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NATO’s pivot to the Indo-Pacific

NATO's US envoy recently expressed interest in deeper engagement with India as the organisation attempts to increase its footprint in the Indo-Pacific to contain the rise of China.

US Permanent Representative to NATO Julianne Smith suggested that NATO's doors are open to more engagement with India, but the ball is in India's court.

A new stakeholder has emerged in the geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific, trying to increase its sphere of influence in the region. This time, the age-old North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). It is fairly common knowledge that NATO was created as a military bloc aimed to counter the communist influence in Europe and has remained to be a military alliance since then. The thirty one member alliance, including the most recent addition- Finland, has gained the reputation of a strategic organisation aimed to foster security and peace in the region. The most significant characteristic of the alliance is the Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty which clearly states that an attack on even one member state would be counted as an attack on all and hence the whole organisation has a responsibility to take action.

The background of NATO gives us a picture of the orientation of this alliance and suggests that the organisation has a primary geostrategic agenda. What is particularly interesting now however is that even NATO, which remained confined to its sphere of influence in Europe, is looking to expand its military footprint in the Indo-Pacific. It has been made clear however that the organisation will continue to remain a western alliance however the scope of partnership with the key states in the Indo-Pacific is likely to be widened now, with the release of the new strategic outlook of NATO in the form of the new ‘Regional Perspective on the Indo-Pacific’ report.

Why is NATO looking towards the Indo-Pacific?

The answer is just one word- China. The expansionist and revisionist policies of the Chinese state has threatened the West to the extent that the European economies are looking towards the states within the Indo-Pacific for partnerships towards containing China.

The question still remains however, why is the Indo-Pacific so important in this regard?

The region, as of now, contributes about 40 per cent to the global GDP and is home to 60 per cent of the global population. The top three states with the highest military spending in the world are located within the region, namely, the United States, China and India. One of the most significant routes to maritime trade around the world, the Malacca Strait is in the sphere of the Indo-Pacific. The rapid rise of the economies within the region such as that of China and India along with the member states of ASEAN has given a boost to the regional dynamics.

When it comes to NATO, the organisation’s interest in China is not new. NATO had been wary of the rapid rise of China since the past few years and even the NATO 2030 Vision aims to leverage the assertiveness of China in the region by building stronger partnerships with key countries through strategic information exchange, technological cooperation and investment in research and development (R&D) on defence cooperation. Moreover, the great power competition between the United States and China has also given NATO an impetus to increase its footprint and influence in the region considering that the United States is a dominant power within NATO and steers the function of the organisation. The rise in China’s military expenditure, technological expansion and the economic strategies in the form of Belt and Road Initiative and the Maritime Silk Route through the waters of the Indo-Pacific make the region the new theatre of this emerging great power competition.

Figure 1.1: The recent survey on the State of Southeast Asia suggested that China still has more influence on the strategic affairs of ASEAN countries than the US

Part of the reason for NATO’s rapid interest in the region would also have to be the dwindling strategic influence of the United States vis-a-vis China in Southeast Asia. The southeast asian countries, particularly the members of ASEAN form an integral part of the region and even though China is involved in conflicting territorial claims in the region, the country continues to wield a significant economic and strategic influence.

Where does India figure?

In the recent edition of the Raisina Dialogues organised by the External Affairs Ministry of India, some informal deliberations were held between the delegation of NATO and India. However, these discussions did not amount to a concrete plan of cooperation. It was only recently that the United States’ NATO envoy Julianne Smith expressed the willingness of NATO to engage with India to chart out any possibility of partnership within the region.

India, at this point is a very significant partner for any state or organisational entity aiming to contain China’s aggressive policies. With the rapid rate of demographic rise, economic development, investments in critical minerals supply for cooperation in green energy transition with stronger partnerships with the US and Australia and the high level of military spending keeping in mind the territorial threats posed by China in the northeast.

Considering that NATO is primarily a military alliance, the fact that India is also amping up its defence expenditure over the years would make the country an important ally in terms of countering the mutual threat.

Figure 1.2: US, China and India had the highest military expenditure as of 2021

Even though a partnership with India might be in the favour of NATO’s aims against China in the region, there are still complexities between the relations of India and NATO that may hinder this process. As the US envoy noted, NATO would be willing to be in dialogue with India if India allows the space. It is very important here to contextualise the historical relationship between India and NATO. Ever since the inception of NATO during the cold war, India has not formally aligned itself with the interests of the alliance due to its adherence to the non-alignment approach. A similar non alignment was again witnessed, decades later when India refused to take a strategic stand against any party during the Russia-Ukraine conflict and favoured the upholding of international law and peaceful dispute resolution. This has created several cracks over the bilateral engagement of India and the NATO alliance. Moreover, NATO’s strong partnership with Pakistan has also been a point of contention between the two parties.

The US and India have forged a stronger strategic partnership with the view of the stability of the Indo-Pacific intact. The QUAD alliance is a case in point. However, it may take longer for India to build a level of partnership with NATO as a whole. NATO intends to remain a western alliance committed to protecting the interests of the West, therefore any option to cooperate with the organisation needs to be treated cautiously so as not to hinder the regional interests of the countries within the Indo-Pacific as well.

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