Dr Stephan Frühling and Dr Benjamin Schreer are Lecturer and Senior Lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

On her visit to Brussels last week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced her intention to deepen Australia's relationship with NATO. This worthy aim should find bipartisan support, for reasons that lie much closer to home than the existing cooperation in Afghanistan: NATO's next strategic concept will reflect an 'indirect approach' to Asia Pacific security that can, in a limited but useful way, benefit the strategic interests of Australia and its Asia Pacific allies.

Since 2001, Australia's military engagement in Afghanistan has led to intensified political and military cooperation with NATO. Senior Australian political and military leaders now frequently attended high-level NATO meetings, Canberra has accredited a defence attaché to NATO, and both sides ratified a treaty on sharing of classified information. Australia is also the largest non-NATO contributor to the NATO operation in Afghanistan.

Consequently, many in NATO have come to view Australia as a prototypical 'global partner' with whom NATO can work to address new global security challenges. Some even raised the prospect of Australia joining the alliance as a full member.

And yet, as we have argued elsewhere, despite shared values, the prospect of deeper Australia-NATO ties is limited by differences in core strategic interests. The Labor Government's 2009 Defence White Paper has confirmed that Australia's priorities remain firmly anchored in the Asia Pacific. Instability in the immediate neighbourhood, potential conflict in Southeast Asia, and the great power competition in East Asia dominate Australia's long-term strategic agenda.

As recently discussed intensely on The Interpreter, the implications of the economic and military rise of China will further emphasise the regional nature of Australia's strategic priorities. Even Australia's Afghanistan engagement has as much to do with the importance of the ANZUS alliance than with the threat of al Qaeda terrorism.

That said, there are indications that NATO will be much more active in Australia's region than in the past. The Alliance will approve a new strategic concept later this year to guide NATO's objectives, strategy, and force planning, which will clarify the role NATO may play in the Asia Pacific. The new concept will acknowledge that NATO remains, at its core, a transatlantic alliance. But NATO will also recognise that it needs to move beyond its traditional role of common defence and pay closer attention to global security issues — even in Europe, there is growing realisation of Asia's importance in many of these challenges.

NATO's policy will only develop incrementally, and continue to disappoint those who seek a truly global 'alliance of democracies'. Asia Pacific issues or NATO's 'global partners' hardly featured, for example, in the recommendations on the new strategic concept made by an experts group chaired by former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.

NATO will not yet develop a formal strategy for engaging the Asia-Pacific, nor will it move to institutionalise relations with partners such as Australia. But the new strategic concept will most likely make it a goal of NATO to develop closer relations with rising Asian powers like China and India. It will also seek to establish better ties with regional security institutions, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Even in the Asia Pacific, NATO can play to its strengths as an organisation that is very comfortable and experienced with informal and working-level exchanges, and one that has much to offer at the practical level. In the long run, NATO's extension of its global partner network to Asia will be more important for Australia's engagement with the Alliance than are today's operations in Afghanistan.

This development serves Australia's interests. For the foreseeable future, deeper engagement with NATO will not mean membership with political commitments, nor formal cooperation, which would tax Australia's diplomatic and military resources. Today, NATO is a complement for Australia in operations alongside the US, and a useful forum to exchanges views on military logistics and other technical detail. But if NATO becomes an important forum for strategic exchange between China, Indonesia or India with the US and its European allies, Australia will want a seat at the table.

Photo courtesy of NATO.