NATO and its Indo-Pacific Partners Choose Practice over Rhetoric in 2023

Moving up a gear: South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the NATO Vilnius Summit in July 2023. Image: Newscom / Alamy

NATO has quietly but decisively entered into a new phase of cooperation with South Korea, along with other Indo-Pacific partner countries. The 2023–2026 South Korea–NATO Individually Tailored Partnership Programme is a small but concrete step for connecting the capabilities of US allies in the Indo-Pacific with those in the Euro-Atlantic.

The Vilnius NATO summit in July 2023 was somewhat of an anti-climax for those who had expected dramatic progress in the alliance’s expanding vision for the Indo-Pacific region. Although the leaders of the four key Indo-Pacific countries (the so-called AP4 or IP4 – Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand) attended the summit for the second time, French opposition to opening a first NATO liaison office in Asia in Japan grabbed the limelight in the lead-up to the summit. Even China was not a core topic at the summit, unlike in 2022 in Madrid, where the new NATO Strategic Concept was the first of its kind in mentioning it.

However, an important step was taken for NATO’s outreach to the Indo-Pacific in 2023. By the end of the summit, NATO had signed three Individually Tailored Partnership Programmes (ITPPs) with Australia, Japan and South Korea, and the one with New Zealand is currently under negotiation. The bureaucratic, technical and secretive nature of these documents should not lead one to underestimate them.

The 2023–2026 Korea–NATO ITPP: A Low-Key but Determined Approach to Cooperation Between the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific

An ITPP is a document describing cooperation between NATO and its partner countries. Like its predecessor, the Individual Partnership Cooperation Programme (IPCP), it is renewable and not legally binding. While IPCPs mainly presented principles for and areas of cooperation, leaving a lot of room for NATO and its partners to decide how to actually cooperate at a later stage, ITPPs cover comprehensive and concrete plans for cooperation over a four-year period. ITPPs therefore represent a stronger and more accountable commitment by both NATO and partner countries to an implementation process.

Given that none of their full texts are publicly available, NATO and its three Indo-Pacific partner countries have almost seemed to play down the new partnership agreements. Such caution may reflect the lack of consensus on the Indo-Pacific within NATO, as well as the wariness of the three Indo-Pacific countries about China’s response to their relations with NATO.

The new ITPP is a substantial departure from the previous dialogue-centred South Korea–NATO cooperation agreement, which cast South Korea in a relatively passive role in NATO activities

Among the three ITPPs, only the one between NATO and Japan for 2023–2026 is currently available to the public as an ‘open edition’, indicating the existence of another (probably longer) version. This is unlike the publicity given to the IPCPs with Australia, Japan and New Zealand, which are available on the NATO website. In the case of the 2023–2026 South Korea–NATO ITPP, a press release on the summit in Korean from the Korean Presidential Office is the most comprehensive and official description of the document. Interestingly, the preceding South Korea–NATO IPCPs have not been publicly available, and the current ITPP has been described in more detail officially. This shows the enthusiasm of the administration of Yoon Suk-yeol for strengthening South Korea’s security network by enhancing its cooperation with the most developed US-led alliance, NATO.

Nonetheless, the 2023–2026 South Korea–NATO ITPP is a substantial departure from the previous dialogue-centred South Korea–NATO cooperation agreement, which cast South Korea in a relatively passive role in NATO activities. Aiming to jointly contribute to upholding the rules-based international order in areas of common security interest, the South Korea–NATO ITPP heavily leans towards achieving greater interoperability between South Korea and NATO by fostering technological cooperation and facilitating the development of defence and security capabilities. The 11 areas of cooperation listed in the ITPP confirm this orientation. They are: (i) dialogue and consultation; (ii) counterterrorism cooperation; (iii) women, peace and security; (iv) arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation; (v) capability development and interoperability; (vi) science and technology; (vii) practical cooperation for interoperability; (viii) public diplomacy; (ix) emerging and disruptive technologies; (x) cyber defence; and (xi) climate change and security.

Rather than only listing areas of cooperation like the previous IPCPs, the ITPP contains concrete steps to be taken by both South Korea and NATO to implement cooperation in each area, with clear timelines for the period of 2023–2026. It even indicates which departments of the South Korean government and which organisational parts of NATO are to act on specific cooperation activities. Therefore, even though not legally binding, the 2023–2026 South Korea–NATO ITPP will largely dictate the interaction between the two for the next four years.

Although far short of even being a first step towards an Asian NATO, the ITPP looks set to beef up interdependence between South Korea and NATO

The ITPP is complemented by another decision announced by the South Korean government at the summit: its forthcoming participation in the NATO Battlefield Information Collection and Exploitation System (BICES). Although not a part of the ITPP, this will expand the range of NATO exercises in which South Korea can participate and increase the efficiency of communication between the two parties. So far, only a few NATO partners like Australia, Finland and Sweden have been given access to the system along with NATO member countries. Given that the purpose of BICES is to ‘enable military forces to effectively collect, process, analyze, and disseminate intelligence data in real-time’, this is another signal that NATO and South Korea are strongly committed to deepening their practical cooperation.

Enhancing Functional Connectivity Between NATO and US Allies in the Indo-Pacific

Although far short of even being a first step towards an Asian NATO, the ITPP looks set to beef up interdependence between South Korea and NATO. It is less rhetorical and more action-oriented, as it focuses on practical and technical cooperation. It is less geopolitical and more functional in its nature, as it does not specify any geographical settings for joint actions. And it is less targeted and more far-sighted, since it does not mention China but promotes joint action on current and future security challenges such as emerging and disruptive technologies through research and development exchanges. Although not precluding high-level dialogues, the mechanism for implementing the ITPP will take the form of numerous exchanges between South Korea and NATO in which practitioners and military personnel engage in exercises, training and information-sharing. The two parties will find deeper cooperation easier than before when they renew the ITPP for the period of 2027–2030, based on experiences of practical cooperation in numerous areas of security and defence, as well as increased interoperability.

Another effect of the ITPP is to increase opportunities for collective cooperation between NATO and its four Indo-Pacific partner countries. Assuming the Japan–NATO, Australia–NATO and New Zealand–NATO ITPPs take a similar approach to the South Korea–NATO one, the four individual ITPPs should increase interoperability among the four countries. There is already a hint of such a collective approach in a sentence of the Japan–NATO ITPP: ‘bilateral cooperation between Japan and NATO will complement NATO’s cooperation through the “NATO–Asia-Pacific Partners’ Agenda for Tackling Shared Security Challenges”’.

The eventual goal of NATO–Indo-Pacific cooperation should be to create a security environment in which US allies in the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions find it easier to help one another when individual defence alliances cannot address their security threats alone. With its ITPP with NATO, South Korea has taken a small but firm step in this direction in 2023.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Hae-Won Jun

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