NATO’s Shifting Focus Towards A Rising China

On 14 June, NATO leaders expressed new concern towards China’s rising military ambitions and assertive “systemic challenges” to collective security. This marks the first time the organization has taken a forceful and potentially confrontational stance towards Beijing. The Brussels one-day summit meeting was attended by all 30 leaders from NATO, including United States President Joe Biden. China’s report, discussed in the communique at the summit’s conclusion, addressed concern over their increasing military might and offensive cyber capabilities in the near future.

At the conclusion of the Group of Seven (G7) meeting in the United Kingdom on 12 June, President Biden and his counterparts agreed to jointly counter China’s increasing economic dominance and reach. The statement also addressed human rights in China’s Xinjiang region, higher autonomy for Hong Kong, and encouraged full investigations of coronavirus origins in the country. The statement resulted in swift opposition from Beijing, claiming slander of its reputation and continuation of a Cold War mentality. Soon after at the Brussels summit, NATO members warned of China posing a global security concern.

In a stark contrast to former President Donald Trump’s open disparagement of the alliance, President Biden has emphasized that the mutual defense pact was a “sacred obligation” for the U.S. He also urged NATO leaders to take a united stand against China’s growing military power. As highlighted in The New York Times, Biden’s call to action has signaled a critical pivot in the future alliance policy of an institution dedicated to the protection of Europe and North America, not Asia.

The first China reference was a minor one in a NATO statement, rather than a communique, at the London summit in 2019, recognizing their growing influence. However, concerns in the international community have rapidly increased since. Both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have emphasized the threats they believe China poses. They are an authoritarian government with increasing military ambitions, and military cooperation with Russia. Following the Brussels summit, President Biden’s assertion that democracies are at existential odds with autocracies have become clear with China at the center. “[T]he democratic values that undergird our alliance are under increasing pressure, both internally and externally,” he told reporters following the summit meeting. “[R]ussia and China are both seeking to drive a wedge in our trans-Atlantic solidarity.”

President Biden also discussed NATO’s ability to unite. “[T]hat’s how we’ve met every other threat in the past.  It’s our greatest strength as we meet our challenges of the future — and there are many… I just want all of Europe to know that the United States is there.” Since he appears to spearhead a pivot in future policy, how will this change the future of NATO’s role? Why is an alliance originally devoted to the protections of North America and Europe now shifting its focus towards China, causing a degree of weariness among some of its leaders? In order to understand the complexity of NATO’s shift in focus, we must understand the organization’s history with its purpose and reasoning for differences in perspective for some of its members states.

The end of the Second World War would lead directly into the iron curtain of the Cold War. At the time, there was a need among western powers to secure peace in Europe, promote cooperation, and counter threats posed by the Soviet Union. In April 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed by 12 western bodies as a collective military alliance. It was intended to stop Soviet aggression and prevent a repeat of nationalist militarism in Europe. More nations would continue to join NATO, starting with Greece and Turkey in 1952, and most recently North Macedonia in 2020, increasing the member count to 30.

Most notable, is the organization’s Article 5 for collective defense, meaning that an attack on one ally is considered an attack against all. The collective power of the 12 member states that promised to defend one another served as a deterrent to Soviet expansionism and ensured smaller nations would be more secure under the protection of more powerful members. It would not be until the 9/11 terrorist attacks that the article would be invoked for the first time. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO continued as a unique forum, promoting dialogue and cooperation with members and outside partners.

It is important to note that Russia was repeatedly described as a “threat” at the NATO summit’s communique, a consensus by all members. This referred to their hacking and disinformation campaigns on western powers and 2014 annexation of Crimea, among other acts of aggression. In sharp contrast, characterization of China is cautious, being described as presenting “systemic challenges.” While President Biden was successful in pushing his NATO counterparts to take a more aggressive posture towards China, the organization’s strategy remains ill-defined from a lack of full political cohesion.

NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that China now has the second largest military budget after the U.S., the world’s largest navy, and is strengthening its nuclear weaponry. “[C]hina is not our adversary, but the balance of power is shifting,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. He also observed how they are “coming closer to us. We see them in cyberspace, we see China in Africa, but we also see China investing heavily in our own critical infrastructure,” indicating the “need to respond together as an alliance.”

China has deployed naval vessels into the Mediterranean and Arctic, conducting military drills with Russia in NATO’s sphere; it is building bases in Africa, and now owns significant European infrastructure. Its army has engaged in hacking and economic espionage internationally, especially in NATO societies. Further, Chinese efforts to install 5G networks across Africa, Europe, and the Middle Easy via their technology giant, Huawei, has led to concerns that it could control NATO’s communications infrastructure. As a sign of potential diplomacy and activity, the alliance has committed to maintain “a constructive dialogue with China where possible.”

While NATO will play a major role in future engagements with China, the European Union (EU) has extensive trading ties with them. Even though they have taken stronger stances against China, Europeans may not view their threat in the same way as Washington. This is due partly to the EU’s strong economic reliance. Despite the NATO summit’s communique regarding China, the same disparity is also true within the alliance. Several members, particularly those closest to Russia in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic nations, are highly concerned that a pivot to China may result in diverting attention from Russia’s threats.

Even America’s closest ally, the U.K., has expressed wariness towards confrontation with China. While acknowledging their rise has become a major fact on the international stage, Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated, “[W]hen it comes to China, I don’t think anybody around the table wants to descend into a new Cold War with China.” Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel said similarly after the summit that “[I]f you look at the cyberthreats and the hybrid threats, if you look at the cooperation between Russia and China, you cannot simply ignore China.” She also added, “[O]ne must not overrate it, either… We need to find the right balance.”

With China’s rise, it is imperative that the international community adapts and engages them. How NATO pursues its China strategy must be no less different in order to check China’s rise, while avoiding armed conflict. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), NATO could, or may already be pursuing two potential pathways.

First, NATO could bolster political coordination between allies and partners. They should serve as a political platform for discussion on China’s actions and allies’ responses to them. Through this effort, NATO can restore itself as an essential transatlantic political platform. Furthermore, its four main Asia-Pacific partners, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, should be regularly engaged to enhance mutual awareness of China’s military capabilities and activities (CSIS). Secondly, there should be an expansion in NATO-EU cooperation to assist members adapt to China’s expanding reach. More specifically, this would pertain to assessing Chinese investments in EU member states’ infrastructure, 5G networks, and encourage joint innovation to maintain the alliance’s edge on China technologically.

If NATO will take a key role in a collective effort towards the rise of China, they must increase cooperation among allies and partners. They must also expand knowledge of the security complexes that come with China’s growth in power. At the 2021 Munich Security Conference, President Biden stated, “[W]e must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China.”





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