China and NATO’s Strategic Concept

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China and NATO’s Strategic Concept

Insights from Mathieu Duchȃtel.

China and NATO’s Strategic Concept
Credit: DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Mathieu Duchȃtel  ̶  director of the Asia Program at Institut Montaigne in Paris and formerly the representative in Beijing of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) is the 329th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Identify major differences between NATO’s Strategic Concept 2022 and past versions.

The Euro-Atlantic area is “not at peace,” and NATO “cannot discount the possibility of an attack against Allies’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.” From this bleak but obvious assessment, in stark contrast with the language of the previous Strategic Concept released in 2010 (an Euro-Atlantic area “at peace” and a “low” threat of attack against NATO territory), follows the great emphasis of the 2022 Concept on NATO’s nuclear deterrence, with “resolve” as the key word to demonstrate credibility. “No one should doubt our strength and resolve to defend every inch of Allied territory”; “The Alliance has the capabilities and resolve to impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that any adversary could hope to achieve.”

Challenges from “authoritarian actors” to “our interests, values and democratic way of life” have outranked and downgraded the proliferation of ballistic missiles and terrorist risks to a secondary priority on NATO’s threat assessment. Strategic competition with authoritarian actors impacts threat assessment across all security sectors but is particularly obvious in cyberspace. There is a world between 2010’s “Cyber-attacks are becoming more frequent, more organized and more costly” to 2022’s “Malign actors seek to degrade our critical infrastructure, interfere with our government services, extract intelligence, steal intellectual property and impede our military activities.”

In sum, the intensity of current threats and challenges to Euro-Atlantic security suggests a strong sense of common purpose to an alliance that only a few years ago French President Macron was characterizing, or rather mischaracterizing, as “brain dead.”

Analyze key shifts in NATO’s approach to China as reflected in Strategic Concept 2022.

China poses “systemic challenges to Euro-Atlantic security” but is not considered an adversary or a threat. What best characterizes the inclusion of China on NATO’s agenda Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s 2020 remark that “this is not about moving NATO into the South China Sea, but it is about taking into account that China is coming closer to us.”

Two years later, the 2022 Strategic Concept prioritizes enhancing the resilience of NATO member states against Chinese actions that undermine the coherence and the strength of our societies, economies, and democratic institutions. In short, NATO remains focused on Euro-Atlantic security in a broad sense, not military competition in the Indo-Pacific.

Regarding China, NATO has a key role to play to achieve strategic unity and coherence among its member states. This role is particularly salient given that China systematically seeks to sow division in transatlantic relations and to exploit intra-EU differences to its advantage. A shared assessment of Chinese military policy can provide a strong basis for strategic unity. During the Cold War, NATO already provided a platform for intelligence exchange between member states on the state of PLA programs. There was no question at the time already that the focus of the alliance was overwhelmingly the Soviet threat.

Today in Europe, the EU lacks the capacity in Europe to produce shared awareness of development trends inside the PLA: decisions regarding equipment, force structure, overseas deployments, posture in East Asia, the change of format of Chinese nuclear forces… A common understanding of Chinese military affairs is crucial as a basis to prevent transfers of dual-use technology that benefit PLA programs, and to guide European military cooperation to other partners in the Indo-Pacific region. The fact that military analysts focused on Russian deployments around Ukraine were much more successful in predicting the Russian attack than historians, diplomats, or political scientists is a tragic recent reminder of the peculiar reliability of military analysis to understand a country’s strategic orientation and predict its behavior.

Examine Beijing’s response to the Strategic Concept.

There is clearly irritation in Beijing. The spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, has warned “NATO that it is completely futile to play up and hype the so-called China threat” and repeated known lines regarding Chinese normal defense spending, and NATO’s quest of “absolute military security.”

But China’s order of priorities is clear, and is encapsulated in the formula “2, 3, 4, 5”: the U.S. bilateral alliances in East Asia, AUKUS, the Quad, and the Five Eyes. An Euro-Atlantic alliance focused on resilience in the Euro-Atlantic area poses no threat to China.

Could NATO play a role in the Indo-Pacific military balance? It is extremely unlikely in peace time. But there is an ambiguity regarding whether NATO’s collective defense (Article 5, “that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all”) could be activated in case of a Chinese attack against U.S. bases in the Pacific, if China launched a Taiwan annexation war. In its detailed response to the Strategic Concept, the Chinese mission to the EU expressed skepticism regarding NATO’s claim that its defense zone will not extend beyond the Northern Atlantic region. Chinese analysts tend to see a trend of NATO involvement in Indo-Pacific security in the making  ̶  especially in the context of leaders from Australia, Japan, and South Korea attending the 2022 NATO summit.

How does the Strategic Concept raise the stakes in NATO’s management of China-Russia relations vis-à-vis the China challenge and Russia as a “significant and direct threat” to the Euro-Atlantic area?      

The 2022 Strategic Concept does not represent China and Russia as the two faces of the same single threat. Despite the Concept’s emphasis on authoritarian states, a clear distinction is made between the imminent Russia threat and the challenges to Euro-Atlantic interests posed by China. It could have been otherwise. Some countries would have accepted tougher language on the state of the Sino-Russian partnership. France reportedly played a key role in advocating a nuanced language  ̶  merely noting that Chinese and Russian actions are “mutually reinforcing.” This suggests a growing awareness that Western policies towards China and Russia have largely contributed to cement their partnership.

From Abe Shinzo’s to Emmanuel Macron’s, all attempts to drive a wedge between China and Russia proceeded on the assumption Russia will not accept a status of China’s junior partner. All failed to capture the order of priorities in Moscow, and Putin’s drive to revise the international order. As Western sanctions against Russia are in the process of causing gigantic damage to its economy and access to technology, deepened Russian dependence on China is unavoidable. The risk of opportunistic Russian actions against NATO in a scenario of U.S.-China confrontation over Taiwan may be higher than the risk of opportunistic Chinese military offensive in East Asia in the context of the Ukraine war, even though a prolonged war lasting years could provide China a window.

There is no silver bullet to prevent this worst-case scenario from happening  ̶  NATO military superiority and the credibility of our deterrence posture remains the best security guarantee for NATO member states. At the same time, not designating China a security threat and focusing NATO’s action on Euro-Atlantic resilience, security, deterrence of Russia, and simply military power is the safer road. This does not prevent European states like France and the United Kingdom from continuing to play a limited role in Indo-Pacific security, nor does this forego the possibility for the U.S. of mobilizing key NATO allies as part of a coalition if China starts a war in East Asia.

Assess NATO’s plans to operationalize the Strategic Concept and implications for the geopolitical risk environment in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region.   

The 2022 Strategic Concept reaffirms in unambiguous terms NATO as the cornerstone of Europe-Atlantic security. NATO provides credible deterrence against attacks against its member states. A Russian gamble that striking missile defense facilities in Poland or convoys of military equipment to Ukraine before they reach the border would uncover the void of Article 5 would be extremely self-destructive. The new Strategic Concept is all about strength, credibility, and resolve but the focus is NATO territory. Russia’s use of its nuclear umbrella to conduct a war of conquest and destruction in Ukraine shows the limits of NATO’s capacity to defend the status quo and preserve peace in Europe.

In the coming years, facing a weakened and aggressive Russia, the priority to operationalize the Strategic Concept is to cultivate NATO’s strategic superiority over Russian armed forces. The membership of Sweden and Finland and Germany’s plans to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense will strengthen NATO. The EU’s financial support for military innovation in Europe is also an important strategic asset. NATO needs to regain an aura of military power and resolve, which internal disputes regarding strategic orientations, Europe largely free-riding on U.S. military power, and the Afghanistan campaign had contributed to erode.