February 10, 2022

NATO and China: Time to Talk

Despite the existing differences, increased dialogue between NATO and China would help find areas where there is common ground.

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Flags wave ahead of a NATO Defence Ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 21, 2021.
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In December last year, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in her farewell speech that one should always try to see the world through the eyes of the other. This would also and particularly apply to Germany's foreign relations.

Merkel’s recommendation to her successor, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and his cabinet was certainly wise. But how can it be implemented in the harsh international reality, one that is increasingly marked by strategic rivalry and aggression? The current hectic shuttle diplomacy between Moscow and Western capitals shows only a glimpse of how challenging diplomatic negotiations on controversial issues can be.

Track-2 Dialogue

Informal discussions in a confidential setting can meaningfully support official diplomacy in resolving conflicts or difficult political issues. So-called Track-2 dialogues bring to the table former diplomats and military representatives, who are no longer bound by political instructions.  Academic experts often participate in such discussions, too.

A successful Track-2 process should fulfil various functions: It should help to create an  atmosphere of trust, allowing for open discussions between the parties involved and reflecting on the motivations, political intentions, and interests of the respective parties;  it should enable all sides to learn to handle criticism constructively and, finally, if possible, it should offer some concrete policy recommendations or at least identify some further steps in the rapprochement of the parties or in the resolution of the conflict.

A report by two think tanks on the future relationship of the Western defense alliance with China is the result of this kind an informal dialogue. The California- and Paris-based Center for Strategic Decision Research (CSDR) and the official think tank of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the China Institute for International Strategic Studies (CIISS), have just published a joint report, titled “NATO-China Relations: Charting the Way Forward. On the NATO side, the two former Deputy Assistant Secretaries General of NATO, Jamie Shea and the author of this article, the former Danish Ambassador to NATO, Michael Zilmer-Johns, and Roger Baylon, the Director of the CSDR, were involved. The Chinese side was led by Major General Gong Xianfu, CIISS Vice President. His delegation included former top diplomats and officers, as well as a number of security experts.

A Wide Range of Issues

Over the course of 15 months, the group discussed a wide range of international security issues, ranging from developments in the Asia-Pacific region to possible scenarios of future US-China relations. However, the confidential talks focused a great deal on NATO's future relationship with China.  How do both sides view and analyze the most important global and regional trends and security challenges? Where are there fundamental differences of interests and in which subject areas are there potential departure points for dialogue and cooperation?  What lessons can NATO and China draw from their previous encounters and initial forms of practical cooperation?

A large part of the discussions was dedicated to both parties sharing their respective perceptions. Not really surprisingly, perceptions about each other’s strategic intentions and political activities differ widely. China still views NATO as a US-dominated “Cold War military machinery” that seeks to contain China's rise as a world power and criticizes Beijing’s actions in an “unfair manner.” NATO allies, by contrast, view China as an authoritarian state that does not share Western liberal values, intimidates its neighbors through military coercion, and poses a number of grave security, economic, and technological risks to the West. Against this background, it is quite remarkable that the CSDR-CIISS group succeeded in discussing their respective perceptions and criticisms openly and recording them in a joint report.

Policy Recommendations

The joint report also contains a number of concrete recommendations for political leaders in NATO capitals, Brussels, and Beijing to consider. The authors hope to provide some valuable political impulses, particularly in light of the ongoing work on NATO's new Strategic Concept, which is to be adopted at the summit in Madrid in June.

In reality, the alliance is still far from developing a common and comprehensive China strategy.  In 2019, at their London summit, the allies agreed for the first time to explicitly mention China as a possible new threat: "We recognise that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance," the summit’s declaration stated. At their Brussels summit last June, they went one step further. The summit declaration describes China's "stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security."  In addition, allies expressed concern about China's "opaque" conventional and nuclear military potential, its partnership with Russia, and its frequent lack of transparency and use of disinformation.

Despite this criticism, however, the NATO allies also underlined their willingness to engage in dialogue: "Based on our interests, we welcome opportunities to engage with China on areas of relevance to the Alliance and on common challenges such as climate change."  

In September 2021, after a virtual meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg repeated the alliance's willingness to enter into a dialogue with China. So far, however, exchanges between the two sides have remained rather sporadic.

This is where the CSDR-CIISS report comes into play. The group recommends five thematic areas in which they see converging views in Brussels and Beijing and, thus, sufficient political space for dialogue: maritime security, climate change, regional security, military transparency, and risk reduction in sensitive areas and counter-terrorism.  For each topic, they provide a number of plausible arguments as to why a NATO-China dialogue could work.

In addition, they propose the development of a Joint Roadmap, which could help to create a concrete framework for future meetings, topics, and expected deliverables.

At the public presentation of the report, the Chinese side went even further and suggested considering opening liaison offices. People-to-people contacts between the two sides would be the best way to get to know each other better and, despite existing differences, to look for common ground.

The ball is now with Brussels and the NATO capitals. Regardless, the CSDR-CIISS group has decided to continue Track-2 talks this year. The need for discussion remains significant.

Stefanie Babst, a former Deputy NATO Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Head of the Secretary General’s Strategic Foresight Team. is a Principal and Global Policy Advisor at Brooch Associates, London, and a member of the DGAP Advisory Board (Präsidium).

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