September 01, 2021

NATO’s China Conundrum

The Atlantic Alliance is setting its sights on China, but a common policy shared by all NATO members will likely remain elusive. What’s more, Beijing will do its utmost to prevent it.

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DOCUMENT DATE: 28 December, 2019 Chinese Navy members wave while approaching Iran's southeastern port city of Chahbahar, during joint naval drills held by Iran, China and Russia in the Gulf of Oman, Iran, December 27, 2019. Picture taken December 27, 2019. WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS
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In a show of transatlantic unity, NATO leaders have for the first time declared that China’s ambitions and behavior present “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order” and to the security of the alliance. This year’s summit communique, released on June 14, expressed concerns about China’s military modernization, its threats to the Alliance’s values, and Sino-Russian military cooperation, among other issues. Coming just a day after the G7 summit, the difference in tone was stark, with NATO taking a much stronger stance on China.

NATO’s concerns about China’s growing power projection capabilities and geopolitical reach is not entirely new. This year’s communique builds on the 2019 leaders’ summit and on the work of the NATO 2030 Reflection Group led by former German defense minister, Thomas de Maizière, and US diplomat A. Wess Mitchell, appointed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

The inclusion of China does not constitute a move away from NATO’s traditional focus on Russia, as demonstrated by the fact that Russia still took up much more space in this year’s communique (it was mentioned 63 times, while China was name-checked only 10 times). But the communique is proof of a new consensus among allies that they can no longer afford to ignore China’s global ambitions and activities.

As Secretary General Stoltenberg pointed out in the past, “this is not about moving NATO into the Pacific, but about responding to the fact that China is coming closer to us.” China’s growing assertiveness and international influence is felt most keenly in its own region, especially in the South China Sea and Taiwan. But Beijing’s global expansion is also turning China into an increasingly visible security actor in Europe and its neighborhood, giving rise to a number of threats and challenges to Europe and the Alliance much closer to home.

China’s Global Ambitions

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has adopted a substantially more assertive foreign policy and geopolitical approach. Foreign policy begins at home, and China is no different in this regard. The change in approach reflects both the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) confidence and ambitions, as well as its fears and insecurities.

At its core, China’s global push forms part of the struggle for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” a concept introduced by Xi in 2012, whose goal is to restore China to its former status as a global power by 2049, when the country will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. Militarily, this demands that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) becomes a world-class military that can “fight and win” wars by that time. And geopolitically, Beijing has set its sights on leading the reform of the current global order along the lines of its preferred approaches to global governance, human rights, and economic competition, among other issues.

Ultimately, China would like to be in a position to shape the 21st century like the West did in the 20th century. To do so, Beijing must simultaneously increase its global influence and reduce—and eventually replace—the footprint and power of the European Union and the Unite States.

The timing of this policy and strategy shift is a reflection of the party’s belief that China is in a “period of strategic opportunity” to take a more central role in the international arena. After two decades of economic growth and military modernization, Beijing feels sufficiently confident in its own strengths and capabilities. Furthermore, it regards the international environment as unlikely to pose any significant challenges to China’s ambitions, with the West (and the US in particular) in decline and distracted by their own internal issues. The party leadership, sees “time and momentum” as being in China’s favor, as the “East rises and the West is in decline.”

At the same time, however, China’s new international posture must also be understood as a reflection of the CCP’s threat perceptions. The CCP’s worldview is marked by a feeling of being under siege, surrounded by Western countries and their allies who are intent on containing China and subverting the CCP’s hold on power. In today’s increasingly globalized world, and given the growing international backlash against China’s ambitions, a defensive stance is no longer deemed enough to preserve regime stability and survival. China must instead go on the offensive and use its economic, political, and military power to expand its sphere of influence and preempt any external challenges to the party’s rule or the country’s stability.

Given China’s ambitions and its perception of this window of opportunity, it should come as no surprise that Beijing is dedicating growing resources to going global and competing with the US, Europe, and their allies. As Xi himself put it in 2018: “China is in the best development period since modern times, while the world is undergoing the most profound and unprecedented changes in a century, and these two aspects are intertwined and interact.”

Impact on Europe and NATO

Although China poses no direct military threat to the Alliance today, Beijing’s push to go global and “move closer to the global center stage” has clear implications for NATO and for Europe. First and foremost is the fact that China’s assertiveness and its ambition to lead the reform of the global governance system and spread its approach to international law poses a direct challenge to liberal democracies and to the rules-based international order that is key to the Alliance’s security. This concern is behind the United States’ and some European member states’ decisions to increase their presence in the Indo-Pacific and deploy naval vessels to the South China Sea, for example.

Closer to home, China’s process of military modernization, supported by its national strategy of civil-military fusion, is providing the PLA with increasingly advanced capabilities that will allow it to project power increasingly further away from China’s shores and closer to the NATO area of operations. Today, China not only has the world’s largest navy, but it is also rapidly expanding its missile stockpiles, unconstrained by international agreements. The recent revelations that two new missile silo fields are being built in the country’s northwest are evidence of this fact. Some of China’s new missiles will be able to reach NATO allies, including in Europe. And coupled with the ongoing erosion of the existing arms control architecture, this can undermine the security of the Alliance and may even lead to a new arms race.

But China is not only focused on its conventional military capabilities. Beijing is also investing heavily in developing and deploying advanced technologies with military applications, as a way to leapfrog the United States’ and NATO’s currently superior military capabilities. China uses various licit and illicit methods both to promote domestic innovation and to access foreign technology and know-how in order to support its military modernization and innovation goals. And the impact of these efforts is already being felt in Europe. First, these new technologies, such as AI, cyber infrastructure and software or autonomous systems, among others, will enable China to use new forms of attacks in the cyber, space, or hybrid domains, all of which are key to NATO’s security. A recent example of this includes the alleged Chinese involvement in the cyber-attacks against Microsoft servers worldwide in 2021, which were attributed to China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS)-affiliated hackers. In connection with these allegations, the US Department of Justice also charged four other MSS hackers for targeting foreign governments and companies around the world in search of intellectual property and confidential information.

And second, using methods that range from cyber espionage and research collaborations to investments in European companies and imports of technology, China has obtained access to a wide range of technologies that have allowed it to either catch up with or surpass European military capabilities in a number of fields. For the Alliance, these developments have commercial and economic implications, but also military ones, as they could weaken NATO’s defense industrial and technological edge and undermine the future fighting capabilities of the Alliance.

Another area of concern is the PLA’s growing presence in the wider European neighborhood,

signaling that the Chinese navy is working to become a blue-water force that is able to operate in NATO’s backyard as easily as it can closer to China’s shores. With the opening of its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, the PLA already maintains a permanent military presence close to Europe. And military cooperation between China and Russia is raising concerns that Beijing may contribute to amplifying the threat that Russia poses to Europe. Joint Sino-Russian exercises in the Mediterranean and the Baltic Seas, in 2015 and 2017 respectively, were a clear signal of the potential for further collaboration in this space. Sino-Russian alignment and coordination may also extend to other issues of relevance to the Alliance, from hybrid warfare and disinformation to arms control issues or their presence in the Arctic.

China is also working to expand its geopolitical influence in Europe and its neighborhood, from the Middle East and North Africa to the Balkans and Black Sea region. Using investments and lending—often channeled through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects—and pushing a narrative of responsible “no-strings-attached” involvement as an alternative to the EU’s or the US’ hidden agenda, Beijing is becoming an increasingly relevant actor on NATO’s Southern and Eastern flanks. China’s growing influence, especially when considered alongside Russia’s involvement in the region, can lead to instability that will affect the collective security of the Alliance.  Chinese companies’ investments in and acquisitions of critical infrastructure across Europe will also challenge NATO’s ability to ensure secure communications and interoperability among allies, damaging the Alliance’s resilience.

And finally, Beijing sees NATO as a US-dominated outfit that Washington may use to maintain its global dominance and to contain China’s rise and prevent its return to its rightful place as a global power. Therefore, China often tries to influence allies’ positions through disinformation, diplomatic pressure, and economic coercion in order to weaken transatlantic unity. This trend is most clearly seen in Europe, in particular in NATO member states in Central and Eastern Europe, where China already has a relatively high degree of influence thanks to its economic footprint and established political ties.

What Next for NATO

After a year of reflection in 2020, NATO will now focus on developing a new Strategic Concept—the first in over a decade—to be endorsed at the 2022 leaders’ summit, which will be held in Madrid. In spite of the sense of renewed transatlantic cooperation since US President Joe Biden took office, the next few months are likely to test NATO’s unity, as members work to formulate the future security tasks of the Alliance. Reaching a true working consensus on the nature of the challenges posed by China and how to go about them is likely to be a slow and painful process.

The inclusion of China in the 2021 NATO summit communique reflects a newfound consensus about the challenges that China’s ambitions and global expansion pose, not just for the rules-based international order, but also for the Alliance more directly. This consensus among NATO allies is, however, less solid than it may first seem. The US, Europe, and other allies may have managed to find a common language to discuss their shared view of China as a systemic challenge, but agreement on further steps will be hard to come by. Allies are united in their concern over China’s international behavior and ambitions, but they disagree over what exactly should be done about it, and even about whether it should be NATO’s role to do so. This is the case across the Atlantic, but also within Europe. Not all European NATO members see China as a pressing security threat. And even among those that do, some are reluctant to discuss this issue within the NATO framework and to appear as if they are taking sides with the US, potentially jeopardizing economic and commercial ties with Beijing.

In a clear example of this, French President Emmanuel Macron told the press just minutes after the joint communique was released that “NATO is a military organization, the issue of our relationship with China isn’t just a military issue. NATO is an organization that concerns the North Atlantic, China has little to do with the North Atlantic.” He also called for allies to avoid distracting NATO from some of its more pressing challenges and for the Alliance not to “bias” our relationship with China.

Another point of friction is the Alliance’s relative focus on Russia versus China. In some European countries, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia is still seen as the primary security threat. Recent decisions by the Biden administration not to impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 and to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin right after the NATO summit will have made many in the region nervous that Washington may abandon its strategic focus on Russia for a new prioritization of the Indo-Pacific and China. German Chancellor Angela Merkel brought up this issue after the summit, noting that “Russia, above all, is the major challenge” for NATO. While recognizing the challenges that China poses, she also warned against the risk of overreaction.

And in the meantime, Beijing will do everything in its power to prevent a more solid transatlantic consensus from forming. China’s preferred way forward would be for Europe to continue cooperating with China, acting as a counterbalance to the United States. As Xi Jinping mentioned in a call with Chancellor Merkel on April 7, China hopes that “the EU will make the correct judgment independently and truly achieve strategic autonomy.”

Helena Legarda is Senior Analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) where she focusses on China’s defense, security, and foreign policy.

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