The Kyiv Factor:

Japan takes the war in Ukraine very seriously. During the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore in early May 2023, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida gravely observed that "Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow." Tokyo also views Russian aggression in Ukraine as a Zeitenwende—a watershed moment for its foreign policy—and has developed a new "free and open Indo-Pacific" vision in response to the war in Ukraine. Japan hopes to establish certain expectations to curtail coercive and predatory actions by other states. This move is part of Tokyo’s wider mission to win over friends and positively influence actors with uncertain allegiance in the Global South. Equally important, Japan is pursuing stronger ties with European states which it hopes will not only share Japan’s priorities and values but also support Japan in the event of a crisis in East Asia.

Japan’s most important European partners are the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The EU is an important political and economic partner due to its size and strength, while Japan values NATO for its military deterrence capabilities. NATO’s 31 member states include the EU powerhouses of France and Germany, as well as the UK, the US, and Canada.

Membership in NATO is not an option for Japan for reasons of simple geography, but Japan nevertheless hopes to eventually cast itself as a North Atlantic state in all other regards. Japan’s leaders have unequivocally supported Ukraine and condemned Russian aggression. Tokyo’s support for Kyiv has been so strong that the former has been able to arrange to attend NATO’s annual summit and also agreed that Tokyo will host NATO’s first East Asia liaison office, which is set to open in 2024. In early 2023, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Japan and expressed his admiration for the country, stating that "no NATO partner is closer or more capable than Japan." These comments attest to the success of Japan’s charm offensive in Brussels.

Although Japan’s diplomatic efforts have gathered momentum since the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, Japan has sought to build ties with NATO for nearly a decade. This stems from the multiple threats that Japan faces, such as potential war with China over Taiwan and the erratic behavior of nuclear-armed North Korea. Given the proliferation and expansion of these regional threats, Japan, which is operating nearly alone in East Asia, has endeavored to develop stronger allies who could come to Japan’s defense in times of crisis and offer the full scope of their resources and support. In light of these security concerns, Japan’s closer ties with NATO are reassuring. But what could NATO and Japan actually do in the event of a conflict with China over Taiwan? Could Tokyo be putting too much faith in its North Atlantic friends?

NATO’s capacity to engage with security and military dynamics half a world away in East Asia is largely symbolic—and Tokyo is aware of this. Instead, Japan-NATO relations are based on an understanding that while NATO and Japan share certain security challenges, Europe and East Asia are dealing with different dynamics and priorities. As such, while the security of the North Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific are linked in some ways, they are also separate arenas. For these reasons, countries like the US (NATO’s leading member) and India would play the most significant roles in the event of a crisis. Nevertheless, Japan’s exercise in security diplomacy should not be sneezed at. Tokyo’s bonhomie with NATO during the war in Ukraine has reaffirmed that there are two distinct strategic theaters and sets of alliances.

On the one hand, NATO remains a military organization whose primary security concern revolves around defending against Russian aggression in western Eurasia. Meanwhile, Japan and the wider Indo-Pacific face a range of complex security challenges including territorial disputes over the South and East China Sea, nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula, and China’s growing military power. While NATO is focused on keeping Russia out and maintaining US involvement, the Indo-Pacific, and especially Japan, wants to keep China on its side of the Taiwan Strait while maintaining US and, to a lesser extent, Indian strategic and military involvement in the region. It also intends to continue to work with other states with similar interests such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

Despite their geographic distance, Japan and the European members of NATO still have much to offer one another. NATO and Japan share an interest in promoting closer security and defense cooperation in order prevent the emergence of a Eurasian continental hegemon. Should China—or, much less probably, Russia—rise to that level, it would bode poorly for both Japanese and European sovereignty of action and collective security. However, NATO-Japan cooperation should not be understood as primarily an anti-China or anti-Russia alliance. Instead, it should be driven by the common values and norms that Japan has so eloquently expressed in its new vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.