Time Looks Ripe for Japan-NATO Cooperation

There is room for cooperation, although closer relations between Japan and NATO could antagonize China.

American Japanese ships
American and Japanese ships conduct a joint naval exercise in the Pacific Ocean, November 19, 2014 (USN/Chris Cavagnaro)

Strategic thinkers have proposed closer cooperation between Japan and NATO for more than a decade. The circumstances are now such that this could become a reality.

Japan has surprised many by weakening its post-World War II pacifist posture, increasing defense spending and investing in fifth-generation warplane technology. These reforms are an invitation to NATO to engage more seriously.

Part of the work is being done for it. Japan’s security pivot brings the island nation in closer alignment with the United States. This, in turn, brings Japan closer to NATO.

Japan’s reinterpretation of its constitutional self-defense clause could be a stepping stone to collective self-defense. It has already taken part in multinational military exercises and contributes to peace and stability missions around the world. Its security doctrine is well in line with NATO’s. Both sides are committed to upholding democracy and the rule of law and advancing the cause of international security.

Areas of cooperation could include counterterrorism, cybersecurity and peacekeeping. Both sides would benefit from an open exchange of experiences, ideas and technologies in these regards.

Japan also holds a wealth of experience when it comes to responding to and managing human crises, like natural disasters. NATO’s civil response capacities, in turn, can serve as an example for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and the two can be mutually reinforcing.

Out of theater

The American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 opened the door for NATO to play a role in Asia. It proved the alliance could act globally. Central Asia served as a testing ground for NATO cooperation in East Asia, specifically with Western allies like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

China’s rise looms large in these relations and is inextricably tied to the North Korean nuclear crisis as well as maritime border disputes in the South China Sea.

North Korea has stepped up its nuclear missile tests, raising the possibility of conflict on the Korean Peninsula. This calls for a broader and collective security with other nations.

Conflict in the South China Sea would threaten vital shipping lanes, affecting trade between Europe and East Asia.


There is a risk closer Japan-NATO cooperation could antagonize Western rivals, in particular China and Russia. Just as Russia seeks to undermine the security architecture in Europe, China could do the same in Asia.

NATO allies have pushed back against Russia’s aggression in Eastern Europe by imposing sanctions and expanding their military presence in the region. Japan could add to that pressure, given its own trade relations with Russia.

Japan and the United States both oppose China’s military ambitions in East Asia. Chinese activities may not directly affect North Atlantic security, but all NATO states have an interest in seeing China adhere to liberal norms.

There is still lingering mistrust of NATO in Beijing from the alliance’s accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. It regards warily NATO cooperation with Afghanistan, Mongolia and Pakistan. Like Russia, China sees NATO as something of a holdover from the Cold War.

However, there have been examples of cooperation such as anti-piracy operations.

The challenge for NATO is to prevent closer cooperation with Japan from driving China into the arms of Russia.