On June 29 2022, in announcing the alliance’s latest strategic concept, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared that the world was now in an era of “strategic competition,” with China effectively “not an adversary” to NATO, but a harbinger that comes with “serious challenges.”
This marked a significant departure in tone and rhetoric from the previous version of the blueprint – one that was published in 2011, that made scant mention of China, let alone as a threat. The decade that had elapsed had seen precipitously alarmed reactions from elements of NATO towards China’s comprehensive rise across a multitude of areas – the military, the political, and the economic.
NATO leaders based their verdict on a very particular interpretation of China’s recent trajectory – and extrapolated as such. They observed what they take to be more trenchant gestures, statements, and actions by China within the Indo-Pacific and Continental Asian theatres, and conclude that China is seeking not just regional dominance, but global hegemony. As ambitious and potentially fallible these claims are, they certainly have taken root in certain corners of political discourse in the West, where China is now portrayed as a systemic challenger – one that presents wholly distinctive values and ambitions from those in the West.
To some extent, NATO’s worries do indeed reflect the broader undercurrents at work here: China’s relative economic strength has, despite some strong headwinds and persisting obstacles to reform, considerably surged over recent years, with an apparent emphasis upon state-driven technological research and innovation lending the economy a comparative advantage over its more fragmented and internally conflictual counterparts. The country’s shift towards a more egalitarian and redistributive politic coincided with a greater level of centralisation and concentration of power, directly contradicting the presumption that China’s government would develop in ways that more closely resemble the ‘Western trajectory.’ China is different, and China has indeed accrued reasonable sizeable political capital worldwide.
Yet claims concerning capacity should not be conflated with claims over intentions. China has thus far exhibited highly limited ambitions concerning expanding its overseas military presence – China has one overseas military base in Djibouti, America has over 450. Militarily, Beijing has pressed for refining and streamlining the army, but has not actively pressed for augmentation of its naval capacities beyond the West Pacific and South China Seas. Economically, schemas such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the 17+1 Mechanism have not been wielded to exclude countries from participating in concurrent institutions, such as the IMF, World Bank, and/or the European Union. It is true that China’s intentions and interests are not perfectly aligned with those of NATO’s – but to move from this to the view that it is a serious challenger or status quo disrupter, is perhaps a tad unwarranted.
A greater worry that I have, as do many moderates and pragmatists concerned over NATO-China relations, is the prospects of a self-fulfilling prophecy. A world where NATO frames China as – whilst not an adversary – a significant rival, is also one where its member states are likely to dispositionally view each and every act made by China with suspicion and intense scrutiny. To some extent, meticulous scrutiny is certainly warranted in areas involving sensitive technology and national security – indeed, such scrutiny is reciprocated by China in its guardedness against perceived Western interference. Yet the real danger is when technological innovation and development are spun into alleged signs of military expansionism; or when internal, domestic policies concerning public health and economic management are framed as signs of China gearing up for an ostensibly protracted territorial conflict. Such beliefs and perceptions in turn spur more militarisation and escalation in armament from NATO. Whether it be through indirect donations and supplying to allies within Asia, or through possible proxy conflicts that eventually bring China and NATO into direct confrontation, such expansions in military capacity would only trigger a cascade of paranoid, potentially excessive reactions in their counterparts in China – making the argument to be made by pacifists and bilateral negotiators straddling the divide all the more difficult.
When diagnosing Chinese grand strategy, it is important to conceptualise China as operating across two distinctive levels. For near-seas (e.g. Yellow, East, and South China Seas) that China perceives to be of significant territorial interest, it is vastly unlikely that NATO could offer such territories much military or security aid in the first place – which renders the thesis a non-starter. For far-seas regions (e.g. Indo-Pacific, Indian Ocean) where China has had minimal interest in capturing, and has – if anything – sought to contribute towards maintenance of regional security, the claims of intentional interference and sabotage are overblown. What is not overblown, on the other hand, is the dangerous possibility that military build-up by NATO, paired with rhetoric of economic and political exclusion, would spur trenchant, reactionary gestures that result in accelerated and increased military presence by China and NATO forces in such far-seas territories. The possibility of an accidental conflict erupting from altercations or misunderstandings over close runs, as they almost did in the case of the recent South China Sea clash between the Philippines and China, is both vastly worrying and a cautionary note that militarisation must be handled with delicate care and prudence.
More generally, on non-military and security dimensions, there is the danger that as increased skepticism towards the other accrues on both sides of the NATO-China relationship, the room for improved intercultural and civil society exchanges would shrink, to the detriment of causes that require bilateral coordination. From counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East and Horn of Africa, to advancing nuclear non-proliferation in Iran and the Korean Peninsula, these are issues where Chinese, European, and Americans buy-in is vital. To those who trenchantly insist that China’s future roadmap and vision ought to have no place for NATO – this reflects a dire misjudgment of the staying power of NATO countries, and their continued preeminence on the global stage. Yet to those who view any and all collaboration with China as secondary to the latter’s status as a ‘challenger,’ they would benefit from noting that collaboration is unlikely to result without a minimal level of trust. In the aftermath of the Russian war in Ukraine, trust restoration in the NATO-China relationship crucially requires the suspension of unhelpfully antagonistic, absolutist rhetoric concerning both parties. This is something that Beijing and Brussels (qua NATO headquarters) would benefit from acknowledging.
So what does the solution look like? A helpful starting-point may be a direct, multi-level communication mechanism between NATO and China – one that allows for both parties to air candidly their grievances, in order to contain – if elimination is impossible – them within instrumental ring-fences. The path ahead may be rocky, but we must start somewhere.