pacific forum History of Pacific Forum

PacNet #47 – NATO needs to plug the “Hawaii gap” in the US Indo-Pacific deterrence strategy

Written By

  • John Hemmings Senior Advisor at the Pacific Forum
  • David Santoro President and CEO of the Pacific Forum


Imagine this: US-China tensions over Taiwan escalate to boiling point. Hours after a Chinese missile attack on Hawaii, the US president calls upon regional and global allies and partners to discuss next steps. US officials in Brussels request clarity as to whether NATO will trigger Article V. The silence is deafening. Worse still, apart from quick affirmations from a few traditionally close allies—such as the United Kingdom and Netherlands—it is unclear whether many NATO member states will even cease trade with China, much less commit to a war. Some note that Hawaii is excluded from an automatic trigger of Article V by Article VI. Almost immediately, the alliance is thrown into one of the deepest crises of its history.

While this scenario is, in many ways, at the extreme end of the possible, it nevertheless illustrates a potential crisis-in-waiting for the alliance. As allies begin arriving in Washington DC for the  NATO Summit this week, they should consider scenarios of this kind. They should reflect on the implications of a US-China conflict over Taiwan and what the alliance can and should do now to better deter and, if deterrence fails, better respond to such a conflict.

In a recent speech, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted that “NATO’s core business” is that of deterrence. His second theme was Ukraine, and his third strengthening global partnerships, “especially in the Indo-Pacific” due to the interplay between the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific. Explicitly noting the invitations to the “IP4” (Indo-Pacific Four: Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea), the secretary general raised strategic linkages between the alliance’s adversaries, such as Chinese and North Korean support for Russia’s war machine.

Given these themes—deterrence and the importance of the Indo-Pacific—it is astonishing that Hawaii’s exclusion from the NATO Treaty is not, at a minimum, an agenda item at the summit. Their exclusion—a historical relic of the Cold War—is remarkable given that both are critical to the United States’ deterrence strategy in the Indo-Pacific.

So, how did we get here? At the time of signing, the allies saw little threat of Chinese naval or air power. Fast forward to 2024—during which time China undertook one of the largest military build-ups since the World War II—and we have a situation in which the United States might be attacked in the Indo-Pacific and NATO could just sit by and do little. If that happened, not only would it likely lead to a serious crisis within the alliance, but it would represent a missed opportunity to deter a Chinese attack of Taiwan in the first place.

The time is thus ripe to address this gaping hole in the alliance, and there is no shortage of reasons to justify that change.

First, the inclusion of Hawaii—essential nodes in the US capacity to defend Taiwan—into NATO defense commitments would de facto add to overall US deterrence efforts over Taiwan.

Second, NATO is not merely a military actor. It is also a major power across the DIME (diplomacy, information, military, economy). Case in point: its total economic weight is a combined GDP of $39.6 trillion, with half of the top 10 economies as member states. This represents huge pre-conflict deterrence value for a China intent on maintaining economic growth for the sake of internal security.

Third, NATO has much political and diplomatic deterrence value since many NATO allies have strong ties to parts of the Global South and reach inside the Indo-Pacific. At a tactical level, this plays out in the information space where NATO messaging and signaling could help the United States and Taiwan in international forums.

Fourth, even if NATO commitments did not prevent a conflict, they could play a helpful role in the Euro-Atlantic by interdicting Chinese trade and energy supply. This would represent a serious challenge to the Chinese economy, which depends heavily on exports to Europe.

While we believe that these are strong arguments to discuss the status of Hawaii, some have argued that the United States agreed to a treaty that excluded Hawaii and changing that fact is impossible. This is a specious argument, which ignores how the security environment in the Indo-Pacific has drastically deteriorated since the 1950s, making it nearly impossible for the United States to address its threats and challenges on its own. Adapting to the new environment is a must and deterring a US-China war the number one priority.

Another argument is that NATO should not act out-of-area. This argument, however, conveniently forgets that NATO has been expanding remits and members from its earliest days—when it was based around the English Channel—to incorporate West Germany, Greece, and Turkey, and to carry out operations in Afghanistan. Adjusting NATO to defend the collective interest of its members is what NATO has been all about—and deterring a war with China is in the collective interests of all NATO members.

Furthermore, if the United States were to be at war with a near-peer adversary like China, any out-of-area considerations would be meaningless. The draw on US military resources from the Euro-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific would substantially drain NATO capability and capacity, as the United States may be compelled to engage Chinese naval units and maritime shipping globally.

Some Europeans are also open about not wanting to get dragged into a war with China over Taiwan. To them, this is an “America Problem,” and NATO already has its hands full with Russia. This is problematic, at least for three reasons.

For starters, and as mentioned, the United States is NATO’s largest member and the drain on its resources and capabilities will impact NATO allies, whether they like it or not.

Second, this view does not take into account US domestic politics and the US population, who would note the amount of blood and treasure poured into European security since 1941; the geography is emotive and pertinent. It was, after all, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that directly led to US involvement in World War II which saw the US adopt a “Europe First” approach to prosecuting the war.

Third, and finally, some will argue that it is the United States itself which wants Europe to focus on Russia, and that it is up to the United States to focus on China. This is true to an extent but misses the point argued here: NATO’s deterrent value across the DIME counts and could substantially undermine China’s resolve before a war starts. We should be considering all measures to prevent such a war and NATO deterrence must be operationalized in support of its largest member.

As leaders from across NATO meet in Washington to consider the world around them and make sure that the alliance’s deterrence and defense architecture is fit for purpose across the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific, they should take this opportunity to include Hawaii into Article V considerations. Doing so would not solve all problems—far from it—but it would be a step in the right direction and could prevent a catastrophe.

John Hemmings ([email protected]) is Senior Advisor at the Pacific Forum. He specializes in US alliances and strategic competition, with a particular focus on Indo-Pacific Strategies, the US-Japan Alliance, AUKUS, the FVEY, the Quad, and other minilaterals.

David Santoro ([email protected]) is the President and CEO of the Pacific Forum. He specializes in strategic and security issues with a regional focus on both Asia and Europe.

Photo: Attack on Pearl Harbor || Credit: National Archives

If you want to see more insightful analysis and impactful events in the Indo-Pacific, support us by donating. Your contribution fuels our mission for a secure and cooperative future: Donate Here