The recent Summit at Brussels of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on June 14 claims to open a new chapter in the transatlantic relations. A key highlight of the Summit was its overt focus on China. The Asian giant was mentioned 10 times in the communiqué released after the Summit as compared to just once in the last summit held in 2019. As the NATO charts a new roadmap for itself in the form of the NATO 2030, China’s place in the Agenda is worth pondering.
The communiqué labelled China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour” as a “systemic challenge” to the rules based international order and to areas relevant to NATO’s security. Concerns were raised over Beijing’s expansion of nuclear arsenal. The NATO leaders expressed concerns over China’s opaque implementation of its military modernization and its publicly accepted military-civil fusion strategy. Lack of transparency and disinformation on Beijing’s part were discussed. China’s close engagements with Russia in the Euro-Atlantic region were discussed and the NATO leaders called upon China to “act responsibly” in not just the international system but also in space, cyber affairs as well as in the maritime domain. The Allies urged China to engage in meaningful dialogue, confidence building and transparent measures regarding its nuclear capabilities and doctrine as well as to stand alongside the Alliance in combating the common threat — climate change. The communiqué further added that reciprocal transparency and understanding would be mutually beneficial for both China and NATO.
The Brussels communiqué adds fuel to the fire set ablaze by discussion over China in the June 12 Group of 7 summit held in Cornwall, UK. As per a senior official in the Biden administration, the G7 countries reached a consensus over China’s unfair trade practices and human rights abuses in its special autonomous regions of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. The G7 further called for a “timely, transparent, expert-led, and science-based” investigation behind the origins of the coronavirus led by the World Health Organization.
The comments have been met with harsh criticism by China’s foreign ministry. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhang Lijian lashed out at the US calling it “ill and very ill indeed”. Calling concerns over Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet Beijing’s internal affairs, Zhang stated that such arguments exposed “the bad intentions of the U.S. and a few others to create confrontation and estrangement and expand differences and disagreements.”
Zhang further called attention to the NATO-led 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia.
The Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the European Union expressed dismay over the NATO Communiqué. Claiming the statement to be a “slander of China’s peaceful development”, the Mission alleged the Alliance for fanning a Cold War mentality. It claimed Beijing’s military modernization to be “legitimate, open and transparent.” Citing the 2021 defence budget as 1.3% of its GDP, China claimed that NATO’s defense spending is 5.6 times that of Beijing. Based on findings of think tanks based in Sweden and the United States, the Mission claimed that NATO’s nuclear stock was 20 times the size of China’s and challenged them to adopt a similar No First Use Policy. China urged NATO to stop fanning the “China threat theory” and to view its development rationally, keeping geo competition and manipulating group politics at bay.
China in the NATO 2030
The NATO 2030 is an ambitious plan which aims to strengthen the Alliance in the face of “growing global competition and more unpredictable threats, including terrorism,cyber-attacks, disruptive technologies, climate change and Russia and China’s challenges to the rules based international order.” China occurs in 3 of the 9 proposals that the Agenda mentions.
‘Proposal 4: Preserve our Technological Edge’ puts forth a plan to set up a civil-military Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) to boost cooperation on critical technologies, interoperability and harness civilian innovation by engaging academia, start ups, etc. The Agenda explains the rationale behind it as follows: “China, for example, intends to become the world’s leading power in artificial intelligence in the next decade. As the indispensable forum for transatlantic cooperation on the security- aspects of emerging and disruptive technologies, NATO is determined to stay ahead of the curve”.
Under ‘Proposal 5: Uphold the Rules Based International Order’, the Agenda calls for greater cooperation among the Allies as well as furthering new engagements in Africa, Asia and Latin America for it claims that “the rules-based international order, which underpins the security, freedom and prosperity of Allies, is under pressure from authoritarian countries, like Russia and China, that do not share our values. This has implications for our security, values, and democratic way of life.”
Under ‘Proposal 8: The New Strategic Concept”, the Agenda calls for the adoption of a new strategic direction for the current Strategic concept, adopted in 2010, is not efficient anymore considering the “complex and unpredictable” security environment that has developed since the past decade. Apart from a “much more assertive Russia”, terrorism, cyber and hybrid threats, the Agenda calls attention to China’s emergence as a major actor which “fundamentally shifts the balance of power.”
Though NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg clarified that neither is the Alliance entering a “new Cold War” nor is China an “adversary” or “enemy”, the Communiqué as well as the Agenda clearly views China’s rise as a “systemic challenge.” Moreover, the Organization’s plan to engage Japan, Australia and South Korea in a more visible way raises fears of encirclement for China.
The four proposals neatly underscore the call for political as well as military strengthening to contain Beijing’s phenomenal influence.
A house divided?
Though undoubtedly one of the most powerful international alliances, NATO is not free of challenges which do not stop with outside forces such as Russia and China but emanate from within. A marked lack of cohesion has been seen among its members on several occasions.
Though the Agenda 2030 claims to counter “authoritarian” regimes who act against the Alliance’s “shared values” of a “democratic way of life”, it must introspect the actions of many of its member states who fail its fundamental beliefs. Both Turkey and Hungary have drawn fire for their authoritarian measures such as suppression of human rights. Ankara continues to purchase the S400 missile defence system from Moscow which French President Macron described as the “brain death” of NATO. Turkey is not alone Germany, Czech Republic and Hungary have also questioned a hardline policy towards Russia.
The differences between France and Turkey too threaten the efficiency of the Alliance. Tensions escalated last year after some extremist incidents made French President Macron call Islam a ‘problematic’ religion. The statement drew flak from different Islamic countries including Pakistan and Turkey. Erdogan reiterated by saying that the French President needed ‘mental checks’ and hoped that France ‘gets rid of Macron soon’ which made the former blame Turkey for trying to meddle in the upcoming 2022 Presidential elections. The two have rattled swords over Ankara’s policies in Syria, Libya and Eastern Mediterranean. Though in the recent summit, the two agreed to mutually resolve bilateral tensions, only time will tell how successful the negotiations can be.
Tensions between Greece and Turkey too have worsened to the verge of a military conflict after Ankara signed a maritime deal with the Government of National Accord in Libya emphasizing on its economic sphere of influence in the Eastern Mediterranean, disregarding several of Greek islands such as Rhodes and Crete. Militarisation of the Greek islands in the Eastern Aegean Sea has also been an issue of contention.
The question of burden sharing among the members too remains a sticky issue. Since the 2006 summit, the members have agreed to allocate 2% of their GDP to defense. However, few members have been able to do so. Under ‘Proposal 2: Strengthened Deterrence and Defence’ of the 2030 Agenda, the members reaffirmed the importance of the 2014 Defence Investment Pledge and continuity of the promise to spend 20% of the annual defence spending on development of major new equipment by 2024. As claimed by the Agenda, 2021 forms the seventh consecutive year of increased defence spending across European allies and Canada with more than $260 billion additionally spent on defence since 2014. The new challenges and suggested countermeasures would further lead to enhancement of individual contributions, creating possible strains.
Amid such internal tensions, the challenge posed by the rise of China seems to provide a renewed raison d’être to the Alliance. However, are all members on the same page when it comes to opposing Beijing?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who represents the wealthiest European allied nation, stated that the threat of Russia still outweighed that of China. She argued that though Beijing’s activities specifically in the Indo-Pacific pose a challenge, the threat must not be “overestimated” and a “right balance” must be found.
Macron, similarly, argued that the members must not “bias” their relationship with China and should not confuse its goals.
China remains a vital economic partner for both Germany and France. As of 2020, Beijing remained Germany’s largest trading partner for the 5th consecutive year. Though France has time and again voiced concerns over Beijing’s overtures, China has been France’s 2nd largest supplier and 7th largest customer. Moreover, Beijing represented France’s largest trade deficit (€29.2 billion in 2018). French exports to China increased from €1805 million in March 2021 to €2333 million in April 2021. China also remains Canada’s second most important bilateral commercial partner.
While the members may call out China, they wouldn’t want to hamper their economic ties with Beijing especially as the coronavirus pandemic has taken a heavy toll on most economies of the world.
The road ahead
With several unresolved internal issues, the road ahead seems a bumpy ride for NATO. The rise of China does pose a major challenge to the members both economically as well as militarily. However, the solution cannot be sought in isolating it for there is perhaps no corner of the world today untouched by China’s economic influence. The NATO members must realize that confrontation will not result in a constructive solution. With its economic and military might, it is impossible to coerce China into action. The current plan also threatens to instigate an arms race which would not just threaten the delicate security environment but might also hamper economic sustainability of many smaller and less resourceful NATO members.
Although the US has been trying to build a front to contain China, its European allies clearly see Russia as a greater threat not just because of their close economic engagements with Beijing but also because many of them share geographical proximity with Moscow. In the time to come, Beijing might not replace Moscow as the topmost concern when it comes to European threat perception.
The fact that China has emerged as a superpower cannot be denied. Any resolution of conflict must come through dialogue. As for NATO, the saying goes, Empires decay from within. The internal contradictions are glaring and must be resolved before dealing with external concerns.
Cherry Hitkari is a postgraduate student of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.