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NATO’s China Challenge

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NATO’s China Challenge

Despite, or rather because of, the Russia-Ukraine War, the West finally appears willing to take on the challenge of a rising China – perhaps even in the Indo-Pacific.

NATO’s China Challenge
Credit: Depositphotos

The North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) claims to have no intention of moving into the Indo-Pacific, but in the interest of global security it still should. Some argue that when it comes to China there is no role for NATO. As of 2022, the alliance officially disagrees. Admittedly, it appears fairly unlikely that the People’s Republic of China will conduct an “armed attack” in either Europe or North America in the foreseeable future. However, even against the backdrop of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Beijing’s growing international assertiveness has been formally recognized as a “systemic challenge” to NATO’s values, interests, and security. Despite, or rather because of, the Russia-Ukraine War, the West finally appears willing to take on the challenge of a rising China – perhaps even in the Indo-Pacific.

From a Single Sentence to a Strategic Challenge

NATO-China relations were virtually non-existent until the early 2000s and even then, they mostly took the form of informal visits and military staff talks. As recently as 2019, China barely merited a single rather bland sentence in the traditional common statement after a NATO leaders’ meeting. At the behest of the United States, the alliance recognized the potential threat posed by China to the rules-based international order at its 2021 summit, but the summit communique remained tantalizingly vague on how to respond.

Arguably, it was Beijing’s bad timing more than anything else that finally broke the impasse between China “hawks” and “doves” within the alliance.

On February 4, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin came together to announce a “no limits” partnership. What was most remarkable about their meeting from a Western perspective was Beijing essentially copying Russia’s negative rhetoric on NATO expansion and behavior. This happened mere weeks before the start of the Kremlin’s ill-fated invasion of Ukraine, and there has been no Chinese course correction since. What was perhaps intended as nothing more than a throwaway gesture toward Moscow instead inadvertently linked the China challenge to the Russian threat. Moscow’s and Beijing’s actions are now increasingly regarded as “mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order” in the minds of Western leaders. Unsurprisingly, Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomats were not particularly amused by this development, with the official response again closely mirroring Russian rhetoric.

The Indispensable Partnership

Unfortunately for NATO, the “China challenge” is strongest in areas where the alliance has neither competencies nor expertise, including investment screening or economic and technology policy. Yet the organization can still provide added value by seeking out those who do. In Europe, the alliance’s natural partner in the politico-economic sphere is the European Union (EU), which has recently taken a much more active role on China. NATO could offer the EU preferential access to the alliance’s expertise in the areas of security analysis, strategic foresight, and military risk assessment. While there is already some informal information sharing, a more structured relationship would facilitate a better Euro-Atlantic response to China’s rise. This partnership would be particularly relevant in regard to the security implications of Chinese investments in Europe. After all, conducting military operations in the Mediterranean could become rather difficult, if the ports the alliance wants to use “are not only built by but owned by [the] Chinese.”  

When it comes to pursuing a closer relationship with the EU, the North Atlantic alliance is charging through open doors. Both organizations will soon share 23 member countries; meanwhile, China-EU relations have steadily worsened over the last few years. A case in point: Brussels has been working furiously on creating a policy toolbox aimed at curtailing predatory Chinese behavior. Among the plethora of EU measures being implemented, the so-called “anti-coercion instrument” stands out in particular. Its purpose is to prevent outside actors from singling out individual EU countries for economic blackmail as Beijing did earlier this year with Lithuania. In the years since the EU first labeled the People’s Republic a “systemic rival,” this assessment has increasingly become the dominant prism through which many Europeans regard the relationship. In other words, the prospects for a more unified transatlantic position on China have never been better and the Ukraine war is likely to push EU and NATO even closer together

NATO Moving into the Indo-Pacific?

While NATO professes no intention of “moving into the South China Sea,” it seems doubtful for how much longer the alliance can remain disinterested in the affairs of the Indo-Pacific. The region is not only fast becoming the global economic center of gravity, but also the most significant focal point for geopolitical competition in the 21st century. Additionally, a military escalation over Taiwan would almost certainly draw in the United States and have catastrophic repercussions for Europe. Consequently, European NATO members also have a vested interest in maintaining stability in the region.

Several leading European powers have already published Indo-Pacific strategies and are stepping up their military presence in the region. Nevertheless, these efforts have been ill-coordinated and are characterized by widely diverging means, approaches and ambitions. So, what would be more logical than Europe’s primary security provider taking on a stronger role in coordinating the military efforts of its members in East Asia?

Out-of-area missions are far from unusual for NATO, with the alliance engaging in numerous anti-piracy, stabilization, and training operations around the globe over the last decades. In fact, NATO has already established official partnerships with multiple Indo-Pacific countries, several of which have contributed troops to its missions. By deepening these relationships, NATO could provide added value when it comes to military contingency planning, improving joint exercises and enhancing interoperability with partners in the region. In order to manage these new responsibilities and to signal its commitment, the alliance should also establish a small permanent headquarters for the Indo-Pacific. 

If Russia’s war in Ukraine should teach us anything, it’s that deterring military adventurism is much cheaper than having to reverse it. The collective commitment of the most powerful military alliance in history has a better chance of deterring Chinese aggression against Taiwan than the uncoordinated action of individual countries – no matter how powerful they may be. During its storied past, NATO has shown itself to be highly adaptable to the needs of its members: The organization went from an almost exclusive focus on territorial defense during the confrontation with the Soviet Union to providing solutions for a much broader array of threats ranging from international terrorism to the COVID-19 pandemic. If NATO wishes to stay relevant, the North Atlantic alliance must yet again reinvent itself, this time for an age of global great power competition.

For the time being, Russia will remain the primary threat to NATO. However, where Russia is like a hurricane, China is more akin to climate change. The former is the more pressing issue and could prove highly destructive, but the other poses the more serious long-term threat. Indeed, just like climate change will exacerbate natural disasters, a revisionist China could turbocharge the problem of Russian aggression and vice versa. Although there has been little evidence of direct Chinese support for the war in Ukraine, this could still change if a Russian defeat threatens to turn into a major reversal for Beijing’s revisionist agenda. Deterring this budding alliance from further destructive actions on the international stage will likely require a broad coalition of like-minded actors. As a natural nexus for international security cooperation, NATO has an important part to play in bringing such a group together – be it in Europe or East Asia.