NATO’s Pivot Towards the Quad: Implications for Taiwan

NATO’s Pivot Towards the Quad: Implications for Taiwan

NATO’s Pivot Towards the Quad: Implications for Taiwan

At a recent NATO foreign ministers meeting, the United States and European countries agreed to step up cooperation in order to address the impact of China’s military rise on alliance security.  At the same time, Taiwan is also increasingly seeking to expand its ties with the Quad grouping, which consists of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan. In response, the group is exploring a “Quad plus Taiwanformat in the Indo-Pacific region, while  European countries are simultaneously considering joining a “Quad Plus” framework that overlaps with the “NATO Plus” framework.

“NATO Plus” and “Quad Plus” in the Indo-Pacific

Given that the United States, Japan, and Australia are already NATO members and global partners, some scholars have proposed sending NATO observers to the Quad’s joint military exercises. NATO countries have already regularly participated in Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises, hosted by the US Pacific Fleet. Held biennially in Hawaii, the RIMPAC exercises are currently the world’s largest international maritime exercise and feature a variety of participants, including China—which joined in 2014 and 2016, but was disinvited in 2018 due to its military activities in the South China Sea. 

With the overlapping of “NATO Plus” and “Quad Plus” frameworks, this provides an opportunity for European countries to expand their cooperation with partners in the Indo-Pacific. Already in April 2021, France organized the La Pérouse naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal with the participation of all four Quad countries. While the declared mission of the exercise was to enhance interoperability for crisis management, Pankaj Jha, former deputy director of India’s National Security Council Secretariat, stated that the larger aim is to build a “trilateral France-Australia-India mechanism and Quad plus France in the Indian Ocean.” Jha, now a professor of defense and strategic studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, also added that “France has been aware of the fact that Chinese have been making certain under sea moves [scavenging for minerals and resources], particularly in French territories in the Indian Ocean, so they wanted [to do something that] acts as a deterrent and also as a collaborative effort.”

Indeed, as a former colonial power, Paris considers itself a “resident” in the Indo-Pacific, and French territories in the region encompass more than 11.7 million square kilometers. These include the French Southern and Antarctic lands in the southern Indian Ocean, French Polynesia, and Clipperton Island in the Pacific Ocean, thus giving Paris “one of the world’s largest Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).” The territories are also home to 8,000 soldiers and 1.5 million French people, underscoring France’s position as a key stakeholder in Indo-Pacific stability and prosperity.

Likewise, Germany has also become increasingly assertive in the region, partnering with Japan to hold their first “2 plus 2” dialogue of foreign and defense ministers in April. Berlin also plans to send a frigate to Asia in August, which will become the first German warship to cross the South China Sea since 2002. The United Kingdom, a fellow NATO member, is following suit, with plans to send the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific region in May of this year as part of a post-Brexit “Global Britain” strategy that aims to expand the British maritime presence “east of the Suez.” Similarly, the Netherlands is seeking to align its Indo-Pacific vision with India, which could eventually pave the way for a broader EU approach towards the region.

However, NATO and EU members are not the only countries pivoting to the Indo-Pacific. Middle Eastern countries such as Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are also eyeing the “Quad Plus” framework.

Eyeing the China-Iran Axis

One of the key drivers for this emerging NATO and “Quad Plus” coalition appears to be the China-Iran axis. On March 27, China and Iran signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement to enhance their military and economic ties. First proposed in 2016 and finalized last year, the agreement has rattled Israel and Arab Gulf states concerned with a nuclearizing Iran. Coupled with the growing number of Asian countries wary of a rising China, “NATO Plus” and “Quad Plus” partners are upgrading their security ties. 

As such, a recent Jerusalem Post article observed that France is taking a leading role to define variable-geometry coalitions from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf of Oman and beyond, including proposing naval drills that feature various combinations of states, such as Israel, Cyprus, Greece, the UAE, and Egypt, as well as Quad nations in the Indo-Pacific. For example, after leading the La Pérouse naval exercise with the Quad in early April, France continued to lead the Varuna trilateral naval exercise with India and the UAE in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman from April 25 to 27. According to a former Indian Navy western commander, the aim of the Quad-Plus maritime force is to engage in cooperative security from the Indo-Pacific to the Gulf of Aden. Quad members already have a regular presence in the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy operations, with US, Japanese, and French military bases in Djibouti augmenting the Quad-Plus force.

France is thus working to coordinate NATO’s Asian partners—including India—with NATO’s partners in the Middle East. These countries are grouped into two organizations: the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) (composed of four Arab Gulf states, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar) and the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) (comprised of Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia). As the country most threatened by Tehran, and therefore also potentially threatened by the new China-Iran axis, MD partner Israel is increasingly seeking to establish dialogue between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the US Central Command (CENTCOM), and the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) focused on countering shared threats, as well as establishing a strategic dialogue with the Quad and other stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region. Israel had already made its debut in the Indo-Pacific region back in 2018, when it joined the RIMPAC exercise along with other NATO members and Asian partners. While the country was invited again to RIMPAC 2020, it decided not to participate due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 19, 2021, US Representative Scott Perry (R-PA) proposed a bill in Congress to include Taiwan in the “NATO Plus” framework. The “Taiwan PLUS Act” posits that support for defense cooperation with Taiwan is critical to US national security, and recommends that Taiwan be included in the “NATO Plus” group. This grouping is drawn from 17 countries–including Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel– designated as Major Non-NATO Allies (MNNA). [1] The designation provides certain privileges in defense and security cooperation, but does not entail any explicit security commitments to the member nations.

As former NATO policy chief Fabrice Pothier recommended, dialogue and consultations should happen more regularly at a political level, “even if informally behind closed doors—with those Asian countries most exposed to Chinese power, starting with Taiwan but also Vietnam, the Philippines, and Singapore.” Meanwhile, Taiwan—also concerned about the China-Iran axis as the country most threatened by Beijing—is keeping track of the “Taiwan Plus Act” and continuing to support efforts to participate in the “Quad Plus” framework.

Remarking on the Taiwan PLUS Act, Legislator Chen Ting-fei (陳亭妃) of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) stated that “Taiwan has become an important partner to other democratic nations at a time when China is aggressively pushing to expand its territory.” Independent Legislator Freddy Lim (林昶佐) urged that “Taiwan must continue to enhance its military capabilities, and cooperate more with the US, and other friendly nations in the region.”

For Su Tzu-yun (蘇紫雲), senior analyst at the government-funded Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR, 財團法人國防安全研究院) in Taipei, as Taiwan improves its defense capabilities and builds trust with Quad partners, it “can become a Maritime Israel.” Israel and Taiwan are two small democratic allies of the United States with shared values, positioned in the crosshairs of the China-Iran axis, yet lacking the security guarantees provided by formal defense treaties or military alliances. Jerusalem and Taipei would need to punch above their weight and sway public opinion to justify US military support in the event of an attack. As such, Su commented that “Taiwan must win over public opinion” and demonstrate its willingness to defend itself by improving its defensive capabilities and contributing to regional stability through cooperative security with like-minded states. That way, Su argued, “As a kind of Israel, Taiwan would be worthy of respect and support […] because Taiwan is capable of protecting itself.” Given this, burden-sharing for regional security through “Quad Plus” and “NATO Plus” arrangements may be the start.

The main point: Taiwan is gaining prominence as a potential member in the “NATO Plus” and “Quad Plus” frameworks, as security partners from the Mediterranean to the Indo-Pacific form coalitions to address the China-Iran axis.

[1] While Taiwan has not received the formal designation, it has been treated as a de facto MNNA since 2002 legislation declared that “for purposes of the transfer or possible transfer of defense articles or defense services under the Arms Export Control Act […] the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 […] or any other provision of law, Taiwan shall be treated as though it were designated a major non-NATO ally.”