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NATO’s Indo-Pacificization

Jul 13, 2022
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

NATO unveiled its new Strategic Concept document at the Madrid summit this year. Since 1991, NATO has published a document like this about every 10 years to outline its strategic stance and determine how it will proceed in the coming decade. Since the beginning, this document has drawn a lot of interest from outsiders. On one hand, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has had a significant post-Cold War influence on the European security environment. On the other hand, NATO is quickly moving toward Indo-Pacificization, which is the core of its globalization process under the guidance of the United States.

These two features are central to the document’s historical pivot and orientation with regard to Russia and China. As NATO’s sense of insecurity grew, the alliance modified its description of Russia as the most significant and direct threat to allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area, as opposed to its previous new thinking on Russia. According to NATO, China poses a “systemic challenge” to Euro-Atlantic security and a challenge to NATO’s interests, security and values. At the same time, the document also “binds” China and Russia, claiming the two countries “attempt to undercut the rules-based international order.”

A significant step in the Biden administration’s effort to Indo-Pacificize NATO is the binding of China and Russia. The Biden administration saw a new opportunity after the Ukraine crisis to balance and even link the Atlantic and Pacific strategies. The U.S. did this by coordinating the interaction between NATO and its Indo-Pacific allies, highlighting the so-called China threat in the Asia-Pacific region and exporting the NATO concept of “small nations united against big powers.” Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand were invited for the first time to the NATO summit this year in an effort to establish a new mechanism as NATO+.

However, there are two significant barriers to NATO’s Indo-Pacificization. First, the perspectives of China and Russia, as well as the Eurasian and Asia-Pacific regions, differ between the U.S. and NATO’s European members. Although China is mentioned in the new Strategic Concept document for the first time and is referred to as a “systemic challenge,” it also places an emphasis on constructive engagement with China, which more or less reflects the ongoing disagreements within NATO on China. Further, the document’s more unfavorable portrayal of Russia implies that NATO’s European members continue to see Russia as a more urgent threat to European security than China, which is located far away in the Asia-Pacific region.

Second, over time, NATO and the EU’s perceptions of the European security architecture won’t be consistent. The EU has been compelled by the Russia-Ukraine conflict to reconsider its proud “normative power” and acknowledge that it must take a more active part in deterring and defending against Russia — and that “soft power” by itself is insufficient to accomplish strategic autonomy. Some European experts have come to the conclusion that, in order to avoid becoming instruments and victims of great power competition and stop depending permanently on NATO’s security protection, they must build their defense capacity and establish themselves as a meaningful global pole.

If Europe simply relies on the NATO headed by the United States in the sphere of defense, it will never be possible to attain the goal of strategic autonomy, even though at this point Europe’s quest for autonomy would not do away with the framework of the transatlantic alliance. In the long run, this fundamental conflict between autonomy and reliance will define how Europe and the U.S. ensure European security. It will also have a major influence on NATO, the security tie that binds the alliance.

The future course of the strategic relationship between China, the United States and Europe is a topic that is closely related to the Indo-Pacificization of NATO. If Europe is increasingly integrated into the U.S. strategic track of great power competition with China, NATO’s promotion of Indo-Pacificization will accelerate by becoming a demand shared by the U.S. and Europe. Then the strategic environment China faces will grow more complex.

Three factors will likely have an impact on how China-US-European relations develop in the future:

First, the U.S. ability to successfully bring Europe together will depend on how Europe views its ally. The European side anticipates Biden’s efforts to try to revitalize transatlantic relations but also remains wary. The victory of Donald Trump in 2016 signaled a shift in American politics that will have a negative impact on support for transatlantic cooperation and will last for the U.S. president who succeeds Trump — as Europe is well aware. Europe thinks that Trump’s “America first” and Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” are essentially the same. Europe has lately expressed grave worries over the abortion rights debate in the U.S. and believes that Trump-like political figures may return in 2024 under the influence of conservatism and nativism in U.S. politics.

Second, Europe’s autonomy and dynamism in the rivalry between China and the U.S. will be determined by the EU’s prospects for strengthening strategic autonomy. The crisis between Russia and Ukraine has hindered and even delayed the EU’s efforts to achieve the goal, but the EU’s resolve has grown. Russia’s actions have made the EU more aware of the link between its strong defense capabilities and realizing strategic autonomy. The aim of strategic autonomy does not necessarily entail EU’s independence from the U.S., but if the EU strengthens its role inside the European security architecture, it will arguably increase the likelihood of some independence from the United States.

Third, the stability of China-EU ties will be impacted by how Europe views China and its corresponding actions. The EU will approach engagement with China in response to various issues and policies in light of the complexity of its relations with China. European attitudes and policies toward China have shifted in the previous two years toward the negative side, but at the same time they have called for ongoing engagement and cooperation with China in areas like world health and climate change. The EU has been using and upgrading its tools, including stepping up ideological accusations and even sanctions against China, enhancing investment protection and supply chain reviews on the economic front, strengthening the military presence of the UK, France, and Germany in the Asia-Pacific region, and forming an alliance with the U.S. in technology.

The U.S. and Europe are not comparable to one another when it comes to the topic of great power competition with China. The strategic objective of the U.S. is to maintain its hegemony, so the competition with China is one of systemic rivalry or even confrontation. Europe’s objective is development. Thus the competition with China is one of influence in the same system. Therefore, the relationship between China, the U.S., Russia and Europe is by no means a simple camp-like battle between China/Russia and U.S./Europe, despite the NATO summit’s confirmation that America is aiming to link the two geopolitical theaters of Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacificization of NATO is not in the interests of China, Europe, or any other countries in the region.

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