Today, as the geopolitical tensions are heating up from the West across the East into the Indo-Pacific, the Cold War sentiments and terminology are getting a new lease of life across regions. Even as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) recognizes Russia as the “most significant and direct threat” to European security, it is China’s dynamic rise – from quiet to ultra-belligerent – that is challenging the US primacy, which it has held since the end of the Cold War ironically. The US-China rivalry has not only changed the geostrategic landscape but also fueled speculations about the return of an “iron curtain.” Concurrently, China’s convergence with authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian (but politically weak) states of Russia, North Korea, and Pakistan – all nuclear states – has only resurrected the sleeping devil. Particularly, the “limitless friendship” and consequent invasion of Ukraine by its subordinate partner Russia in early 2022 has prompted the solidification of the “New Cold War” (or Cold War 2.0) narrative.
The Ukraine war, however, has not just been a crystallization of the long-standing Russia-NATO conflict but also a catalyst in bringing to the fore the (necessary) debates about NATO’s relevance in a “radically changed security environment.” Assertions about NATO’s death have been long around; even French President Emmanuel Macron was not immune from calling NATO brain dead. Before Putin changed the game, the Americans were divesting their interests and Europe was demanding autonomy: certainly, collective defense and cooperative security were still valid but NATO seemed conspicuous even in its existence. It did not help that the world’s center of gravity was now in Asia, Europe was relatively at peace as well as restless in its geopolitical ambitions, and the prime mover/enabler for NATO, the US, was consolidating where its strategic interests lay – the Indo-Pacific.
In this part of the world, conditions were ripe for the reconstitution of another strategic regional grouping, more in tune with the present challenges, called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which has been a repeated subject of an (ill-conceived but understandable) analogy with NATO. That the US was creating an analogous system in Asia has been an oft-repeated refrain among Quad critics and promulgators alike.
But if NATO is “dead,” or needs reinvention after its expansion with Sweden and Finland, what purpose does a similar or parallel framework serve? How far is there truth to the Cold War inferences, considering that a lot of the criticism, as also the metaphor, is fostered by China? Notwithstanding the debates, can there be a partnership between the Quad and NATO?
Beyond Cold War (Word) Games
China has likened the Quad as a “mini-NATO,” or an “Asian NATO,” because of what it perceives as “closed and exclusive cliques,” a reference to the US-led democratic, universal values-based construct of the free and open Indo-Pacific. China sees NATO as the embodiment of the US-propagated “selective multilateral (collective) security system,” and Quad as an extension of the same design. Such rhetoric has found an increased urgency post the Ukraine invasion amid concerns about the “principle of indivisible security,” notwithstanding Chinese maneuvers in Asia (where China itself indulges in “salami slicing”).
The NATO epithets also found traction when in 2020 then US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun talked about formalizing the Quad as a NATO-like structure against China “to create a critical mass around the shared values and interests,” stressing that even NATO began with “modest expectations” and fewer countries. Continuous debate and reference on the Quad as a “21st century Asian-NATO” (a “big boys’ club”) designed to detract from its military ambitions by showcasing itself as a provider working for the greater common good.
However, while NATO was borne out of the ruins of the Second World War, and clearly identifies Russia as its foremost (and currently, a critical) security threat, the Quad is a rather recent development, with origins in the humanitarian response during the 2000s in the Tsunami-ravaged Asia, that is more pro-free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific than it is “anti-China” (although China is certainly an important, yet implicit concern). Additionally, NATO comprises a well-defined structure and a standing secretariat. On the other hand, although the resurgent Quad 2.0 is moving steadily toward institutionalization, it is still essentially a dialogue – albeit one considered a genuine necessity to promote peace and stability in the region, as also to strengthen deterrence.
Moreover, the increased ambit of Quad 2.0 – from economic and technological security to climate action – that has ensured a China-centric but not China-obsessed vision, and the presence of additional US security alliances with Australia, South Korea, and Japan along with AUKUS security pact render the evolution of the present Quad into a NATO-likened grouping unnecessary. Also, India’s long-standing objections to being part of clear-cut alliances will make such a move difficult. Therefore, the stark dissimilarities between the Quad and NATO limit the lessons that the Quad can draw.
For Quad, following NATO’s trajectory and moving toward a collective security arrangement, or even an expansion, could in fact detract from its primary goal of regional stability by provoking all-out hostilities with China. Case has been argued that the Quad should move away from a diplomatic grouping to avoid making the same error as NATO did by militarily downgrading post the Cold War. It should instead look to strengthen its military/security focus as a deterrence measure against Chinese adventurism. However, due to the volatile nature of the regional security environment, any effort to bring traditional security initiatives into the equation could in fact provoke China and cause conflict along with flashpoints like the disputed China-India border, Taiwan, and the contested territories in the South and East China Seas.
Since its formation in 1949, NATO has increased its membership from 12 to 30 countries, via its “open door” policy. At present, it is contemplating a further expansion to include five partner countries – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Georgia, Sweden, and Ukraine – which have formally applied for membership. Yet, for Quad, any such expansion remains a distant option. Although it is critical for the group to enhance its exchanges with Indo-Pacific partners like South Korea, Vietnam, and ASEAN at large, a formal expansion would detract from the quicker decision-making process and convergence that the Quad countries have reached over the past few years. In other words, it would take away from the benefits that the Quad enjoys as a minilateral Indo-Pacific framework.
NATO & Quad: Marked by Geography, Joined by Intent?
The Indo-Pacific and Europe are two distinct regions with markedly different geographies and structures. While NATO prevails in continental Europe defined by a single landmass, the Indo-Pacific spans the vast Indian and Pacific Oceans and encompasses socio-economically, culturally, politically, and militarily varied states. Even in terms of a conflict landscape, while the war in Europe is primarily a land-based affair, the warfare in the Indo-Pacific will be characterized by the maritime and aerospace domains.
At the same time, however, both share common global threats, including autocratic regimes unilaterally changing the status quo – Russia in Europe and China in the Indo-Pacific. Here, the NATO charter and the “Spirit of the Quad” can find vital synergy in their main goal of defending the rules-based liberal order, especially as NATO is looking to go global, with already an “extensive network of partnerships, including in the Asia-Pacific region.” Through the broadening of the security agenda for both, issues like supply chain resilience, infrastructure (also digital), emerging technologies, economic security, and climate change are some of the most critical avenues of cooperation, apart from capacity building, military exercises, and training.
In the years since the last NATO Strategic Concept was released, the geopolitical code has changed dramatically: the 2010 Concept imagines Russia as a “true” strategic partner and China is not mentioned despite their historic tensions. Though Russia’s threat status was restored with room for constructive dialogue (no longer viable or sought), China was seen through a lens of “opportunities and challenges” even until 2019. Only in the last year has the latter’s perception changed to a systemic challenge and a future threat, though still not an adversary.
However, this apparent sense of ease with China belies NATO’s increasing engagements with the Asia-Pacific states. Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea are its global partners (also invited to the upcoming summit in Madrid). All four are “Quad Plus” states; two are in the core Quad. Even with India, there are calls for a “pragmatic engagement” and the two have “consulted” on regional security dynamics (e.g., counter-piracy). Thus, India aside, the Quad may appear to some as a quasi-partner of what could be, in deference to the analogy word-hoard, labeled the “NATO Plus.” Yet the parts do not make up the whole. NATO is and will remain a regional alliance, and comparisons between the Quad and NATO seem exaggerated (premature, at best) – from origins to their present forms.
Nonetheless, there is, above all, the question of NATO’s desire to stay relevant, which Putin’s war has helped manifest: Not only is its Strategic Concept 2022 eagerly awaited, and two long-standing neutral states (Finland and Sweden) have taken the leap into the alliance, but NATO is also looking beyond its boundaries into the East, potentially foreshadowing one of China’s inherent fears: a Quad-NATO confluence.