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Foreign Policy

The Impact of NATO’s China Strategy

Jul 22, 2021

The recent North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit allowed the leaders of the 30-member states to announce their collective pledge to combat global warming, dismantle troop commitments in Afghanistan, and formulate a coordinated response to the rise of China.  

After World War II, NATO evolved into an alliance aimed at deterring a Soviet attack on European countries. For the first time since its founding, NATO adopted an apparent China strategy in an effort to unify European countries with Washington foreign policy initiatives. 

NATO claims that its main reason for confronting China is Beijing's investment in European ports and military bases in Africa. China also conducts some joint military exercises with Russia.  

However, many European capitals continue to stress ‘balance,’ and are worried about hurting their relationship with China because of Washington’s diplomatic efforts to present the U.S. as a ‘reasonable stakeholder’ aiming to develop a multilateral approach to manage Beijing’s geopolitical behavior. 

Biden emphasized that democracies of the world must work together to deliver ‘real results,’ while China and Russia are both presented as threats to America’s vision for the world. Biden went to Europe to strengthen the trans-Atlantic coalition of the G7 and NATO states against China and Russia. In this sense, a ‘consolidated west,’ led by Washington, is fragile but forming. 

The unified rhetoric directed at Beijing and Moscow at both summits leads many in China and Russia to identify a 'collective West,' or the 'consolidated West,' when analyzing the adversarial response of Washington and its allies to Chinese and Russian foreign policy actions. This was on display at both the NATO and G7 summits. 

However, the converging forces of the West also offers Beijing an opportunity to identify and anticipate if Washington’s increased pressure on European countries to isolate China might actually fracture the Western alliance in the process. Many European countries, like Germany, Italy, even France, are not completely committed to Washington’s China strategy. This can create issues among other NATO allies, like Hungary, who actively work with China on trade and investment deals. 

Although Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg stated that the alliance could work with China on issues like climate change and arms control and emphasized that Beijing was not an enemy or adversary, he did call for a collective response to China's military build-up, growing influence, and coercive behavior which threaten NATO's security.  

The most recent NATO summit communique stated that China presented "systemic challenges," and President Joe Biden urged member states to stand up to China's authoritarianism. The G7’s recent emphasis on human rights concerns in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. The G7 also demanded a full investigation of the pandemic's origins, which mainstream media outlets labeled a right-wing conspiracy theory until recently. In short, no one could question the pandemic’s official origins, but now this same logic is being used to further criticize Beijing. 

The collective urge to pressure China from all angles has become helpful to Washington and its allies. The communique stated that "China's stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security." The use of the word 'systemic' reminds us of the European Union's recent declaration of Beijing as a "systemic rival" in the realm of trade and investment. 

Before President Biden's inauguration, political and economic analysts provided various predictions for the incoming administration's China policy. After the recent G7 and NATO summits, political observers can conclude a sharp difference between the 'Trump approach' to China versus the 'Biden strategy.'  

Put simply, the Trump administration applied unilateral short-term punitive pressure to alter a transactional relationship related to trade and investment, without much care about domestic political characteristics within China.  

In contrast, the Biden administration hopes to apply continuous political and diplomatic pressure with a web of alliances to transform Chinese foreign policy and domestic politics fundamentally. The NATO summit served as a platform to further this agenda. 

President Trump's approach hurt specific stakeholders, consumers, farmers, and producers and significantly threatened those invested in a meaningful U.S.-Chinese trade relationship embedded in globalized supply chains. While Biden's strategy might be more business-friendly in the long-term, it significantly threatens the U.S.-China relationship because it relies on a 'consolidated' or 'collective' West to isolate China to force a change in Chinese politics. The U.S. is rallying its ideological friends to criticize Beijing on a wide range of issues like Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Covid-19, and the East and South China Seas. The hope is that by curtailing trade, and hurting Beijing’s image, China might change its behavior going forward. 

In short, President Biden's list of demands is longer and more complex, while President Trump mainly focused on safeguarding U.S. tech and re-balancing the trade relationship.  

The recent G7 and NATO meetings cemented that Washington will proceed with the Biden administration's China strategy, evidently a 'Western strategy.' Biden emphasized that the U.S., EU, NATO, and G7 will unite to confront China and Russia, which further legitimizes the claim that the 'consolidated west,' concerning China, is a real thing.  

Despite the harsh rhetoric directed at China at the recent NATO summit, Beijing sent 20 People's Liberation Army (PLA) fighter jets, four nuclear-capable bombers, and four military aircraft into Taiwan's ADIZ. This event occurred one day after NATO's joint statements that criticized Beijing's "stated ambitions and assertive behavior,” with specific references to Taiwan and Hong Kong. The Chinese police also arrested pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper employees for "collusion with a foreign country." Thus far, Beijing has barely blinked at Western efforts to tarnish its global image. Instead, China doubles down and continues to defend its perceived core national interests.  

Along with diplomatic figures and experts, the Chinese media argue that the "G7 and NATO [summits have been] distorted into anti-China platforms." Victor Gao, a former Chinese diplomat now at the Center for China and Globalization, stated that, "There are increasingly large forces in China that believe if the U.S. wants to single out China as its fundamental enemy, then let the U.S. have an enemy." Zhao Lijian, a foreign ministry spokesperson and one of China's most outspoken diplomats, said the G7 communiqué, "exposed the bad intentions of the U.S. and a few other countries to create antagonism and widen differences with China." Zhao also went ahead to call the U.S. 'sick.'  

Beijing views the recent criticisms of its foreign policy as a 'united front' positioned against China's interests in Taiwan, its maritime security, and its view on human rights. Beijing also accurately understands that many European countries, despite their participation at the G7 and NATO summits, are hesitant to materially confront Beijing on specific issues because of their intimate trade relationship with China.  

This begs the question – how much of NATO's rhetoric is material? Put differently, could the China question split NATO, or at least, create some dissent that will weaken the effectiveness of Washington's 'consolidated West?' 

Only two NATO members currently send over 3 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP), specifically, Greece and the United States. For this reason, one can conclude that the United States essentially utilizes NATO as a platform for diplomatic power to orient its allies against geopolitical adversaries like China and Russia. 

The U.S. must foot the bill, but in return, many countries go along with Washington’s diplomatic pressures, unless China’s investment and diplomatic pressure can split the national interests of NATO’s members. 

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