NATO’s Pivot to China: A Challenging Path

As NATO leaders gathered in London in December 2019, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made repeated calls on the need for the alliance to adapt to a new challenge for NATO: China. “We have to address the fact that China is coming closer to us” in Africa, in the Arctic, in the cyberspace, and even in Europe, he notably stressed to support his case. While these statements were partly aiming to please the previous U.S. administration, they also reflected mounting concerns among allies about the implications of Chinese activities for transatlantic security.

Allies agreed in London to mention China for the first time in a NATO declaration, underlying that “China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.” Two years later, NATO has not clarified yet its strategy toward China, and its “pivot” to China remains ill-defined. As NATO leaders meet on June 14 in Brussels, will they begin to formulate a NATO China policy?

A Full Spectrum Challenge

Even though China does not pose a direct military threat to NATO, contrary to Russia or terrorist groups, Beijing’s growing economic influence and diplomatic assertiveness in Europe coupled with its growing military relationship with Russia do have major implications for the transatlantic economy as well as its security.

Chinese investments in critical infrastructure across Europe, from telecommunications networks to port facilities, could weaken NATO’s ability to respond to international crises diplomatically and, if necessary, militarily. China’s majority ownership positions in about 10 percent of all European port capacity and its investments in civilian roads and rails in Eastern Europe potentially complicate NATO’s military mobility and readiness in a crisis situation. Similarly, if some allies include Huawei equipment in their 5G networks, questions about the integrity of their telecommunications would be raised given the close ties of the company with the Chinese Communist Party. Sensitive defense supply chains of allies can also be overly dependent on China, as recently witnessed with the F-35 fighter jets.

China’s military reach is also getting closer to the Euro-Atlantic region. The Russian and Chinese navies have conducted joint military exercises in the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas, signaling a burgeoning military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow. Collaboration between China and Russia grows stronger in the Arctic, where both countries invest in natural gas projects as well as in transport corridors as part of an effort known as the “Polar Silk Road” or the “Northern Sea Route.” Beyond the Euro-Atlantic area, China is developing modern military capabilities (long-range missiles, aircraft carriers, and nuclear attack submarines) with potentially serious security implications for NATO given their global reach. Likewise, China is investing in counterspace weapons that could potentially threaten any NATO satellite. Allies are also regularly the targets of cyberattacks originating from China-based hackers.

Allies have faced an increasingly assertive Chinese foreign policy as well. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Beijing has notably intensified its disinformation efforts directly targeting NATO countries. Beijing has also tried to leverage its close economic ties with some NATO countries through the Belt and Road Initiative to erode allies’ cohesion and unity in an effort to impede criticism of Beijing’s human rights violations and its violations of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. China actively exploits bilateral ties to impede unified positions within the European Union, making it a very easy step to diminish joint positions at NATO on issues contrary to Chinese interests. This dimension of the China challenge underscores the importance of NATO’s political cohesion toward Beijing.

NATO’s Early Steps

It was not until April 2019 that China appeared on NATO’s agenda, mostly in response to increasing pressure from the Trump administration. At a foreign ministers meeting in Washington, U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo notably urged NATO allies to adapt to “Chinese strategic competition,” in particular in the field of technology and 5G. NATO foreign ministers ultimately agreed to initiate a collective assessment of the security implications of China’s rise for the transatlantic alliance. A month later in Rovaniemi, Finland, Secretary Pompeo gave a hard-hitting speech about Chinese activities in the Arctic, pressing again the security risks to Europe posed by both China and Russia. At the end of 2019, allies adopted an interim classified report ahead of the London summit and have continued this internal work since.

The multifaceted security challenges posed by China have also been factored in the process leading up to an updated strategic concept, known as NATO 2030. Senior experts appointed by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to think through future challenges to the alliance noted that “NATO must devote much more time, political resources and action to the security challenges posed by China.” NATO 2030 will be a central component of the June 14 summit and a proposed updated concept will offer an opportunity for allies to agree on the broad lines of a China policy for NATO.

Although there is growing convergence between the United States and Europe on how to deal with China, one major stumbling block is the ability of NATO to define a strategy toward China due to lack of political cohesion on this issue. Even though the European Union has begun to frame China in increasingly geopolitical terms, defining Beijing as a “systemic rival” in 2019, Europeans were uncomfortable with the overly divisive approach of the previous U.S. administration. The situation might change as the Biden administration is advocating for a more balanced posture toward China, one that combines competition and collaboration. On the other hand, confronted by increasing Chinese diplomatic aggressiveness and Chinese sanctions against EU citizens, Europeans have been forced to adopt a tougher stance toward Beijing in response to its destabilizing actions and violations of human rights.

Avoiding the Pitfalls

If allies have started to lay the groundwork for a NATO strategy toward China, they still have a long way to go and will notably need to avoid falling into three traps:

First, China is not Russia or, even less, the Soviet Union. Admittedly, China is a full-spectrum challenge for the alliance but it does not pose a classical military threat to NATO, unlike Russia. Even though Beijing is pursuing destabilizing military activities in the Indo-Pacific, it should be clear that “NATO is, and will, remain, a regional alliance for Europe and North America” as recently underlined by Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. “There is no way that NATO will move into the South China Sea” he also explained. Similarly, China’s rise should not be seen in a purely binary way. As Europeans often say, Beijing is altogether a systemic rival, a competitor, and a partner. NATO should embrace this multifaceted reality and think about the opportunities of engagement with Beijing on shared challenges such as the fight against piracy or arms control.

Second, NATO should not put the cart before the horse. China may not be an immediate threat requiring urgent decisions, but it does pose a long-term, strategic challenge for the decades ahead. To better understand this challenge, NATO would be well served by first carefully determining how and where Beijing affects its members’ core interests before crafting its strategy. NATO would also be well served by consulting with its partners in the Indo-Pacific, such as with Japan and Australia, who are confronting challenges posed by Beijing in a variety of ways. Even though NATO allies have started this preparatory work, much remains to be done in that regard. The same can be said for any potential future dialogue between NATO and China. Before engaging with Beijing, allies must have a consolidated position or otherwise face the risk of appearing divided.

Third, cooperation is better than duplication. To effectively address the challenges raised by China, NATO must increase its cooperation with the European Union, which is better equipped to act in the technological and economic realm. Given NATO’s limited resources, duplicating the tools the European Union has already put in place would be the worst option. Allies should instead seek to harness the European Union’s legal and financial instruments.

The Way Ahead

With these precautionary principles in mind, NATO’s strategy toward China could focus on the following lines of action:

  • Strengthening NATO’s situational awareness of Chinese activities that may impact transatlantic security. Allies need to enhance their collective understanding of China’s actions that could affect NATO’s collective defense and resilience. This requires increasing intelligence sharing between allies, building up NATO’s internal expertise, and better monitoring Chinese military activities in the area of responsibility of the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR).

  • Deepening political coordination between allies and with NATO’s partners. As noted above, NATO should serve as a political platform for discussion among allies on China’s actions and allies’ reactions to them. This would be part of a broader effort to restore NATO as an essential transatlantic political forum. Similarly, allies should engage more with NATO’s four Asia-Pacific partners, namely Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. More regular discussions in the “NATO+4” format would foster a shared awareness of China’s capacities and activities.

  • Expanding NATO-EU cooperation to help allies build up their resilience in response to China’s growing influence. NATO should step up its cooperation with the European Union when it comes to screening and assessing Chinese investments in allied critical infrastructures, securing 5G telecommunications networks, countering Chinese disinformation campaigns, and spurring joint innovation to maintain NATO’s technological edge in the race against China.

In his remarks at the Munich Security Conference, President Biden set a clear priority for U.S. allies, saying, “We must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China.” If NATO is to play a meaningful role in this collective endeavor, allies must have a better understanding of the security implications of China’s rise, increase political coordination between allies and with NATO’s partners, and enhance cooperation with the European Union.

Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Pierre Morcos