(CNSNews.com) - Prodded by the United States, NATO is actively seeking formal partnerships with countries in the Pacific Rim, a move reflecting changing priorities for the security alliance in the 21st century.
At the same time, NATO chiefs are trying to preempt any likely opposition in region -- from China in particular -- by stressing that any new partners would not become full-fledged members of the alliance.
NATO's "center of gravity will stay in the Euro-Atlantic area," secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Sofia Thursday. It was not planning to become "the world's policeman," he said, although the threats it faced were undeniably global.
"We will need to look at how to strengthen our relations with other interested and potentially force-contributing countries," De Hoop Scheffer said. "We need global partners to continue to meet today's challenges."
Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea were named as possible candidates for formal partnerships with NATO, along with two Nordic countries that have remained outside the alliance, Sweden and Finland.
Earlier, deputy secretary general Alessandro Minuto Rizzo told reporters the alliance increasingly was "wondering how we should relate to countries located outside NATO's traditional geographical confines -- Europe and North America -- but which share the same core values."
"The global situation has changed radically, but the flashpoints and potential flashpoints are no longer in Europe, as they were during the Cold War, but are now in other parts of the world," he said.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai told a press briefing in Sofia that Australia and New Zealand were primary candidates for the envisaged partnerships "because they are already in the field with us, next to us, contributing to our operations."
Both countries have participated in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force helping to restore stability in Afghanistan.
The remarks were made during a two-day meeting in the Bulgarian capital of NATO foreign ministers. The gathering is laying the groundwork for a NATO leaders' summit in Latvia in November, where partnerships and any further steps toward expansion of the collective defense body will be on the agenda.
Much of the push for NATO to set up partnerships in the Pacific Rim is coming from the U.S.
"As NATO is active in places like Afghanistan or Iraq or Darfur, we are working side-by-side with countries that share NATO's values and that are capable of contributing to security, such as Australia or Japan and others," U.S. deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs Kurt Volker said in a speech last month.
"Given the tempo of demands placed on the alliance, we are working to identify ways to strengthen our cooperation with these countries and other security contributors beyond the alliance as well."
Briefing media ahead of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Sofia this week, Volker returned to the subject.
"We see that NATO already is operating in Afghanistan and doing so together with countries like Australia, for example, and we believe that this is a trend that's going to continue well into the future, as NATO takes on operations of this nature."
In a crisis such as Darfur, it may be desirable to bring together NATO and non-NATO partners that were interested in contributing to resolving the conflict, he said.
NATO has expanded from a membership of 15-16 during the Cold War to 26 today, with the accession in 1999 and 2004 of ten former eastern bloc states. Three more formerly communist nations -- Albania, Macedonia and Croatia -- are lined up for membership while Ukraine and Georgia have also expressed interest.
The enlargement has been viewed dimly by Russia, despite NATO's successes in reaching out to Moscow -- a NATO-Russia Council was set up in 2002 - and despite assurances that expansion eastward was not aimed at Russia.
China may find equally unsettling the thought of NATO partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region.
Beijing already is suspicious about what it sees as "encirclement" by the U.S. -- the presence of American forces in Central Asia, Japan, South Korea and Guam; close defense links with Taiwan, and growing ties with India.
China's relations with the alliance reached a low-point when NATO warplanes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 Kosovo crisis. They have improved since then, however, and Appathurai this week described them as informal but "friendly."
Dr. Craig Snyder, an international relations specialist at Australia's Deakin University, said Friday China would be concerned about the implications of a closer relationship between NATO and Japan and South Korea, although Australia would be less of a worry to Beijing.
"Ultimately it would depend on what areas of cooperation were emphasized in the relationship," he said.
"As long as they do not look to be a move to create a wider alliance to 'encircle' or 'contain' China, the Chinese will not oppose greater NATO global partnerships on the broad global security issues of the day."
Snyder pointed out that China had itself pursued cooperative efforts with NATO, and therefore it would be difficult for the Chinese to oppose the envisaged partnerships.
Discussions about establishing NATO partnerships with Pacific Rim countries come as a another security bloc also is extending its influence.
Comprising Russia, China and four Central Asian countries, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) plans soon to invite Iran, Pakistan and India to join.
The bloc has existed in its current form since 2001, but last July began to assume a more assertive stance by calling on the U.S. to set a deadline for withdrawing its forces deployed in Central Asia in support of operations in Afghanistan.
SCO defense ministers meeting in Beijing this week announced plans for the organization to hold joint military exercises with a counter-terrorism focus in Russia next year.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said the maneuvers would involve air forces, special forces and sophisticated weaponry.
Both Ivanov and his Chinese counterpart, Cao Gangchuan, stressed that the drill would not be aimed at any "third party."
Last year China and Russia held joint military exercises for the first time.
Partnership with NATO Could Hold Pros and Cons for Australia (28 Apr. 2006)
Russian Suspicions Persist Despite NATO Fence-Mending (Apr. 09, 2004)
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