TOKYO: U.S. security allies in Asia and Europe are now closer to each other than ever, as seen in the first participation of Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand in a NATO summit late last month.
At the June 29 meeting in Madrid, NATO adopted a new mission statement known as Strategic Concept for the coming 10 years, positioning China as a major threat to the global order. The military alliance vowed to counter Beijing's growing influence through close cooperation with the U.S. and its allies in Asia.
It was the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who paved the way for closer security ties between Japan and Europe. In January 2007, Abe stressed the importance of such an alliance in a speech delivered at NATO headquarters in Brussels. He was the first Japanese prime minister to make a speech there.
About 15 years on, cooperation among U.S. allies in Asia and Europe has deepened, as seen in repeated joint military drills involving Japan, the U.S., Australia, Britain and France in the Indo-Pacific region. If such joint action develops, it could become an effective deterrence against Chinese and Russian aggression.
But NATO and U.S. allies in Asia could become rivals. While they cooperate in diplomacy and security in peacetime, they may find themselves competing for U.S. military assistance if a crisis breaks out both in Asia and Europe.
During the Cold War, the U.S. prepared to deal with two major conflicts simultaneously. In January 2012, however, the administration of then-U.S. President Barack Obama adopted a new defense policy, shifting away from a two-front war.
The U.S. armed forces are in a tougher position now due to China's military expansion. If crises break out in Asia and Europe at the same time, the U.S. is likely to be forced to prioritize. In that case, Europe and the U.S. allies in Asia are expected to engage in a fierce battle for Washington's military assistance.
NATO's China strategy was one of the issues discussed at the Brussels Forum, a trans-Atlantic dialogue hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in the Belgium capital on June 27-29. Policymakers and experts, including cabinet ministers and lawmakers in the U.S. and Europe, discussed how much energy NATO should pour into China-related security matters.
Despite the war in Ukraine, the U.S. maintains that China is the biggest threat and is eager for NATO's help in dealing with China. This view was shared by many U.S. participants.
One U.S. House member stressed the importance of measures to counter China's threat, while admitting the need to deal with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Another U.S. participant, a senator, called for joint U.S.-Europe action to counter Beijing.
But the European delegation did not necessarily buy into the U.S. stance as the region has borne the brunt of Russian aggression. They basically said the Russian threat should be addressed first, with a former European leader calling Russia the biggest problem in face of the ongoing Ukraine conflict.
These conflicting views were also expressed in private conversations.
A senior member of the U.S. Democratic Party talked about the importance of European support as regards the Taiwan Strait, stressing the urgency of creating a joint U.S.-Europe plan to deal with potential Chinese military action in the area.
But a former cabinet minister in Europe sees NATO's job as protecting its member states. He would not support NATO's direct involvement in a war involving Taiwan, which he views as something the U.S. and Japan should handle.
The U.S. and its allies in Europe and Asia should address this dichotomy lest China and Russia use it to drive a wedge between the partners.
It is doubtful that China and Russia trust each other enough to form a military alliance, but there is a chance they may simultaneously try to provoke separate crises -- China in Asia and Russia in Europe -- to make them look like coordinated military moves. To cope with this scenario, U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia and South Korea need to begin preparing for such an eventuality to maintain solidarity and respond accordingly.
Specifically, the allies need to discuss what shortages U.S. forces could face in the event of two separate conflicts and how they can better prepare themselves.
Battles in Europe will be largely fought on the ground, while conflicts in Asia will mostly revolve around naval and aerial confrontations. Things like reconnaissance, transport vessels, ammunition and missiles, however, are essential to any war. How to share these assets among allies has become a hot topic of discussion among U.S. security experts.
Of primary importance is to ensure that conflicts will be contained in each respective region and not grow into a global two-front war. To this end, NATO members should conduct joint military drills and surveillance with Japan, Australia and South Korea to deter both Beijing and Moscow from becoming too adventurous militarily.
But time is of the essence. In Europe, not a few experts are pessimistic about its alliance with the U.S. Some European officials and pundits are deeply worried that the U.S. will withdraw from NATO if former U.S. President Donald Trump -- or a pro-Trump candidate -- wins the 2024 presidential election.
In fact, Trump, while in office, contemplated a U.S. pullout from NATO in 2018, according to U.S. news media. Allies in Europe are thus doing their utmost to bolster NATO now and retain the U.S. as an alliance member.
America's partners in Asia are in a different position as Washington shifts its military priorities to the region. But their alliance with the U.S. should be strengthened to withstand any U.S. policy shifts following the 2024 election.