How should NATO deal with China?
What is the purpose and fundamental security task of NATO? The leaders of the Alliance have updated its Strategic Concept in June 2022; the first revision of this key NATO document since 2010. In this Clingendael Spectator series, 12 international experts answer 5 key questions on NATO’s future. Question 4: The secretary general of NATO Jens Stoltenberg argued in November 2020 that the Alliance "must devote much more time, political resources and action to the security challenges posed by China".1 How should NATO deal with China?
Russia and China differ markedly: the Russian challenge stems from its geopolitical worldview towards the post-Soviet space, and its hybrid warfare beyond its borders. Unlike Moscow, Beijing’s aggressive ambitions do not emanate from a position of weakness, but, on the contrary, from its burgeoning national capabilities. Overall, Russia is about imperial nostalgia, while China focuses on future horizons.
The Chinese challenge is complex in many ways, especially due to its technological-geopolitical rise, the military-civilian fusion of its defence industries, its military-technological espionage network, and, above all, its ambitious and revisionist regional aspirations. NATO should pursue a dual-track approach in dealing with the China question. While augmenting its partner network in the Pacific, NATO should also seek dialogue with Beijing on strategic affairs.
Finally, we should not forget that both China and Russia now have more freedom of manoeuvre in their own backyard due to their bilateral strategic partnership, as they secure the Sino-Russian frontier. Any geopolitical approach from NATO should focus on weakening the harmony between Beijing and Moscow. There certainly are fault lines between the two, and these fault lines should be recharged with a proper NATO strategy.
While NATO countries agree that China poses a strategic challenge to them, they differ on how to tackle this rising superpower. The United States is far more adamant in taking China head-on than its European allies (with notable exceptions like Lithuania). Put simply: NATO has to deal with China in Europe and in the Indo-Pacific. China is already affecting European security, be it through joint military exercises with Russia, buying into critical infrastructures (like ports and digital infrastructure), or by influencing the discourse about China in Europe by limiting academic freedom through pressure on academics and institutes.
The war in Ukraine has served as a wake-up call and reminded Europeans that collective defence remains a core task. Yet, it has also painfully exposed Russia’s link to China. Not only have fears about Sino-Russian cooperation resurfaced but European countries have also experienced the downside of strong economic dependency on another country for strategic resources such as gas and oil. As a Merics study from 2020 shows: “in electronics, chemical, minerals/metals, and pharmaceutical/medical products the EU has a critical strategic dependence on imports from China."2
Hence, the question is what lessons Europeans should draw from the current war and their relationship with Russia on how to deal with China. While NATO has a role to play in hard security, other actors such as the European Union or informal networks like AUKUS offer additional ways to deal with China in the non-military realm. Europe needs to formulate its responses and link these various strategic formats.
Security challenges and threats in our interconnected world cut across domains. Think about the exploitation of vulnerabilities in global supply chains, employing economic espionage or high dependency on raw materials for the production of chips. Without actively threatening NATO, it is in these domains – economic or (disruptive) technological, sometimes combined with military and diplomatic coercion – that China poses a security challenge to many of NATO’s members.
NATO as an institution could help its members by facilitating a deep and shared understanding of wide-ranging security ramifications of China’s position in the world, beyond the military domain. The impact of drafting the new Strategic Concept and hence having that internal dialogue, is not to be underestimated; the process itself serves as a key enabler for elevating that common understanding. Key in going forward is to champion and nourish solidarity within the alliance and find a common approach towards China in the different domains; unity is the fundament of deterrence.3
The challenges China poses to NATO are primarily non-military in nature. The bottom line for the West is the fear of a future world dominated by a non-democratic China using its leverage to impose its will on other states, more or less forcefully. That is why NATO allies have grown increasingly wary about, for example, Chinese investments and diplomatic activity.
NATO can be an arena for discussing and coordinating the responses to these challenges across the Atlantic. Principles and policies agreed in NATO can subsequently be followed up in the European Union and other places, where coordinated responses can be implemented.
A former Norwegian Foreign Minister, Espen Barth Eide, captured perfectly that “China is not just rising for the United States, it is rising for Europe, too.”4 So NATO countries should think together about what risks China poses and what common actions we might take, and who and how we want to partner with countries in Asia. It will take time and consultation for us to develop a common NATO perspective on China, and that is fine – that is the nature of our alliance. However, it looks to me as though perspectives are converging across the Atlantic about China.
The war in Ukraine has somewhat reduced our attention to the China question, and made clear the continued need for NATO to focus on defence and deterrence vis-à-vis Russia. However, China is a growing long-term challenge to transatlantic security and a major geopolitical and geoeconomic rival to both the US and Europe.
While there is no military conflict between NATO and China, the Alliance needs to pay particular attention to a number of risks. First, we need to be cautious of technological risks, especially the dependence of European allies on Chinese technology which affects both civilian and military infrastructure. The related vulnerabilities need to be reduced by NATO and the EU working closely together. Second, there is a growing Chinese military presence and capability of power projection in NATO’s proximity, including Africa and the Arctic. Third, the evolving China-Russia partnership encompasses increasing military cooperation.
China’s growing potential and assertiveness, as well as its security links with Russia, must be reflected in the new Strategic Concept. Allies should repeat that Beijing’s behaviour increasingly presents “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order”5 . Even if declaring its overall preference for peaceful relationship with China, NATO has to assess it primarily through the lens of security. This means readiness to counter a range of hostile Chinese activities against its allies (for instance, cyberattacks and information operations) and to reduce economic and technological dependencies on China.
The decision to expand its partnership with the willing Indo-Pacific countries can also be seen as an element of NATO’s China policy. Given its focus on security of Euro-Atlantic space and limited resources, the Alliance should however be careful not to over-commit regarding its engagement in the security of the Indo-Pacific region, which is not covered by Article 5 (collective defence) guarantees.
NATO needs to avoid the security dilemma that now characterises the NATO-Russia relationship. The Strategic Concept should follow NATO’s London Declaration of 2019 and the Brussels summit declaration of 2021, and acknowledge the challenge posed by China. But it should also keep the door open to engagement and dialogue (both already mentioned in the 2019 and 2021 documents). Language that recognises China’s weight (but also responsibilities) in international politics sends a positive signal.
Some clarification that NATO is principally a Euro-Atlantic organisation (in the Strategic Concept’s early paragraphs) would indicate that the Alliance has no ambition to extend its defence remit to the Indo-Pacific. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has made the latter point already – but it bears repeating. Certain allies – the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and France – may have interests in the region, but NATO as such could make clear its core defence mission is in, and around, Europe.
NATO’s role in East Asia has been minimal so far but is evolving. China’s partnership with Russia, its growing assertiveness in the Western Pacific, its use of trade and investment for geopolitical purposes and its overall more acute competition with the US have created the expectation that NATO will extend its focus on challenges emanating from Chinese foreign policy. This proposition is legitimate but also presents both conceptual and practical problems.
On a conceptual level, a strong and fundamental confrontational stance on China by NATO would contribute to militarising NATO Europe’s competition with China (and further militarising the US competition with China) without really bringing in significant security benefits. On a practical level, NATO has limited resources and especially NATO Europe has its plate full with confronting the threat emanating from a hostile and possibly unstable Russia.
This is not to say that NATO has no role at all as regards China. But it would be wiser to frame it in terms of NATO’s contribution to East Asian security and place it squarely in the framework of the existing cooperation platforms with Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. NATO should have a structural dialogue with these countries concerning the threat environment in both Europe and East Asia and identify possible mutual implications of disrupting events in either theatre. More specifically, NATO and its Asian partners should focus on defending ‘global commons’: cyber, space and especially maritime security.
NATO must indeed devote more attention to China and primarily to raise collective awareness of China’s growing international presence and the implications this has for the Alliance. NATO has two designated threats – Russia and international terrorism – and must deliberate carefully before adding China to this list.
NATO should strengthen its in-house China expertise, covering its politics, military modernisation, and international presence. NATO should further embed the annual cycle of China analysis and political stocktaking (that began following the December 2019 London leaders’ meeting) into its overall policymaking process. Finally, NATO allies should develop a concept for NATO’s Indo-Pacific engagement – a concept that safeguards the Euro-Atlantic character of the Alliance while sorting out the division of labour that will develop in the Indo-Pacific. The AUKUS debacle of 2021 is a reminder that allied consultation and coordination is a precondition for sound policy.
China’s rise raises three sets of questions for NATO. How can NATO respond to the challenges – maybe soon to be threats – posed by China while maintaining its credibility in defence toward Russia? How much will the US stay committed to Europe if the new big challenge is China? How much will (European) allies agree on committing NATO to deal with China?
Here one needs to distinguish between the Europe and the Indo-Pacific. In the latter, NATO will unlikely be involved, although this cannot be ruled out in the long run. In Europe, European allies will have to beef up their capabilities so that NATO and Europe take care of Russia while the US pivots eastward. But NATO must also strengthen itself in the hybrid domain (think about cyber, cognitive, but also standards), where China plays a role. While doing this, Alliance cohesion will be preserved only if NATO’s efforts are compatible with the Russia (and Southern flank?) agenda. If not, then the Alliance is in trouble.
- 1NATO, ‘NATO 2030: United for a New Era’, 25 November 2020.
- 2Max J. Zenglein, ‘Mapping and recalibrating Europe’s economic interdependence with China’, Merics, 17 November 2020.
- 3The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author in her personal capacity and do not in any way express the views of the Dutch Ministry of Defence, or any other entity.
- 4Kori Schake and Yao Yunzhu, ‘Taking a side? Diverging perspectives on a new Cold War’, American Enterprise Institute, 30 November 2020.
- 5‘Brussels Summit Communiqué’, NATO, 14 June 2021.