Although China was not officially represented at NATO’s May 2012 summit, the relations between China and NATO have drawn increased attention from both parties in recent years. But NATO’s relations with China remain less well developed than those with those of any other major country, primarily due to Beijing’s ambivalent attitude toward NATO.
PRC analysts have been viewing NATO’s expanding global role with a mixture of hopes and fears. Their immediate desire is that NATO will help manage a peaceful transition in Afghanistan that ensures the safety of China’s investments in that country as well as prevents Afghan territory from again becoming a safe haven for anti-Beijing Islamists terrorists. China’s longer-term aspirations are for NATO’s other members to constrain the use of U.S. military power. Conversely, Chinese fears reside in concerns that Washington will use NATO as yet another instrument to contain Beijing’s growing global influence.
NATO interest in engaging China derives from Beijing’s rising potential to shape the international security environment in both benign as well as adverse ways from Brussels’ perspective. NATO representatives have argued that China and NATO have common security concerns regarding transnational terrorism, nuclear proliferation, cyber threats, regional stability, energy security, and maritime piracy. But they also complain about cyber espionage in NATO countries believed to come from China as well as Beijing’s limited support for NATO’s military operation in Afghanistan.
Chinese officials have cautiously reciprocated NATO’s interest in dialogue and possible collaboration, especially regarding international terrorism and maritime security. PRC representatives have expressed a desire to work with NATO on the basis of “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination.” Furthermore, NATO provides a venue through which China can engage with and learn from advanced Western militaries, including the U.S. armed forces, but in a less politicized environment than in direct bilateral relations between the PLA and the Pentagon.
Yet, China is the only UN Security Council permanent member without institutional contacts with NATO. In fact, one major Chinese concern is how NATO has relied on self-legitimization, citing humanitarian justifications such as the responsibility to protect threatened civilians, for its military actions when the Security Council fails to authorize them. A Xinhua commentary depicted NATO as pursuing “its egoistic interests under dignified disguises” and “preoccupation with armed might” in seeking to police the world” despite the “heavy toll on both the economies and human lives” of the countries that experienced NATO military intervention such as Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya.” Chinese officials now often block NATO-supported resolutions in the UN Security Council, joining with Russian officials who share Chinese concerns about giving NATO a license to wage foreign wars under a humanitarian guise.
A major consideration driving Chinese interest in engaging with NATO is the negative concern to prevent the alliance from harming China’s security interests through its military and other actions. For instance, PRC representatives want to encourage NATO’s European members to adopt security policies favorable to Beijing regardless of Washington’s opposition.
Although offering opportunities for mutual security cooperation with China, PRC representatives are uneasy about the alliance’s increased emphasis on global partnerships that extend into Asia. A particular worry is that Washington is seeking to use NATO to help construct a global alliance network to contain China. The Obama administration’s Asian Pivot, which envisages heightened U.S. military activity in Asia, has exacerbated these concerns. NATO’s recently expanding ties with Mongolia have attracted particularly unfavorable commentary in the Chinese media, which depicts Mongolia of cultivating ties with NATO to balance and enhance its leverage with China and Russia.
These concerns contribute to Chinese ambivalence about the NATO military presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia, which is situated along China’s sensitive western border. Chinese analysts perceive NATO’s Afghan mission as struggling but worry that it might succeed and establish an enduring NATO military presence on China’s border. NATO officials are eager to secure additional international financial support to help pay for the alliance’s costly plans to build large and powerful Afghan Security Forces, but Beijing has not provided direct support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan for fear of antagonizing the Taliban insurgents, who might again support Uighur separatists.
Other constraints on stronger Chinese-NATO ties include the PRC’s official doctrine of nonalignment and aversion to military alliances, the different values between China and NATO (such as over democracy and humanitarian interventions), the alliance’s consensus-based decision-making procedures (which can limit NATO actions to the lowest common denominator), and the traditional lack of interest in many European governments about China’s rising influence and growing military potential in Asia.
Nonetheless, NATO’s efforts to expand its global role, combined with China’s growing security engagement in regions to its west—Afghanistan, Central Asia, Gulf of Aden and the Mediterranean—seem destined to require further political dialogue between NATO as well as more military engagements. Next steps could include joint anti-piracy exercises between their parallel missions in the Gulf of Aden. Similarly, China could participate in NATO-led natural emergency relief exercises, an area of mutual interest, in Central Asia. NATO and the PLA could share their extensive peacekeeping experience.
But Chinese officials angst about NATO’s growing ties with other Asian countries probably exclude for now joint projects in East Asia. In these cases, the “shared awareness and de-confliction” model used in the parallel NATO-PLA Navy counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden seems an appropriately modest but still useful objective for issues of mutual concern.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies