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China and NATO Are Inching Towards Each Other

Feb 18 , 2016
  • Zhou Bo

    Honorary Fellow, PLA Academy of Military Science

Such a brief news release from the Chinese Ministry of Defense could easily pass unnoticed among myriad world news events: On Nov 25, the 21st task force of the PLA Navy had a drill with NATO Combined Task Force (CTF) 508 in the Gulf of Aden. The exercise included joint boarding and inspection on ships, replenishment at sea and mutual helicopter landings.

Over the years, the China-NATO relationship has been frosty if not glacial, not least because of NATO’s bombing on the Chinese Embassy in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, which caused the deaths of three Chinese staff. China believes NATO, the largest military alliance in the world, is a Cold War relic.

Geopolitically speaking, China, like Russia, didn’t want to see the enlargement of NATO in the east. If NATO was getting closer to Russian border, it was getting closer to China, too. The shift only started in 2009 when a PLA naval task force, CTF 508 of NATO and other navies started counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden and the Somali Basin. A courtesy call by CTF 508 commander Commodore Steve Chick on Rear Admiral Wang Zhiguo offered the first chance of a NATO officer shaking hands with his Chinese counterpart.

This spearheaded PLA and NATO’s annual working level exchanges of visits since 2010. Although the talks remain largely for dissemination of policies, there are also explorations of areas for potential cooperation. China sent generals and ambassadors for short courses in NATO’s schools and a few NATO delegations visited China.

Such exchanges and the joint drill are bound to happen. Given the importance of both China and NATO, it is inconceivable that China and NATO don’t interact, sooner or later. Russia’ much more complicated relationship with NATO is an example. No matter how Russia protests against NATO’s enlargement or NATO’s missile defense program, Russia still cooperates with NATO when necessary. In 2002, Russia and NATO created the NATO-Russia Council. Russia and NATO have worked together on issues ranging from counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism to submarine rescue and civil emergency planning. In Afghanistan, Russia provided transit of NATO cargoes through Russian territory.

China is certainly concerned with NATO’s presence in its periphery. But as time goes on, NATO has proved to be not as harmful as some Chinese had thought. NATO led the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force to conduct security operations and helped build up the Afghan security forces. At its height, the force was more than 130,000 strong with troops from 51 NATO and partner nations, but NATO eventually withdrew. NATO, and particularly the US, believes its military presence is a de facto protection of Chinese interests in Afghanistan. NATO has developed “partners across the globe” such as Afghanistan, Japan, the ROK, Mongolia and Pakistan in China’s periphery. Indeed, China could frown when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talked about “common values” in Brussels’ NATO Headquarters, but it is hard to imagine that Pakistan, an “all weather” friend of China, would do anything against China’s interests because of being a partner to NATO.

How likely would NATO join American rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific to encircle China, as some Chinese have argued? Such a possibility is next to impossible. NATO’s decision is made by consensus and most of the 28 NATO member states are friendly with China. NATO has made it clear: NATO doesn’t develop allies in the Asia-Pacific; NATO doesn’t have a policy on Taiwan issue; NATO doesn’t have a position on the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands or the islands or reefs in the South China Sea.

NATO, meanwhile, has every reason to sustain and develop its ties with China. China is a country with global influence. The PLA is becoming felt worldwide. PLA activities, whether withdrawing Chinese nationals from Libya and Yemen, or setting up a logistic supply station in Djibouti, demonstrate China has acquired more capacity at NATO’s rim. Above all, China’s joint naval drill with Russia in the Mediterranean raises a scenario for NATO: Could China and Russia become de facto allies?

Admittedly, there are limits to what China and NATO can do together. China opposes military alliance and NATO is the largest military alliance in the world. NATO is led by the US, and the Sino-American relationship is never smooth. NATO also claims that it is a political organization determined to promote its values. These values could be different from those of China. NATO’s pressure on the Turkish government not to buy Chinese missiles and technology is another chilly reminder of how vulnerable this relationship could be. So far neither the Chinese defense minister nor foreign minister has met NATO’s Secretary General.

Compared with the five-day, nine-ship drill between Chinese and Russian navies in the Mediterranean in mid-May, 2015, the exercise between China and NATO can only be described as modest. But it is a further step forward in China-NATO relations. Counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden shows how both sides can work together to provide common security to the world. In this regard, China and NATO inching towards each other is good news for tomorrow.

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