NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was formed after World War II, in which twelve countries in the United States and Western Europe agreed to guarantee mutual defense, implicitly against the Soviet Union and the rest of the Eastern bloc.
NATO has outlived the Cold War, and participated in the wars in the former Yugoslavia, as well as the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Following the 9/11 attacks, NATO invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty for the first and only time in history, which led to America’s NATO allies participating in the subsequent war in Afghanistan. NATO’s membership has since swelled to more than thirty countries.
Now, with new saber-rattling between the United States and China in the early days of the Biden presidency, there have been multiple calls for NATO to mobilize against China.
Former German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere and Trump-era Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs A. Wess Mitchell wrote for Foreign Policy last month that “NATO Needs to Deal With China Head-On.” The piece looked ahead to this spring’s NATO summit in Brussels.
“It is therefore vital that the summit directly address the one topic with the biggest geopolitical implications for the coming decade by far: China,“ the authors wrote. “Encouraged by Washington and other allied capitals, [NATO Secretary-General] Stoltenberg has already been nudging the alliance to deal more comprehensively with this challenge. The trouble is that some allies do not see China as NATO’s business while others are afraid that putting it on the alliance’s agenda will antagonize a powerful trade partner.”
The authors argued that just because China is located where it is, doesn’t mean that it is outside NATO’s scope.
“It’s true that NATO’s Article 5 guarantee of mutual assistance in the event of military attack only applies to the Euro-Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer,” de Maiziere and Mitchell write. “But China is already active in exactly this geographic area in ways that profoundly affect the allies’ security. China’s control of a growing portion of critical European infrastructure—from telecommunications networks to port facilities—directly affects NATO readiness, interoperability, and secure communications.”
Writing in The Washington Post op-ed page March 12, Sara Bjerg Moller, an assistant professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University, wrote that the ongoing rise of China “is exactly the kind of threat NATO exists to stop.”
Moller wrote that as Biden is seeking to repair U.S. relations with NATO following the Trump era, NATO’s mission more than thirty years after the end of the Cold War is unclear.
“A longer-term corrective may involve reorienting the security organization’s focus toward its traditional role of deterring and defending against strategic competitors: Russia, yes, but even more so China,” she wrote. “That nation is the obvious successor to the mid-20th-century Soviet Union in harboring global ideological aspirations at odds with those of the major Western democracies.”
“Refocusing NATO to check the dangers posed by China’s rise would restore it to something closer to its original mission of safeguarding allies from strategic competitors,” she continued.
And while she argued that Russia remains an issue for NATO to confront, China is even more of one.
“It is China that represents the bigger menace over the long term to Western values and interests,” she wrote. “At present, China is primarily an economic and political threat, not a military one, but NATO should prepare for the latter possibility, given Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy. After all, it has cracked down on Hong Kong, clashed with India in the Himalayas, levied tariffs on Australia after officials criticized its handling of the coronavirus, and said Britain would “bear the consequences” for excluding telecom firm Huawei from its 5G network.
It would appear that NATO, to some degree, agrees.
In November of 2020, NATO issued a report called “NATO 2030: United For a New Era.” The report mentioned China several times. Indeed, the two Foreign Policy authors were co-chairs of the NATO 2030 Reflection Group.
“NATO must devote much more time, political resources, and action to the security challenges posed by China—based on an assessment of its national capabilities, economic heft, and the stated ideological goals of its leaders,” the report said.
“It needs to develop a political strategy for approaching a world in which China will be of growing importance through to 2030. The Alliance should infuse the China challenge throughout existing structures and consider establishing a consultative body to discuss all aspects of Allies’ security interests vis-à-vis China. It must expand efforts to assess the implications of China’s technological development and monitor and defend against any Chinese activities that could impact collective defence, military readiness or resilience in the Supreme Allied Commander Europe’s (SACEUR) Area of Responsibility.”
Not everyone feels that way, however.
“The NATO argument is a tell,” journalist Jeet Heer wrote on Twitter, in reaction to the Washington Post piece. “The alliance has been adrift for years. Countering China would give it focus.’ In other words, we have a military system which serves no real purpose, a solution in search of a problem. China is a convenient problem… If you needed to contain China, the first thing you’d do is strengthen alliances in Asia, not bring in [expletive] NATO! It’s the [expletive] North Atlantic Treaty Organization! But Asian countries have little appetite for new USA alliance, so we get Cold War cos-play.”
There’s another cause for worry in relation to China and NATO—according to The Daily Beast, an Estonian military defense scientist who did work for NATO last week was convicted of spying for China.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.