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China’s NATO Anxiety

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China’s NATO Anxiety

China sees NATO as an important component of U.S.-led “bloc confrontation” – which it views as a strategy of weaving webs of international coalitions to contain China’s rise.

China’s NATO Anxiety

Left to right: Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg; then-New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Hipkins, and South Koreans President Yoon Suk-yeol at the 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 12, 2023.

Credit: NATO

The timing of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Belgrade, Serbia, during his latest European tour was hardly coincidental. The visit took place on May 7, 2024 – the 25th anniversary of NATO’s unintentional bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. In a letter published before his arrival, Xi asserted that the incident had not been forgotten and that China would “never allow such tragic history to repeat itself.

The symbolic visit is part of China’s increased rhetorical attacks against the alliance, which is preparing for its annual summit in Washington this July. China sees NATO as an important component of U.S.-led “bloc confrontation” – which it views as a strategy of weaving webs of international coalitions to contain China’s rise. The issue is most acute in the Indo-Pacific, which includes AUKUS, the Quad, and the newly established “Squad,” which aims to integrate the Philippines with these structures. But China also worries about NATO’s “Asia-Pacificization” (亚太化), which has the potential of involving European powers more directly in Pacific affairs.

NATO’s Pacific Turn

Only a few years ago, NATO held a low position in China’s priorities. China saw the alliance as its name implied, as an organization focused on the North Atlantic. Relations between China and NATO were reserved, but included regular consultations and even limited cooperation on shared threats such as international terrorism and piracy. 

However, as the great power competition between the United States and China has intensified, China has slowly emerged into NATO’s agenda. In 2022, NATO defined China as a “systemic challenge” in its new strategic concept, and the “Asia-Pacific 4” (Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea) have been invited to its summits since then.

Although NATO keeps emphasizing that it has no plans to expand its mandate toward the Indo-Pacific, cooperation between the alliance and the AP4 is gaining pace in numerous domains, and welcomed by the Pacific states as well. While it would be legally and politically impossible to invite Asian countries into the alliance or to extend NATO’s security guarantees to cover U.S. Pacific territories, some scholars have pointed out that the alliance should update its mandate to better fit the realities of 21st century global competition. They argue that leaving strategically important islands, such as Guam or Hawaii, outside of NATO’s guarantees creates a deterrence gap for China to exploit.

Tool of the Hegemon

NATO’s growing interest in the Indo-Pacific thus understandably alarms Beijing. Furthermore, China does not see NATO as an autonomous entity, but merely as a tool of the United States for maintaining its hegemonic order. In China’s hierarchical worldview, Washington controls the agendas of its partners and heavily influences their foreign policy decisions, and NATO is no exception. At a minimum, the United States pushes them to join its economic and technological “small yards with high walls”; at a maximum, the United States involves them in proxy wars against its enemies.

The war in Ukraine, in Chinese eyes, has served as a godsend for the United States. The sustained war is severely weakening Russia, while the U.S. arms export industry collects big profits. Meanwhile, Washington’s grip over Europe is tightening as the alarmed continent turns for the U.S. for help with its economic and security woes. The war has all but silenced European calls for “strategic autonomy” and strengthened links over the Atlantic, especially through NATO.

The war has also revived NATO from its state of “brain death,” and the alliance appears unified in its support for Ukraine and in efforts to rebuild its lost military capabilities. As an emblem of its new vigor, NATO has added two new members (Finland and Sweden), continuing an expansion toward the east and to the Arctic that has evoked loud criticism in China. 

China sees the United States using this momentum to shift NATO’s attention toward the Asia-Pacific, and the alliance seems willing to listen. In the view of one Chinese observer, Washington wants to control both ends of the Eurasian continent, and NATO serves as an excellent tool for unifying the European and Pacific theaters into a shared strategic space.

Chinese Worries

For China, NATO does not pose a direct military threat, nor does China see the alliance as moving rapidly into its neighborhood. But China perceives the U.S. as having substantial leverage through its allies, primarily for generating political and economic pressure against it. This has been readily visible in how U.S. allies have adopted “anti-China” policies, including restrictions on the exports of sensitive technologies, banning Huawei, and considering a ban on TikTok.

Furthermore, in a Taiwan contingency the United States is likely able to gather a “coalition of the willing” from its NATO allies to impose economic sanctions, provide armaments, or even take part in military operations, despite legal limitations on the alliance. Besides small-scale NATO-Japan maritime exercises, China is worried about rapidly evolving NATO-AP4 cooperation in intelligence sharing and cyber and space defense, for which even smaller and distant but tech-savvy European states could provide a lot of value.

In the larger scheme, NATO pushes deeper military-technological cooperation between the Pacific and Europe. Chinese observers have taken note on how effective a “NATO-ized” Ukrainian military has proven to be against Russian military technology (which China also heavily relies on). Also noteworthy is how effectively and rapidly Ukraine has been able to “NATO-ize” its Soviet legacy forces with U.S. and NATO’s support. 

Finally, Chinese observers see the war in Ukraine and NATO cooperation serving as an excellent pretext for Japan’s re-militarization. NATO has not objected to, but rather supported Japan’s recent military buildup and its growing role in Pacific security structures. A militarily re-emergent Japan working in deep cooperation with NATO is something China does not want to see.

The Empire Strikes Back

China has fought back against NATO’s “Asia-Pacificization” by framing the alliance itself as a “systemic challenge” for global security, and the United States as a reckless hegemon, uninterested in the security of its allies as long as its global dominance is guaranteed.

Just as it pushed NATO into Russia’s sphere of interest and (in Russia and China’s view) provoked the war in Ukraine, Washington could repeat the feat in Asia with similarly catastrophic consequences. The timing and content of Xi’s Belgrade visit was clearly aimed to reach an audience far beyond the immediate South Balkan region.

However, Chinese analysts point out that many obstacles still remain for NATO’s Indo-Pacific project. First of all, NATO’s resources are limited as the ongoing war in Ukraine inevitably takes the first priority. Furthermore, NATO’s global concerns in areas such as terrorism, climate change, and freedom of navigation are not going anywhere. Although NATO is no longer brain dead, the Indo-Pacific will remain in the sidelines of its attention, at least for now.

Second, even if united on the surface, NATO has many inner divisions when it comes to policy vis-à-vis China or Russia. France, especially, has continued its calls for European strategic autonomy and acted as a brake on NATO’s Indo-Pacific expansion. Not surprisingly, Xi Jinping chose France as the main destination for his European visit, and praised the exemplary state of Sino-French relations. In Hungary – another weak link in NATO-EU unity – Xi praised Hungary’s “independent” foreign policy, while receiving Hungary’s staunch support for China’s so-called peace plan for Ukraine in exchange. 

Besides rhetorical outbursts, China is clearly looking to exploit tensions within the alliance, but the wedge is unlikely to work as long as China keeps tacitly supporting Russia’s war in Ukraine. In fact, Xi’s itinerary reveals the price China is paying for its stance, as its worsening relations with Europe and the consequent Asia-Pacificization of NATO are increasingly impacting China’s own security environment as well.