a coming together of US to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific, especially in the Pacific theatre. NATO  is said to intend to create an Individually Tailored Partnership Program (ITPP) with all four countries, apart from its intention to open a liaison office in Tokyo.

NATO also is enhancing its military presence in the region, and in 2021, NATO members sent 21 warships into Asian waters, where they conducted joint operations with all the regional navies. For the first time, the German frigate ‘Bayern’ was deployed in the Indo-Pacific waters from August 2, 2021, to February 18, 2022, and conducted a series of port calls from the US base of Diego Garcia in the central Indian Ocean, along the littoral countries of the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, and the East Asian waters, up to the US base of Guam in the Pacific, but was denied a port call request by China.

To acquire joint operations synergy with the US forces in the Indo-Pacific, France’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle conducted dual carrier flight operations with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group (CSG) in the Arabian Sea in April 2021, prior to the war game with the Indian Navy. France plans to not only double the number of patrol vessels in New Caledonia and Polynesia in the western Indian Ocean but also increase its patrols in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. In April 2021, a French Rubis-class nuclear-powered attack submarine sailed through the South China Sea. It engaged in crew change at Guam and also passed through the Philippine Sea, Sunda Strait, the Mariana Trench, and Australian waters.

The United Kingdom sent its Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21), based on the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, for a seven-month voyage to the Indo-Pacific in 2021, conducted military drills with India and Japan, and had a stopover at Singapore and Guam. There were eight British F-35B fighter jets and 10 U.S. F-35s, as well as 250 US marines, as part of a 1,700-strong crew onboard the carrier. Besides, other NATO members like Canada and the Netherlands also showed their naval presence in the Indo-Pacific.

Apart from naval deployment, they have also brought out policy guidelines envisioning for securing free and open Indo-Pacific. Germany, France, and the Netherlands had separate Indo-Pacific strategies. At the same time, the European Union came up with the region’s approach to the Indo-Pacific, but with varying degrees of how to engage China’s challenges. All of them consider the region highly critical in terms of security and trade because of China’s rise and its assertiveness, and their individual strategies aim to strengthen their military engagements in the Indo-Pacific. In contrast, the EU strategy has been more critical of China’s actions, which include ‘unfair trade practices, such as industrial subsidies, economic coercion, forced technology transfers, and intellectual property theft’.

The NATO 2030: United for a New Era report released on November 25, 2020, states that “NATO must devote much more time, political resources, and action to the security challenges posed by China” and calls “to demonstrate its ability to be an effective actor to provide protection for Allies [US] if they are threatened by China”. It indicates that NATO would not be hesitant to take military action in support of the US in Indo-Pacific waters.

The UK and Australia formed AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) in September 2021 to build nuclear attack submarines (with conventional weapons) for Australia. This is part of the US strategy of equipping its regional military allies to counter the Chinese threat by themselves instead of completely relying on the US. The US has been more focused on homeland security than confronting China militarily in the Indo-Pacific. Similarly, other US military allies like Japan, the United Kingdom, and Italy formed another consortium to build sixth-generation fighter aircraft, predominantly for Japan. Japan earlier sought US technical support for a homegrown, designed, and developed stealth aircraft on a hybrid model of the F-22 and F-35, only to be shot down by the US, citing that sharing the F-35’s technologies with states outside the NATO and Five Eyes alliance systems is prohibited.

The US strategy is to constrain China in the region itself and expects Japan and Australia to work as forward deterrent forces. NATO will become a reinforcement in a US-China military confrontation in the Indo-Pacific. The US is attempting to bringing its military allies together to fight against China, while with others, the US is engaging economically and diplomatically through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Once the US and its military allies took the leading role in ensuring security and stability in the Pacific theatre, India’s role in the security architecture of the larger Indo-Pacific would dwindle, reducing it to an Indian Ocean power only.

Joshy M Paul
Joshy M Paul
Research Fellow with the New Delhi based Centre for Airpower Studies. He can be contacted at :mpjoshy[at]


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