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ISSN 2816-1971

  • Kelly Grieco

Europe Yes, NATO No: Leveraging the EU’s Strengths in the Indo-Pacific

While some Indo-Pacific countries are set to share the stage with NATO members at the 75th anniversary NATO summit in July, it may be possible that the real benefit for the region lies in engaging the European Union to leverage its economic and financial resources as the region attempts to diversify its risks.

The Foreign Ministers of the Indo-Pacific Four with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the July 2023 summit
Photo credits: AFP

In July, leaders from across the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will come together in Washington, DC—where the founding treaty was signed in 1949—for the alliance’s 75th anniversary summit. The theme of the summit is “defending our future”—but what will that future look like? If the summit guest list is any indication, NATO’s future could include a turn to the Indo-Pacific. For the third consecutive year, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea—known as the Indo-Pacific Four (IP4)—will share NATO’s summit stage.


Despite Russia’s war in Ukraine, the worst conflict on the continent since World War II, NATO is seeking to play a greater role in the Indo-Pacific. The United States is leading the push, cajoling its NATO allies to come together with its Indo-Pacific allies and partners to confront China. Washington’s campaign has achieved a modicum of success. NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept offered some tough talk, acknowledging that China’s “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security, and values.” NATO has worked to expand ties in the Indo-Pacific, and the IP4 are seemingly receptive to the idea. The Alliance has signed Individually Tailored Partnership Programs to deepen practical cooperation in areas like cybersecurity, space, intelligence sharing, and military-technological interoperability with Australia, Japan, and South Korea, and will soon conclude a similar agreement with New Zealand.


This seeming enthusiasm for NATO Europe to “go East” warrants serious scrutiny. The military capabilities of European NATO members are too limited to contribute meaningfully to conventional deterrence and defense in the Indo-Pacific, but NATO’s eastward tilt could still manage to stoke Beijing’s fears of encirclement. In other words, for the IP4, deepening relations with NATO could be more trouble than it’s worth. Instead, the smarter strategy would be to call on Europe’s core strengths—its significant economic and financial resources—as a counterweight to China. The IP4 ought to concentrate their energies on improving cooperation with the European Union—not NATO.


In the end, Europe is unlikely to balance militarily against China. First, European states lack the power-projection capabilities needed to play a large role in the Indo-Pacific. Only France and the United Kingdom maintain a regular maritime presence in the region, but they lack the demonstrated capacity to deploy more than seven frigates and two destroyers for an extended period. Likewise, European air forces lack the critical enablers, such as aerial refueling, transport, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, needed to project airpower over vast distances. The withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 threw these shortfalls into sharp relief: European militaries were only able to evacuate their own citizens and allies so long as the United States agreed to provide those enabling capabilities. Washington would be hard-pressed, to find the spare capacity, however, to support significant European deployments to the Indo-Pacific.


Second, Europe will remain preoccupied with the Russian threat for years to come. Whereas Russia presents a “significant and direct threat” to European security, China is simply too far away to command the same attention; it will therefore primarily be a political and economic rival to Europe. Some in Europe seem to understand this. In 2023, for example, France opposed a bid to open a NATO liaison office in Tokyo. “NATO means North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” a French official explained at the time, adding that Articles 5 and 6 of its treaty are “geographic.” Likewise, European defense spending is slowly increasing, triggered by the war in Ukraine, but the priority is closing critical gaps in territorial defense, such as heavy artillery, anti-tank missiles, and tactical drones, not acquiring assets to project power into the Indo-Pacific.


For the IP4, forging closer ties with NATO is more than likely to end in disappointment. It also threatens to leave them less secure. Beijing is highly suspicious of NATO’s intentions and, despite repeated assurances from Washington and Brussels that the Alliance will not admit Indo-Pacific members, Beijing continues to fear such a prospect. From the Chinese perspective, Washington is borrowing an old playbook. “NATO has used similar tricks in its recent Asia-Pacific engagement to those in its eastwards expansion,” warns one recent China Daily article, explaining, “It first hyped up a ‘hypothetical enemy’ inciting anxiety and fear among regional countries and compelling them to align with the United States for a false sense of security.” Regardless of NATO’s peaceful intentions, growing practical cooperation with the IP4 will still appear threatening to Beijing and elicit pushback, with the potential to create a destabilizing action-rection cycle that ultimately reduces security and stability in the Indo-Pacific.


A smarter and more effective approach would be to enhance the role of the European Union (EU) in the region. Europe’s economic and financial resources—even if not its military might—will be indispensable in countering China’s growing power and influence. This makes the EU the key institutional actor for fostering a close alignment between Europe and the IP4. Because it is not a military alliance, however, such cooperation is less likely to antagonize China.


The EU has economic and financial capabilities—including instruments for anti-corruption and transparency, foreign direct investment screening, and supply chain due diligence—to combat China’s predatory economic practices and economic coercion. The IP4 all have working relationships with the EU, with Japan and South Korea recognized as close “strategic partners,” and a new trade agreement with New Zealand now in effect. The EU and Australia suspended talks on a trade agreement in November 2023, but pundits expect those negotiations to resume after the Australian general election next year. The IP4 should lean in, working to draw the EU further into the region.


The place to start is the EU’s accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)—a trading bloc of 12 countries, including Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. Joining CPTPP may be moribund in Washington, but the same cannot be said in Brussels—the European Free Trade Association, for example, recently signed a $100 billion-dollar free trade deal with India. The EU’s economic weight would make the CPTPP into a more credible economic counterweight to China, as well as better position the bloc to set high standards for global trade rules.


The leaders of Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand standing on NATO’s summit stage makes for a good photo opportunity, but it is more for show than tangible security benefits. Perhaps, instead of attending the next NATO summit, the IP4 should organize a summit with the heads of state of the European Council—seeking to draw on Europe’s strengths in international diplomacy and considerable economic and financial resources to build security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent that of IIPA and this platform.


Kelly A. Grieco is a Senior Fellow with the Reimagining US Grand Strategy Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC, a Nonresident Fellow the Brute Krulak Center of Marine Corps University, and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University. Her research examines U.S. foreign and defense policy, with a focus on military alliances and the security architectures of the Indo-Pacific and Europe.



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