'Harder, better, faster, stronger': NATO leaders meet in Lithuania with Sweden, Ukraine & Asia in mind

NATO has a war on its doorstep but is still concerned about Asia, with leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand attending its annual summit.

Tan Min-Wei | July 11, 2023, 04:53 PM

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NATO is holding their annual summit in Vilnius, Lithuania from July 11 to 12.

The ongoing war in Ukraine will occupy the alliance’s attention, with the pending membership of both Sweden and Ukraine as main talking points, but China and Taiwan Strait issues also loom in the background.


NATO’s own secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, who was initially scheduled to depart the post in 2023, but has had his tenure extended by a further year for the second time, has laid out his thoughts on what the Vilnius meeting means for NATO.

Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, he said:

"I expect NATO allies to confirm our unwavering support for Ukraine, continue to strengthen our own defense, and increase our cooperation with our European and Indo-Pacific partners to defend the global rules-based order."

The first two points have come hand in hand, with Stoltenberg citing Russia’s “illegal annexation of Crimea” in 2014 as the inflection point which prompted NATO to return to focusing on European defence.

He also cited NATO’s support for an independent Ukraine since it had gained independence in 1994, and the training and support that it had provided since 2014.

He also said the support that had been given to Ukraine thus far had transformed its military from the Soviet era to one which “is more integrated with our alliance than ever before”.

It is a notable coincidence that the 2023 summit is occurring in Lithuania, formerly occupied by the USSR which, along with its other neighbouring Baltic states, rushed to join NATO as soon as it was able.

Lithuania's neighbour Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas was in Singapore recently, warning of the impact of "Russian Colonisation" on the Baltics.

Members only

The war in Ukraine has led to the open consideration of three countries for membership in NATO: Finland, Sweden, and Ukraine.

Finland has successfully joined the alliance, adding one more border state for Russia to consider.

Sweden’s membership is being held up by Turkey’s concerns regarding "terrorism", and Turkey's own wish for European Union membership.

Otherwise, it is facing no other major difficulty in joining and it is likely a matter of time before a compromise is reached.

Obstacles for Ukraine's NATO membership

The situation in Ukraine on the other hand bedevils NATO partners.

While NATO countries seem to agree that membership cannot come while Ukraine is still at war, as doing so risks open war between Russia and NATO, they are split on how explicitly they will welcome Ukraine afterwards.

The UK is agitating for a more explicit roadmap to membership, as reported by the Guardian, a promise that Ukraine will be a NATO member when the war ends.

The BBC reports that the US and Germany are more circumspect, worried about Ukraine’s domestic political situation, and that an explicit promise of post-war membership will be an incentive for Russia to drag out the war.

Also, just a fun aside, Stoltenberg labelled the section of his essay on NATO’s commitment to improving its defence capability as “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, which has to be one of the less expected places to find a Daft Punk reference.

China is/not an adversary

Stoltenberg also, albeit briefly, touched on the issue of China, which has preoccupied both the North American and European members of NATO, although to different degrees.

Stoltenberg said that NATO “does not see China as an adversary”, adding that it was important to engage with China on global issues such as nuclear proliferation and climate change, as well as seeing them as vital to ending Russia’s “illegal war”.

But he also said that:

“China, in particular, is watching to see the price Russia pays, or the reward it receives, for its aggression. It is learning from Moscow’s military failures and the response of the international community. “

He also said Japan and Korea are clearly concerned that “what was happening in Europe today, could happen in Asia tomorrow.”

Under Stoltenberg’s leadership, NATO has built closer ties with Asian powers Japan and South Korea.

Japan has been pushing for NATO to set up a liaison office in Tokyo, as reported by Reuters.

The office is meant to “ease consultations” between NATO and Japan, and is opposed by China, but also NATO member France.

French president Emmanuel Macron has been reported by Politico as saying that the office would be too far outside of NATO’s geographical remit.

In a separate Politico report, Macron was also quoted as saying that the European Union should maintain “strategic autonomy” from the U.S., basically saying that the EU should not be in confrontation with China simply because another NATO ally was.

Europe or Asia?

But Nikkei has also suggested an alternative reason why NATO member states are fixated on Asia.

Acknowledging that the U.S.’s primary concern has been steadily moving towards the Indo-Pacific in recent years, NATO drawing closer to the “Indo-Pacific 4” of Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, could be a way to prevent the U.S. from fully pivoting to Asia.

All four IP4 states' leaders are attending the Vilnius summit.

This is similar to how East Asian states aggressively pursued the Trans-Pacific Partnership with the U.S. in a bid to keep it engaged in Asia, at a time when its primary focus was on Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Ironically, this appears to be a similar concern that drives Asian participation in NATO, with Reuters reporting that Japan's PM Fumio Kishida is courting new security partners because he feels that Japan can no longer solely rely on the U.S. for its security.

These concerns come as Japan has doubled its security spending, worried about both China and Russia in its airspace and territorial waters.

When, not if

The Vilnius NATO summit projects a bit of an oddity in foreign relations.

For a European-centric organisation with very real present day European contentions to still clearly keep one eye on Asia should give an indication of how vitally it sees the region to its future.

Even when in disagreement, NATO’s members disagree only on manner of engagement, not its necessity.

Vilnius will likely give an indication of how able the bloc is able to compromise on that front, or if the various member states will have to find alternative means to pursue their individual interests.

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Top image by @jensstoltenberg/twitter