Heinrich BraussSenior Associate Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and former NATO assistant secretary general for defense policy and planning
At their recent meeting in Brussels, NATO leaders agreed an ambitious transatlantic agenda for the future: NATO 2030. The alliance is determined to address global developments relevant to its security by strengthening and broadening political consultations; further enhancing resilience; fostering technological innovation; tackling the implications of climate change as a threat multiplier; and increasing cooperation with partners, including in the Asia-Pacific.
The vigorous implementation of these commitments will help NATO to deal with the strategic implications of China’s rise to world power status.
For the first time, NATO acknowledges that China’s ambitions, strategy, and behaviour present systemic challenges to alliance security. It is determined to “engage China with a view to defending the security interest of the Alliance.”
At the same time, Russia’s aggressive actions continue to constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security. Its growing cooperation with China carries the risk of concurrent strategic challenges in the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions.
The United States considers China its primary strategic competitor and is shifting its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific. NATO must therefore ensure Euro-Atlantic stability. Credible deterrence and defense against Russia remain its priority task. The new Strategic Concept must address all these challenges, ensure a shared strategic vision, and strengthen alliance cohesion.
Kate Hansen BundtSecretary General of the Norwegian Atlantic Committee
NATO’s joint statement on China as a systemic challenge to the rules-based international order and the summit’s approval of the NATO 2030 reform package were necessary steps in NATO getting ready for China. But this was far from saying that China is a challenge that will trigger conventional military use or out-of-area operations for NATO.
NATO needs to confront China in areas where it poses a challenge to the alliance.
Facing cyber, technological, and other asymmetric threats, such as disinformation campaigns and attempts to influence political decisionmaking processes, calls for action. And clearly, out-of-area does not apply to these threats.
China is becoming a global power in terms of high technology. Chinese companies are already center stage when it comes to surveillance technology. And in the race to control and influence the global digital infrastructure, China is playing an increasingly bigger role in the development of technological standards.
It is also expanding its nuclear programs. Together this is challenging alliance security and democratic values. In addition, China has been growing as a global economic superpower through its direct investments in European infrastructure, which also calls for allied awareness.
If NATO members are to protect their common values, it is vital that they stand up against authoritarian forces that want to undermine the allies. Following the summit this week, NATO member states have jointly agreed that this is a battle they want to take on together.
Raluca Csernatonivisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
The rise of China and the evolving Sino-U.S. great power rivalry are the defining geopolitical features of our time. They will unquestionably have a defining impact on NATO’s 2030 agenda and its new Strategic Concept.
China’s rise as a high-tech great power and systemic challenger should be seen as an opportunity to remember NATO’s very purpose as a high-level political and military organization.
But NATO requires the United States and the EU to come together and improve joint strategic awareness, encourage a coherent Euro-Atlantic approach for the Indo-Pacific, and recommit to the defense of common democratic values and a rules-based international order.
A first step in the right direction was NATO leaders taking a tougher line on China at the Brussels summit. Details about a specific NATO China policy in the communiqué were sparse. But an emphasis on China shows that the alliance’s traditional and still almost exclusive Russia focus is slightly shifting.
China’s military reach is getting closer to the Euro-Atlantic area. It will likely challenge the alliance’s ability to build collective resilience, safeguard critical infrastructure, address emerging and disruptive technologies, and protect sensitive supply chains.
Such wide-ranging challenges are complex. They will require a comprehensive EU-U.S. NATO approach and a shared vision as well as a constructive dialogue with China where possible. The alliance will also need to overcome substantial and potentially show-stopping intra-alliance political and military organizational hurdles.
Closer cooperation with the EU, given its regulatory, economic, and technological innovation instruments, would also enable NATO to respond to the multifaceted risks and threats of this new era.
Marta DassùSenior Director of European Affairs at The Aspen Institute
If “ready” means that NATO is able and willing to consider China as a potential security challenge, NATO is ready. China will figure prominently in the new Strategic Concept, to be approved in 2022.
For the first time in a NATO communiqué, China’s military buildup is considered to be a systemic challenge to alliance security. And NATO’s new global agenda entails commitments in critical fields, amplified by or related to China’s rise: from value chains’ vulnerabilities in strategic sectors to the need to preserve a technology edge in defense; from countering cyber attacks—mostly from Russia but also from China—to reinforcing resilience of democratic societies.
If, however, “ready” means that NATO will engage military in the Asia-Pacific region, this is not the case: NATO is not turning into a Sino-centric alliance. And Washington is not asking NATO to support the United States militarily in Asia. Joe Biden is suggesting, instead, a new transatlantic bargain: NATO, with renewed American commitment, will focus mainly on Europe and collective defense—and here Russia remains the main military threat for the alliance. At the same time, European allies will support Washington in containing China, first of all in diplomatic and economic terms.
Is Europe ready to sustain its part of the bargain? This is the key question, to which Europeans still reply with some ambiguity.
Julian Lindley-FrenchChair of The Alphen Group and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Statecraft
Is NATO ready for China? No. NATO is just discovering China. Should NATO get ready for China? Absolutely. To suggest that China has nothing to do with NATO is, to coin a phrase, brain-dead. China’s rise as a military power of geopolitical importance is stretching U.S. forces thin the world over. Any factor that weakens the Americans weakens NATO and the European security guarantee afforded Europeans by the Americans.
The real issue is: what exactly can NATO do about China? The answer is both simple and complicated.
Simple in that Europeans must now do far more for their own defense by helping ease the consequences of U.S. military overstretch both China and Russia together are seeking to inflict on the Americans. My new book Future War and the Defence of Europe calls for a new high-end European future force that could act as a first responder during a European emergency, easing the pressure on the Americans to be strong everywhere, all of the time. Such a force would not only deter Russia in Europe but also China in the Indo-Pacific.
Complicated in that any such force would require Britain, France, and Germany to like each other. They do not.
Bruno MaçãesSenior research associate at the Wilfried Martens Centre
French President Emmanuel Macron remarked this week that “NATO is an organization that concerns the North Atlantic, China has little to do with the North Atlantic.”
That is not how I would look at the question.
NATO is an organization that concerns the balance of power in Eurasia. For at least a hundred years Europeans and Americans have shared the aspiration that the supercontinent not be dominated by a single power. In the Cold War period the threat to the balance of power in Eurasia came from the Soviet Union. Today it comes primarily from China.
Now, Chinese hegemony in Eurasia can develop either through a direct exercise of Chinese power in Europe, in which case the North Atlantic is directly implicated, or—more likely—through the coalescence of a Sino-Russian entente. In the latter case, it would be only a matter of time before Europe came to be under direct threat.
Even the Indo-Pacific is ultimately a concept relevant to Eurasian power. It is in the direct interest of both Europe and the United States to keep the economic routes linking Asia and Europe free of the domination by a single power. The Indo-Pacific ends in Suez.
In brief, President Macron is wrong: China has a lot to do with the North Atlantic.
Claudia MajorDirector of the international security division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
NATO is just waking up to China. Rightly so, because China seems ready for NATO. But the role of the alliance is limited.
First, NATO action requires unity. There is agreement among the thirty allies that China matters as a systemic challenge. Yet, there is less consensus on what an answer entails in terms of action, instruments, and geographic reach.
The United States wants a more forward-leaning approach. But many Europeans are reluctant to risk their close economic ties with China by criticizing Beijing too harshly. In the first quarter of 2021 alone, 41% of all cars sold by Daimler, Volkswagen, and BMW went to China. Many Europeans believe that cooperation with China is necessary in some areas, like climate change. Finally, some Europeans fear that too much a focus on China risks diverting NATO from Europe’s real problem: Russia.
Second, NATO can only cover a tiny fraction of the China challenge. Beijing is arming quickly and teaming up with Russia. But the current threat to Europe is not (yet) a military one: it is about undermining European unity, resolve, and way of life by non-military means, from disinformation to economic coercion.
Here, NATO has few tools. The United States and the EU have far more, for example with investment screening, regulation of technologies, and protecting critical infrastructures. Improving EU-NATO cooperation is hence crucial.
Andrew A. MichtaDean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies
NATO is not ready to confront the imminent threat that China poses both to the West and to the structure of the international system that has favored the West for several centuries.
The problem is a political one. The United States and its European allies see China’s challenge differently. For several years now, Washington has viewed China as both military and economic problem sets. For Europe the allure of the Asian market exerts a powerful pull. Europeans recognize that China represents a strategic challenge, but are nonetheless determined to remain engaged in trade and investment with the People’s Republic of China.
Furthermore, while the United States increasingly recognizes that China also presents an ideological challenge with its model of a “free market for unfree people,” Europe appears not to have fully recognized this dimension of great power competition.
Perhaps most worrying of all is the lack of grand strategic thinking in both the United States and Europe when it comes to the nature of the threat China poses: its determination to reverse the relationship of the maritime to land domains, which for half a millennium has favored naval powers.
If China manages to build and defend a land-based supply chain network through its Belt and Road Initiative while checking U.S. naval power in the Western Pacific, it will have transformed Europe from the transatlantic community’s gateway to Eurasia into the tail-end of a Chinese-dominated supply chain network, inverting the global system in the process.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Kristi RaikDirector of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
No, NATO is not yet ready for China, but it just made a step in that direction.
In today’s interconnected world, challenges to the alliance’s security are global and NATO cannot avoid addressing the most serious long-term threat to Western democracies and the rules-based international order, which is China.
The growing assertiveness of China is connected to and exacerbates the more immediate—and existential for some NATO members—threat of Russia. While it has been commonplace in U.S. rhetoric to group the two authoritarian great powers together, Europeans have been more reluctant to do so.
Yet there is a strong and growing interconnectedness between the two powers and the security challenges that they pose, for example, through their increasing military cooperation, malicious activities in the cyber domain, and use of disinformation.
At the same time, there is an obvious difference: only Russia poses a territorial threat to the alliance. The Eastern flank countries have been worried that NATO’s shift of focus to China would happen at the cost of defense and deterrence with regard to Russia.
This is indeed a tricky question for the alliance: how to ensure credible deterrence against Russia, while developing ways to constrain China’s growing influence, especially in the Euro-Atlantic region?
Sten RynningProfessor in the Department of Political Science and Public Management at the University of Southern Denmark
NATO’s appetite better grow with the eating because no one, not the United States nor NATO, is ready to compete with China.
NATO’s June 2021 summit communiqué boldly declares China a “systemic challenge” capable of “coercive policies” in opposition to NATO’s “fundamental values.” It invites a constructive dialogue, but only where possible.
China is mentioned in only three paragraphs, but as a “systemic” challenge it permeates NATO’s overview of areas where the alliance must shape up to remain competitive: from societal resilience over cyber and space policy to the alliance’s technological edge.
The good news is that NATO is offering itself a political compass. In fact, it emerges from its summit as a politically astute and determined alliance.
But the policy that must now follow will impinge on investment, innovation, and trade issues that are foreign to NATO, familiar to the EU, contested by nationalists, and ingeniously managed by China. NATO must think carefully about how to enter this fray. At stake is nothing less than NATO’s most prized asset, its reputation for capability and credibility.
NATO is set to grow, but it should eat with care.
Stanley Sloanvisiting scholar in political science at Middleburg College and author of Defense of the West: Transatlantic Security from Truman to Trump
NATO is not ready to describe China as a “threat.” In the Brussels communiqué the strongest description of what China means to the NATO members is a “challenge.” The closest the allies came to introducing the concept of China as a threat came when, following a sentence proclaiming the alliance would defend the members’ interests in its engagement with China, the allies declared that they are “increasingly confronted by cyber, hybrid, and other asymmetric threats.”
The Biden administration most likely wanted more, but presumably was not surprised that many of the European allies resisted any attempt to pin the “threat” label on China.
The alliance’s China policy is clearly in its early stages, but the allies seem to be moving toward an approach that could be seen as paralleling the Cold War Harmel Formula for relations with the Soviet Union. That formula combining “defense and détente,” translated in the post-Cold War world to various forms of “deterrence, defense, and dialogue,” is a very logical direction for the allies to take in their attempt to shape a balanced policy toward China. The communiqué includes several invitations to dialogue and cooperation to balance the “challenges” posed by Beijing to NATO interests.
Anna WieslanderDirector for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council
Although NATO has started to recognize China as a strategic challenge, it is far from ready to deal with the implications of it. Two years ago, ahead of the NATO leaders’ meeting in December 2019, the United States initiated a discussion on China among allies, increasingly concerned about its rising power.
Since then, the discussion has moved forward, but there is still no coherent NATO strategy on China. China is a “risk” and a “challenge,” but not a “threat” nor an “adversary,” and NATO underlines that the relationship with China entails opportunities as well. To a large extent, the present stance reflects that of several European allies who are reluctant to enter a confrontational path and who do not share the US sense of urgency when it comes to Chinese assertiveness.
Will the updated Strategic Concept cut the Gordian knot? Hopes are high, but so are the hurdles. Success depends on NATO’s ability to calibrate national security interests and reduce transaction costs when it comes to dealing with China, and geopolitics makes this harder than on Russia.
For European allies, the realization must come that regardless of a shared threat perception, American engagement in European security will change due to China, and Europe will have to adapt accordingly.