TO: NATO heads of state and government
FROM: Matthew Kroenig and Jeffrey Cimmino
SUBJECT: Why and how NATO countries should engage in the Indo-Pacific

What do world leaders need to know? The Atlantic Council’s new “Memo to…” series has the answer with briefings on the world’s most pressing issues from our experts, drawing on their experience advising the highest levels of government.

Bottom line up front: NATO countries should step up their engagement in the Indo-Pacific in a number of ways, including by protecting their economies from excessive exposure to China’s, reiterating diplomatic statements calling for the maintenance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and conducting regular freedom-of-navigation operations. Transatlantic allies have self-interested reasons to engage in the Indo-Pacific; the United States cannot counter the challenges emanating from the region without European help; and transatlantic engagement in the region will help counter the reality and the perception that European allies are not contributing their fair share to NATO.

Background: Confronting multiple adversaries

Though all eyes will be on Ukraine as NATO leaders gather in Washington this week, the Alliance cannot afford to ignore the Indo-Pacific. The United States and its allies face what is perhaps the most daunting international security environment since World War II. Revisionist autocracies—China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran—are working together to disrupt and displace the US-led, rules-based international system, including through military aggression and coercion. The challenge facing the free world, therefore, is how to simultaneously counter multiple adversaries in Europe and the Indo-Pacific.

Some analysts argue that the United States should disengage from Europe and pivot to the Indo-Pacific, while European countries take on greater responsibility in Europe, but this is the wrong answer. Instead, Washington should continue to lead in both theaters. European countries should take on greater responsibilities for defending Europe, but they should also assist Washington to counter China and address threats emanating from the Indo-Pacific.

This memo is directed to NATO leaders on the eve of the Washington Summit, but some of the below recommendations can also be pursued at the country level, or through other bodies, such as the European Union.

Why European countries should deepen engagement in the Indo-Pacific

  • Europe has many concrete interests in the Indo-Pacific. A major war between the United States and China, for example, would be devastating for the global economy and for the interests of European nations. The 2021 EU strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific states that the security of South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait may have a direct impact on European security and prosperity.
  • The United States needs Europe’s help to effectively address the China challenge. The China threat is comprehensive and includes an economic and technological dimension. While Europe is not a military superpower, it is an economic, technological, and diplomatic superpower. European nations make up roughly 20 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) and are technology leaders in many areas, including 5G. A US strategy of economic and technological de-risking from China, for example, will fail without European cooperation.
  • European engagement in the Indo-Pacific can contribute to Alliance burden sharing. By helping the United States address its most significant challenge, China, European nations can help to show that they are valuable allies meaningfully contributing to transatlantic security.
  • A European role in the Indo-Pacific can strengthen US domestic support for continued US engagement in Europe. Some Americans argue that the United States should pivot away from Europe to allocate more attention and resources to the bigger challenges posed by China and the Indo-Pacific. By helping the United States address the China challenge, Europe can demonstrate its continued value as an Alliance partner and strengthen US support for continued attention to European priorities.
  • The European and Indo-Pacific theaters are interconnected. China and Russia declared a “no limits” partnership in 2022 shortly before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and they are collaborating closely in many strategic and military matters. More recently, they reaffirmed this partnership as marking a “new era.” Countering China in the Indo-Pacific will directly improve the security environment in Europe.  

We propose the following actions for NATO and its constituent members to bolster cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners and build around US efforts to secure the Indo-Pacific region. Some of these initiatives are already underway, but there is room to both intensify these activities and expand them to include fuller participation from additional transatlantic partners.

  • Transatlantic allies should join the United States in systematically de-risking their economies from China. To be most effective, a de-risking strategy will need to include all free-world allies and partners. De-risking should proceed according to the following principles:
    1. The United States and its allies should pursue a complete decoupling from China in areas sensitive to national security.
    2. In domains where China has employed unfair trade practices, the United States and its allies should counter with a coordinated campaign of tariffs or other countervailing measures.
    3. The United States and its allies should diversify their economic relationships away from China to minimize their exposure to Chinese economic coercion.
    4. In sectors of minimal national security risk where China is abiding by free-market principles, free and fair trade can continue.
  • European allies should threaten to sanction China if it engages in an armed attack on US allies and partners in Asia. If China were to attack Taiwan or other regional neighbors, Washington would encourage European and Indo-Pacific allies to join the United States in punitive economic measures. Allies should develop a sanctions package in preparation for a crisis ahead of time and communicate it to Xi Jinping as a an element of a broader deterrent.
  • The United States and its transatlantic allies should coordinate to control the commanding heights of twenty-first-century technologies, such as artificial intelligence. If China, a hostile autocratic power, succeeds in its plans to dominate the twenty-first-century technological landscape, there will be profound and negative consequences for global security, economics, and democracy. Maintaining a tech advantage that favors freedom will require:
    1. Promoting technological development and innovation ecosystems in the free world;
    2. Protecting against China’s malign technology practices through investment screening, export controls, and countering intellectual property theft; and
    3. Coordinating on regulations and standards to embed Alliance norms and values into twenty-first-century technology.
  • NATO allies should make it clear through diplomatic statements that any effort by China to disrupt peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait would trigger a break in relations with the free world. Beyond a Taiwan crisis, NATO allies can use diplomatic statements to call out human rights abuses and unfair trade practices, leveraging Europe’s moral authority in the face of China’s violations of international rules and norms. These statements should take place both collectively, in official alliance documents, and privately, in bilateral engagements between NATO members and Chinese officials.
  • The United States and Europe should work together to develop new frameworks to stitch together transatlantic and Asian allies. These frameworks can expand upon or be modeled on NATO’s relationship with the IP4 (Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand) and the Australia-UK-US agreement known as AUKUS.
  • NATO allies can help the United States in the Indo-Pacific by meeting their burden-sharing commitments. If Europe has a more robust ability to defend itself, deter Russia, and bolster Ukraine’s defense, this will free up resources for the United States to shift to deterring and, if necessary, defeating Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific.
  • European allies can serve as an arsenal of democracy for possible conflicts in the Indo-Pacific. In the event of a serious conflict in the Indo-Pacific, the United States will run out of high-end munitions quickly. Europe could play a vital support role by producing and replenishing US stocks of munitions and other weapons.
  • NATO countries should conduct freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) in the Indo-Pacific. Several European allies, including Germany, the United Kingdom, and France, have executed FONOPs in the Indo-Pacific. More allies should do so, and on a more regular basis, to show China that in asserting its territorial claims, it is not just confronting its neighbors or the United States, but the entire free world.
  • NATO allies should participate in military exercises in the Indo-Pacific. Seven European nations are at RIMPAC 2024. Future participation by these countries and others could range from sending a ship, to a squadron of special operations forces, or even a single staff officer. These activities will improve Atlantic-Pacific cooperation and send a message to China that Europe is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the region.
  • European allies should prepare for an Article 5 scenario. If there is a major US-China war, it is possible that China would attack the continental United States, which would trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. NATO allies should contemplate and plan for what actions they would take in the event of a major war in the Indo-Pacific. More capable allies might be able to send ships and aircraft. All allies could send personnel and munitions. Some allies could offer niche capabilities. Norway, for example, has a large merchant fleet that could be used in wartime for shipping and logistical support in the Indo-Pacific.

Jeffrey Cimmino is the deputy director of operations and a fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Matthew Kroenig served in the Department of Defense and the intelligence community during the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. He is vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. 

This publication was supported in part by Airbus. The Atlantic Council maintains a strict intellectual independence policy, and the analysis and conclusions in this memo are the authors’ alone.