The Rising Sun and the NATO Star

Japan intensifies its engagement with NATO, participating in summits and joint military exercises, signaling a strategic pivot that reshapes Asia-Pacific alliances and draws reactions from Russia, China, and North Korea.

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Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna
Girish Linganna is a Defence & Aerospace analyst and is the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany with manufacturing units in Russia. He is Consulting Editor Industry and Defense at Frontier India.

The Japanese news agency Kyodo News reports that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will fly to the United States once more to attend the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) summit taking place in Washington from July 9 to 11. He has plans to visit Germany as well. This news did not generate a significant reaction as the Japanese Prime Minister has been actively enhancing collaboration and engaging directly with the North Atlantic military alliance in recent years as if it were a member. He regularly attends such summits and appears to be more than just an observer in these meetings. It is important to note that Japan maintains a permanent mission at the NATO headquarters in Brussels. The matter of creating a NATO representation in Tokyo is currently under consideration.

During the NATO summit in Washington, the North Atlantic Alliance plans to sign the initial agreement to enhance collaboration with Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and New Zealand. As reported by Nikkei Asia, NATO aims to enhance its relations with Asia-Pacific nations in light of purported escalating security concerns posed by Russia and China. The quartet of countries has already engaged with NATO, but the purpose of signing the initial joint statement on expanding collaboration is to provide clarity on the nature of their involvement with the alliance.

The purpose of Kishinda’s visit to Germany and the discussions with Chancellor Olaf Scholz also center around military matters. The agenda includes discussions on bilateral cooperation in the areas of economic security and defense. What type of collaboration and engagement can one discuss between the armed forces of two countries situated at opposite ends of the planet?

Over the past few years, there has been a significant rise in military collaboration and the formation of alliances between different countries. Certain analysts perceive similarities between present-day geopolitical dynamics and historical alliances from the World War II era. The US has assumed a prominent position in promoting international collaborations, notably among Western states and their affiliated countries.

Japan and Germany, once enemies but now allied with Western objectives, have been increasing their military collaboration. In November 2021, the German frigate “Bavaria” and the Japanese destroyer “Samidare” participated in collaborative naval exercises in the Pacific Ocean. Germany has announced its plans to enhance its security footprint in Asia, fostering more collaboration with nations such as Japan, Australia, and South Korea. These developments indicate continuous changes in global military and diplomatic interactions as governments adapt their strategy in response to evolving international dynamics.

The joint maneuvers conducted with Germany, a NATO member, were not merely symbolic displays but rather represented one of the initial efforts towards what is now commonly known as “combat coordination.” This was confirmed by Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, the commander of the German Navy, who expressed his intention to deploy ships to the Indo-Pacific region in the coming times. In addition, he discussed intentions to enhance collaboration with Japan, Australia, and other nations. Schönbach suggests that deploying German ships to the region is contingent upon the circumstances in the South China Sea and the choices made by politicians. Additionally, there was the potential to dispatch German naval vessels to the “Indo-Pacific region for one and a half to two years” to engage in military drills alongside allied forces.

Japan is actively engaging with NATO, thereby establishing itself as a member of the alliance, if not yet in an official capacity. However, there is no specific necessity for that. Shortly after the formation of NATO in 1951, Japan entered into a military alliance with the United States. This alliance allowed for the establishment of many American Marine Corps, Air Force, and Navy facilities in Japan. Like NATO countries, Japan fully submitted to the authority of Washington and the Pentagon. Hence, although not a formal member of NATO, Tokyo is intricately involved in the present global military-strategic initiatives of the North Atlantic alliance by virtue of its partnership with the United States. The endorsement of this is publicly backed by Prime Minister Kishida’s cabinet and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, along with their ally, the Komeito party.

The “Eastern NATO” is primarily oriented towards countering the economic and military developments of the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (read North Korea).

However, collaborative military operations are also being planned on NATO’s Far Eastern border to counter Russia, Japan’s nearest neighbor (by virtue of controlling the Kruli Islands).

NATO member states, namely Germany, France, and Spain, have officially declared their intention to deploy military aircraft to Japan to conduct collaborative training exercises with the Japanese Air Force. These operations will be conducted under the codename “Pacific Sky.” From July 19 to 25, NATO and Japanese expert pilots will conduct simulated attacks against the enemy. However, instead of doing so in the Pacific Ocean, they will be doing it near Russian airspace, specifically over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, which is close to the Russian Kuril Islands and Sakhalin.

Japanese media observed that Spanish military pilots lacked prior experience in flying over these regions. However, this will be the second instance of the French and Germans collaborating in the Pacific theater. According to the NHK Corporation, Japan’s Defense Minister Minoru Kihara states that the presence of NATO air units in Japan serves to showcase their determination and capability in the Indo-Pacific area.

Moscow perceives the forthcoming provocation as a “threat” and has pledged to implement appropriate actions to enhance defense capabilities and safeguard the sovereignty of the Russian Federation. Moscow’s protest to the Japanese side strongly condemns the “provocative military operations near our country’s far eastern borders, conducted in collaboration with non-regional NATO member states, which is absolutely unacceptable.”

Putin’s response to the Japanese military maneuvers near the Kuril Islands caught everyone off guard. The Russian side’s prompt reaction was atypical since Russia typically refrains from objecting when other nations carry out drills close to its national borders.

While Russia expressed its concerns, it wasn’t the only regional power to react strongly to these developments.

Russia’s new pal, North Korea, has issued a warning, stating that the US and its allies are actively establishing a strategic position on the eastern side of NATO, with the intention of encircling China, North Korea, and Russia. An article published by the KCNA highlights the US’s attempt to downplay the nature of the military alliance formed by Biden, which includes Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul, by referring to it as an ‘Asian iteration of NATO.’ According to North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, the US, Japan, and South Korea have indeed formed an ‘Asian NATO.’ The North Korean Foreign Ministry expresses its assurance that the alliance, designed in the likeness of NATO and its principles, is fully prepared to engage in armed conflict promptly upon receiving instructions from Washington. The regular maneuvers of the three countries, known as Freedom Edge, pose a significant risk because of their systematization and organization, which effectively establishes a trilateral military bloc.

Japan has not explicitly acknowledged or challenged the designation of “Eastern NATO” bestowed by North Korea. Japan’s decision to align with NATO demonstrates a realistic evaluation that the global landscape is undergoing significant changes. In response to a more assertive China, an aggressive Russia, and an unpredictable North Korea, Japan is aiming to enhance its security by establishing a network of allies. Japan is diversifying its regional security partnerships, deepening ties with countries like India, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Although the US alliance remains of utmost importance, NATO will increasingly become a vital addition to Japan’s security strategy in the future.


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