By Li Hongmei, Specially for Sina English
As NATO gathers for a summit Sunday and Monday in Chicago, besides all 28 NATO members, Asia-Pacific allies in the war in Afghanistan also made their first ever appearance at a NATO meeting.
Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand all debuted to discuss their involvement in the security and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
Mongolia also sent a high-level delegation to the summit for the first time, after signing a cooperation partnership with NATO in March. According to media, the country is a NATO "ally-to-be" wedged between China and Russia.
A last-minute addition to the list of leaders was President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, whose western tribal areas provide shelter to militants attacking the Afghan government and NATO forces.
Zardari may encounter friction in interactions with NATO leaders, who have been pressing Islamabad to reopen routes used to supply NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistan shut those routes in protest when US aircraft killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border in November.
Washington's emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region does not render NATO irrelevant but the change signals a new era in which European states will have to be ready to manage security problems in their neighborhood without expecting the American military to lead the way as in the past.
The message from Washington amounts to “don't count on U.S. for everything,” said Barry Pavel, a former senior official at the Pentagon and White House, now at the Atlantic Council think tank.
For challenges that do not constitute a threat to all alliance members, “the U.S. is not going to be there all the time,” added Pavel.
NATO's air war in Libya last year, in which Europeans led the operation with support from the United States as well as non-NATO Gulf states, was an example of how the alliance could evolve.
But for the model to succeed, NATO's European members will have to invest in aircraft, weapons and training, analysts say.
On the other hand, despite the presence of a number of Asian countries at the Chicago summit, it is still uncertain whether anything more concrete will develop in the near future.
The shift might reflect the U.S, desire to push NATO into Asia by further enhancing its ties with the allies in the region in a bid to secure and enlarge the U.S. interest there, and the move could also be regarded as related to China, which is nowadays, the unquestionable leading regional power.
By hyping China's rise, the United States hopes to nudge its NATO partners to pay more attention to Asia and forge security ties with countries that have strong links to Washington, including Japan, South Korea and Australia, experts say.
Be that as it may, while eyeing Asia and seeking a less dominant role in NATO in the future, Washington will still turn to European allies “when the chips are down.”