How Credible Is NATO’s Pivot to China?

How Credible Is NATO’s Pivot to China?

NATO’s perpetual internal debates about the opportunities versus the threats posed by China will only complicate what should be quick, decisive, and forward-looking actions.

In June 2022, the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) held its first summit since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Aptly described as “historic, transformative, game-changing,” the meeting paved the way for Sweden and Finland to join the alliance and also addressed the importance of expanded global partnerships with like-minded states in the Indo-Pacific—like Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea—on areas of mutual interest, such as maritime security, counterterrorism, cyber and hybrid threats, and the impact of climate change. Simultaneously, NATO also introduced several new initiatives to strengthen its posture, readiness, and interoperability, thereby enabling stronger deterrence and defense (a core task of NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept) in face of both Russian aggression and systemic challenges posed by China. In fact, the very mention of China in NATO’s recent documents, including the 2022 Strategic Concept, is notable considering its traditional focus has been limited to Russia.

Russia’s relentless war in Ukraine has reignited the debate over NATO’s fading relevance. At the same time, it has also provided the alliance with an overarching purpose that seemed to be sorely missing despite the security environment in the Euro-Atlantic zones having been under stress for some time. Long-standing debates between collective defense and cooperative security have only complicated NATO’s future undertaking. Amidst the other defining global threats, a factor that has muddled the waters is the extraordinary, and often belligerent, rise of China, which was perhaps non-existent (for NATO) in 2010, when its last Strategic Concept was released. Now, however, the deepening partnership between Russia and China, and the systemic challenges it poses, forms an important consideration of the Strategic Concept 2022, which was released to guide NATO in developing the necessary tools and collective responses to shared, transnational threats.

The thoroughly updated 2022 Strategic Concept provided the alliance some much-needed clarity on its overall transatlantic strategy, as well as momentum toward building cohesion around NATO’s principles and values to make it relevant for future security challenges. While the war in Ukraine has prompted NATO to explicitly declare Russia the “most significant and direct threat” to its peace and security, how far will NATO judge its cold and brewing competition at large with China? Have the U.S.-China rivalry and Beijing’s rising antagonism crossed the threshold for NATO to declare China as a future (permanent) adversary?

Into the Past and Back to the Future

NATO’s new-found focus on China as a “systemic rival” is largely a recent occurrence (2021), and an outcome of increasing mistrust and hostility between China and Europe. This lateness in recognizing the China threat has only exposed Europe’s earlier disconnect with the larger global reality of Beijing’s rapid emergence as a decisive security and economic actor in the last decade. The (short-term) economic gains from Chinese investments were a powerful draw for the majority of states at first. Only when China’s exploits closer to home—in the Arctic as well as the Central and Eastern European (CEE) regions—threatened to overtake their commercial interests did Europe and NATO change their stance on China’s so-called “peaceful” rise.

The security environment has changed so drastically since 2010 that the agenda (both inclusions and exclusions) and its language at the time seem rather anachronistic, especially with Russia annexing Crimea four years later. For example, the 2010 version considered low-risk conventional war a threat, expected Russian reciprocity as a constructive partner, and made no mention of China. In this context, the 2022 Strategic Concept came as a much-needed update, taking into assessment the obvious Russia-China convergence and rise of hybrid threats, the current economic and technological security challenges, as well as the threat multiplier of climate change, which reflect the global urgencies and also bring Europe closer to Washington’s assertive tone on China.

The new concept, regarded as perhaps the alliance’s most vital document—second only to the NATO charter—largely follows the tone set by earlier documents like the NATO 2030 report (released in 2020) and the Brussels Summit Communique (issued in 2021). Both of these covered the China challenge rather comprehensively, acknowledging its lack of transparency, use of disinformation and coercive tactics, as well as “interdependence of geography, domains, and readiness.” The 2022 Strategic Concept takes this acknowledgement forward by expressing new China (and Russia) policies that depart from previous blueprints on several key points. For one, they significantly reduce focus on arms control to manage conflicts and emphasize strong, Cold War-sequel language vis-à-vis Russia. On China, the concept reiterates that Beijing’s “ambitions and coercive policies challenge [Euro-Atlantic] interests, security and values” (paragraph 13)—in keeping with the 2021 Brussels Communique—and highlights risk reduction, reciprocal transparency, and constructive engagement as strategies to deal with China while protecting NATO’s security interests. This falls in line with NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg’s stance on not regarding China as an adversary yet.

NATO: Potential Partner in the Indo-Pacific?

The presence of multiple Asia-Pacific (rather Indo-Pacific) states at the Madrid Summit solidifies NATO’s recognition of the need for self-reinvention, as well as the group’s expanding focus that includes the Indo-Pacific. In a recent statement, NATO specified the importance of strengthening ties with like-minded Asia-Pacific partners as a way to address “cross-cutting security issues and global challenges” and defending the rules-based international order. The stepping up of diplomatic dialogues and practical cooperation between NATO and countries like Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea is, in this context, a clear recognition on Brussels’ part of how intertwined the North Atlantic and Indo-Pacific are.

Although critics are quick to point out NATO’s failures—slow (threat) uptake, or post-Cold War redundancy—the alliance’s survival in itself reiterates its continued (if not growing) importance especially in a scenario when the democracies versus autocracies is no longer a theme for political debates, but an emerging reality. Moreover, amidst growing concerns of disunity among European states, a resurgent Russia, and the growing clout of China in the Euro-Atlantic zone, a coherent convergence between the European Union’s (EU) latest Strategic Compass and NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept is imperative for strengthening NATO-EU security and defense collaboration.

NATO’s presence as a partner in the Indo-Pacific is given added importance considering Beijing’s posture in the region, as well as with regards to NATO itself. China’s aversion to what NATO stands for—a U.S. tool (“relic”) that perpetuates Cold War mentality and a polarizing system of exclusive cliques—is hardly a secret. It has blamed NATO’s eastward expansion for the war in Ukraine and has continued to criticize the alliance for fomenting trouble beyond the geographical confines of the Euro-Atlantic into the Indo-Pacific too.

At the same time, under Xi Jinping, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has drawn lessons from NATO’s war-fighting capabilities. Xi’s emphasis on “national security” has made the concept a buzzword in China. Concurrently, this security concept has been given practical shape in the form of new laws, personnel, and organizations to overhaul the national security architecture, and thereby enhance the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) hold over the country. This strong security architecture, which insulates the CCP and safeguards its power, stands as a defense against the West’s—that is, the United States, NATO, and EU’s—ideology from infiltrating the CCP.

Beijing is also keen to exploit the intra-alliance differences to further its own hegemonic aims. Turkey’s previous objections to Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO reveal cracks in the alliance, and Germany and France have maintained their friendly outreach to China. However, post the Ukraine war, the growing Chinese influence in the CEE region has taken a setback, largely due to China being perceived as an apologist for Russia’s actions. Its decade-old 16+1 (earlier 17+1) format is also reportedly on its last legs, with China’s coercive actions against Lithuania straining the ties much before the war in Europe. In this context alone, China is poised to emerge as a greater threat for Europe’s security than Russia, making NATO’s connection to the Indo-Pacific all that more vital.

Deterrence at the Great Power Epicenter

In light of the trans-continental nature of today’s threats and the interconnectedness across regions, NATO needs strategic clarity on the Indo-Pacific: Flashpoints like Taiwan, South China Sea, East China Sea, and the China-India boundary dispute might not be NATO’s core focus agenda, but they must encompass any future-oriented security strategy. In other words, a pivot to China is a strategic necessity, and holding out on calling China an adversary will not change its future trajectory or notions about the alliance’s motives. In fact, taking a stronger stance on China can be a way to showcase NATO’s (and its Indo-Pacific partners’) resolve to stand firm for their principles and values and preparedness to defend the liberal, rules-based international order. In other words, recognizing and preparing for the China threat is essential for ensuring deterrence.

For NATO’s global outlook to work, it needs to be able to pre-empt the threats in the region and work more closely with the Indo-Pacific democracies in non-traditional security areas including critical infrastructure, supply chains, and disruptive technologies. Partnerships with global as well as regional multilateral and minilateral networks (e.g., the Quad) are also essential, perhaps through capacity building and military exercises at first. However, cooperating with NATO in the region will not be an easy task as nations would not be keen to enrage China by tying up with an established military alliance, however loose the strings may be.