In the following article, which was originally published on the Australian website Pearls and Irritations, Tim Beal analyses the increasing focus on the Asia-Pacific region by the NATO military alliance, with China as its main potential target.
Tim notes recent military activities in the region on the part of Germany, France and the Netherlands, while Britain, “enthused with imperial nostalgia and memories of the Opium War, flaunts its very expensive but very vulnerable aircraft carriers in a mix of high ambition and low farce.”
There are, however, impediments to NATO’s regional expansion, including the potential role of more independent minded leaders in some member countries, such as Türkiye, Hungary, Slovakia, and even France. Tim therefore argues that the Seoul-based United Nations Command (UNC) might be pressed into service as a more pliant alternative, citing an article by US strategist Clint Work to explain:
“Although the Koreas, both South and North, are important in their own right the peninsula’s position in US geostrategy is principally as an instrument against China. Sometimes, Work mentions China, sometimes he uses North Korea as a surrogate for China and on other occasions he employs coded phrases for China such as South Korea’s ‘broader regional responsibilities’.”
Regarding the UNC, Tim further notes that: “Despite its name it is not an organisation under the control of the United Nations but in fact a US-controlled military alliance that got its misleading title during the early stages of the Korean War when the Soviet Union was boycotting the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) over the US blocking of recently-established People’s Republic of China (PRC) taking over the China seat from Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC) which had retreated to Taiwan province. And because of its name and its illegal use of the UN flag and logo, the UNC can be portrayed as a UN body, an expression of ‘the international community’, rather than the US military.”
Tim Beal is a retired New Zealand academic, whose main focus has been Northeast Asia. He is the author of ‘North Korea: The struggle against American power’ (2005) and ‘Crisis in Korea: America, China and the risk of war’ (2011), both published by Pluto Press.
Over the past couple of years there has been a flurry of activity linking NATO, and some of its constituent countries with the states of American East Asia, principally Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has been a frequent visitor, and in December 2023, the US embassy in Seoul arranged for senior representatives from eight NATO countries to visit South Korea to “engage in discussions on the security situation in the Indo-Pacific region and other pertinent issues”. Meanwhile back in Washington Representative Mike Lawler has introduced a bill in Congress aimed at “establishing [a] task force for NATO-like Indo-Pacific Alliance”. The Luftwaffe made headlines in August 2022 by flying non-stop, refuelling in air, to participate in the Pitch Black exercises in Australia and more of the Bundeswehr returned in 2023 for the Talisman Sabre 23 exercises. In November a British army unit participated in military exercises in South Korea. France and the Netherlands have been doing their bit, and Britain, enthused with imperial nostalgia and memories of the Opium War, flaunts its very expensive but very vulnerable aircraft carriers in a mix of high ambition and low farce. The participation of Asian militaries in the NATO space has been, so far, very low key. The Japanese sent observers to Air Defender 23 in Germany, and the South Koreans joined in a cyberwar game in Estonia in November 2023. However regional leaders – the Asia Pacific Four (AP4), Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand – have been invited with some fanfare to mix with the grown-ups at NATO summits in Madrid and Vilnius. Moreover, NATO has been active in crafting Individually Tailored Partnership Programmes (ITPPs) with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and soon, New Zealand.
The reasons for this accelerating activity are easily discernible. For regional leaders – Yoon, Kishida, Albanese, etc – the illusion of European support in a war against China must offer comfort; delusionary given the state of European militaries but something to clutch at. For the Europeans in NATO, civilians and military, there is a desperate need to convince Washington that they are still relevant, given the shift of USA attention towards China and the failure of the proxy war in Ukraine. The search for relevance has been a constant since the Soviet collapse; as Senator Richard Lugar put it in 1993, for NATO it’s either ‘out-of-area or out-of-business’. NATO chose out-of-area and Beijing is the logical, and final, destination.
Meanwhile, the US faces the classic imperial conundrum. It has two adversaries, Russia and China, with local strength but limited reach. It, on the other hand, has a global empire with a considerable number of ‘force-multiplier’ allies around the world. The challenge is how to deploy and concentrate those forces; to use Asians to fight Russia and Europeans to fight China as need arises.
Some, such as Bart M. J. Szewczyk. see ‘a Bigger, Bolder NATO’’ as the solution. He argues:
With the return of war to Europe and the Middle East, as well as great-power competition to the world, NATO’s vision and scope need to be broader. The alliance faces not only Russian aggression, but also the challenge from China and other autocratic, revisionist actors seeking to upend the global order. Security today involves a comprehensive toolbox, including economic sanctions and industrial policy, and needs to bring the relevant actors into the fold.
In short, he advocates NATO becoming a ‘one shop stop’ for US imperialism, expanding both in geographical reach and geopolitical function.
However, there are problems with this approach. The replication of the NATO structure in Asia is undesirable for several reasons. One is that it has a certain democratic tinge, giving members the ability to veto US plans, such as the entry of new members. When it was set up in 1949, subordinates knew their place; now you have people like Erdogan, Orban, and Fico. There are objections to the extension from the Atlantic to the Pacific from those, both within Europe, particularly Macron, and the US itself that see it as a distraction. It was Macron’s veto that scuttled the plans to open a NATO liaison office in Tokyo. Moreover, the eastward expansion of NATO has echoes of the European imperialisms of the past. Stoltenberg’s ancestors might have confined their rape and pillage to Europe, but the British, French and Germans expanded their empires into Asia. ‘NATO wants Asia’ as Alison Broinowski put it, but does Asia want NATO?
The answer to America’s geostrategic dilemma may well lie with the ‘United Nations Command’ (UNC), based in Seoul. This is best articulated by the US strategist Clint Work, especially in his recent article in Foreign Policy entitled ‘South Korea Offers a Chance to Modernise Old Alliances’’. ‘Modernisation’ here essentially means utilising the UNC as the core of an expanded and repurposed global alliance structure to deploy against China. Dr Work is director of academic affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI), a Washington-based, American-staffed think tank owned by the South Korean government. Naturally, his work is couched in terms of the Korean Peninsula, but the wider implications are easy to discern. Although the Koreas, both South and North, are important in their own right the peninsula’s position in US geostrategy is principally as an instrument against China. Sometimes, Work mentions China, sometimes he uses North Korea as a surrogate for China and on other occasions he employs coded phrases for China such as South Korea’s ‘broader regional responsibilities’
The UNC has three characteristics which make it eminently suitable. Despite its name it is not an organisation under the control of the United Nations but in fact a US-controlled military alliance that got its misleading title during the early stages of the Korean War when the Soviet Union was boycotting the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) over the US blocking of recently-established People’s Republic of China (PRC) taking over the China seat from Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC) which had retreated to Taiwan province. And because of its name and its illegal use of the UN flag and logo, the UNC can be portrayed as a UN body, an expression of ‘the international community’, rather than the US military. One ploy is to embed officers of dependable vassals into subordinate roles; a Canadian was made Deputy Commander of the UNC in 2018 and he was followed by an Australian, a Briton, and currently another Canadian.
Thirdly, the UNC is scalable, not being constrained by geography. The US has been making efforts over recent years to rejuvenate it and reactivate the involvement of the ‘Sending States’, the original 16 participating countries, and any new ones that might be added ‘solely within the discretion of the U.S. Government’. The Sending States are, in Clint Work’s phrase ‘The Forgotten Parties in the Korean War’, who fought China in the 1950s and need to be remembered in the context of the present challenge. The original impetus for this programme was to find a solution to how to retain de facto control over the South Korean military if the US were forced to make good its promise to transfer operational control (OPCON) back to the South Korean government. The US had taken over direct control during the Korean War and ‘peacetime control’’ was transferred in 1994 but the jewel in the crown, wartime control, still lies with the US via the Combined Forces Command (CFC). But the UNC is a superior and separate body to the CFC, so its reactivation became imperative. However, the potential of the UNC stretches far beyond the Korean peninsula.
The Sending States, in theory, comprise a formidable military asset; 16 countries, ranging from Australia to the United Kingdom. Some, such as Turkiye, are unlikely to return for a second war against China, others probably would, with Australia, Canada and Britain in the vanguard. It was not without reason that their senior military personnel have been appointed to the post of Deputy Commander.
However, as Work suggests, the UNC can be expanded by invitation to those countries which, for a variety of reasons, were not able to be utilised in 1950 – including Japan, Germany, Poland and, the holy grail of US desire, India. In other words, NATO, Asian NATO and more, all under direct US control. Ironically, the one entity that cannot be brought into the UNC is the ‘Republic of China on Taiwan’ because it is not a recognised state, even by the US, and so is not a member of the United Nations.
None of this may yet come to pass. The US government may not take up the idea; Kurt Campbell has not publicly commented on the UNC. India is proving a difficult prize, one moment aligning with the US, then edging towards China, Russia and the BRICS, keeping its options open. The United States military command in Korea might be stripped of its United Nations camouflage, with the use of the UN flag and logo the first to go.
But the underlying necessity for the US to be able to deploy its global assets to best advantage against China suggests that the evolving role of the UNC as a key component of the US military architecture in the Indo-Pacific warrants very close attention.