NATO’s tough line on China: Regional alliance going global?

June 24, 2021 11:39 AM

In a bid to adapt itself and stay relevant with the changing nature of global security challenges, NATO agreed on an ambitious transatlantic agenda for the future called 'NATO 2030'.

NATOPrimarily concerned with maintaining the balance of power in Eurasia, NATO has finally acknowledged the threat posed by China to the alliance's security and global order. (Photo source: AP)

Dr Yatharth Kachiar, 

On June 14, the leaders of the 30-member NATO alliance gathered for an annual summit in Brussels to discuss various security challenges facing the trans-Atlantic alliance, such as Putin’s Russia, cyber warfare, climate change, artificial intelligence, disinformation, energy security, and human security. In a bid to adapt itself and stay relevant with the changing nature of global security challenges, NATO agreed on an ambitious transatlantic agenda for the future called ‘NATO 2030’. However, the key takeaway of the summit was NATO’s tough stance vis-à-vis China. Taking a cue from the G7 meeting where participating countries criticized Beijing over human rights, trade and demanded a transparent enquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, NATO members also adopted an equally strong stance in the Brussels communique. It called out China for its stated ambitions and assertive behaviour that poses “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.” In response, China’s mission to the EU called the NATO statement slandering China’s peaceful development.

Shifting focus

NATO, a regional defensive Euro-Atlantic alliance, forged during the Cold war against the expansive Soviet threat, had mentioned China for the first time in 2019. Compared to the 2019 statement when NATO released a cautious statement about “opportunities and challenges” presented by China, the current warning indicates rapidly declining relations between the West and Beijing. NATO’s tough stance towards China indicates a landmark shift in its policy vis-à-vis Beijing and will have significant implications for global peace and security. At present, China does not pose a direct military threat to NATO countries that would require conventional military use or expansion in the Euro-Atlantic alliance’s area of operation. Nevertheless, there are areas such as economy, cyber, technology, nuclear, space and disinformation where China poses a severe challenge to the alliance. According to NATO’s Secretary-General, “it is not about moving NATO to Asia”. Instead, “it is China that is moving closer to us.”

China challenge

In recent years, China has invested heavily in critical infrastructure such as telecommunications networks, ports facilities, railways and roads across Europe. Such a massive stake in the European economy by China limits NATO’s ability to safeguard the critical infrastructure and secure the vital supply chains. Further, China’s rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal, its investment in counter space weapons, cyberattacks, and its use of disinformation presents a challenge to the alliance’s security and its democratic value system. China has also expanded its military presence in the Atlantic region. Beijing’s joint military drills with Russia in 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea raised alarm bells in Europe. With their growing military relationship in the Mediterranean Sea, Baltic Sea, and the Arctic region, Russia and China could have potentially serious security implications for NATO countries.

NATO’s China policy?

Primarily concerned with maintaining the balance of power in Eurasia, NATO has finally acknowledged the threat posed by China to the alliance’s security and global order. Under pressure from the Biden administration, NATO has shown greater unity and political cohesion on the China issue in the Brussels summit. The 30-member trans-Atlantic alliance called on China “to uphold its international commitments and to act responsibly in the international system, including in the space, cyber, and maritime domains, in keeping with its role as a major power.” However, NATO is still far from developing a coherent policy on China. There is no indication from the trans-Atlantic alliance regarding its Indo-Pacific strategy and whether it is willing to expand its area of operation to the Pacific. At the same time, there is little consensus among the NATO countries in terms of strategy and instruments to be adopted while dealing with China. With more robust economic ties with Beijing, countries like Germany and UK are particularly cautious about adopting an aggressive approach vis-à-vis China. Even during the recently concluded NATO summit, Germany appealed to maintain a balanced approach while dealing with China.

Avoiding the pitfalls

Perhaps, the biggest challenge for NATO vis-à-vis China is not a military one, but a lack of unity against Chinese economic coercion and other asymmetric threats. In any case, Beijing is known to use its leverage and bilateral ties with European countries to obstruct any unified position on issues adverse to Chinese interests. Therefore, NATO must deepen political coordination and cooperation among the member countries to forge a consolidated long-term strategy on China. Besides strengthening unity and resilience within the alliance, NATO would be better positioned to deal with China if it builds better coordination with institutions like the EU and the partner countries in Indo-Pacific such as Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia.

Further, NATO should consider extending its partnership to countries like India, which is already confronting various threats from China. By consolidating the alliance from within and synergizing with like-minded states and institutions, NATO would be able to enhance its understanding of China’s actions that could threaten the security and resilience of the alliance. NATO had already taken an initial step towards confronting China when it emphasized China’s actions in the Brussels Summit. However, if the trans-Atlantic alliance wants to confront the China challenge successfully, it must avoid the major impediment of appearing divided or going alone.

(The author is an Assistant Professor at Manipal Center for European Studies (MCES), Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal, Karnataka. She has a Doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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