August 29, 2020
by Michael Trinkwalder
Some argue that, when it comes to China, there is no role for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). After all, it appears rather unlikely that China will conduct an “armed attack” in either “Europe or North America.” Yet, such views disregard that the North Atlantic Treaty consists of more than just a mutual defense clause. The treaty also commits its signatories to protect and preserve “the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law” and China’s growing assertiveness undoubtedly threatens these principles. As such, the question should not be if there is a role for NATO on China, but instead, how the alliance must adapt to the challenge of a rising China through partnerships, cooperation, and selective action.
Empower Allies and Strengthen Partners
Unfortunately, the “China challenge” is strongest in areas where the alliance has neither competences nor expertise—including investment screening or economic and technology policy—but NATO can address this issue by seeking out suitable partners. In Europe, NATO’s natural partner in the politico-economic sphere would be the European Union (EU). NATO could offer the EU preferential access to the alliance’s expertise in the areas of security analysis, strategic foresight, and military risk assessment. While there is already some informal EU-NATO information sharing, a more structured relationship would facilitate a better Euro-Atlantic response to China’s rise. This partnership would be particularly relevant in regard to the security implications of Chinese investments. After all, conducting military operations in the Mediterranean could become rather difficult, if the ports the alliance wants to use “are not only built by but owned by Chinese.”
The EU has been lauded for creating several new tools and measures aimed at preventing predatory Chinese behavior, such as a new investment screening mechanism and the EU toolbox on 5G. Yet, these new measures are in many cases aimed at empowering national institutions, which either do not yet exist or do not have the appropriate structure to effectively manage their new responsibilities. Accordingly, NATO members should help each other with the creation of new regulatory tools like investment screening mechanisms. Once these national institutions make a decision, such as rejecting the participation of a high-risk 5G provider like Huawei, the rest of the alliance must also be prepared to support them.
Scope for Cooperation?
Despite the growing discord between China and some alliance members, there is still room for cooperation. At the same time as COVID-19 was becoming a major source of international friction, NATO-managed cargo planes were also transporting urgently needed medical supplies from China to NATO countries. Since 2010, there has been an annual NATO-China military dialogue, which has provided a useful forum to discuss topics of mutual interests. Now might be the time to launch a more ambitious platform to better address the multifaceted character of the relationship—such as a NATO-China Council.
Such a forum would not only help to streamline the disparate bilateral dialogues of the alliance members with Beijing but could also pave the way towards a more constructive NATO-China relationship. Ultimately, even the Chinese government might come to recognize that having an open communication channel with the most powerful military alliance in the world would serve as an important conflict resolution mechanism. While NATO members shouldn’t be naïve about the depth of such cooperation, they must never forget that this is not the Cold War. If at all possible, the alliance should avoid turning it into one.
Pick your Battles, Know your Limits
It may sound counter-intuitive, but NATO should consider very carefully if and how much to get involved in countering Chinese assertiveness. It would be tempting to try and counteract every potentially harmful Chinese initiative at the alliance level. However, an activist approach risks needlessly alienating China, where fears of containment are never far from the imagination. More importantly, if too many issues are treated as existential to the alliance then none are. This has been amply demonstrated by the 5G issue, where even stark US warnings have lost much of their impact on its European allies. Although multiple European countries now appear to be moving away from employing Chinese 5G providers, this is happening more in spite of US efforts than because of them. NATO should only get involved if and where it can provide added value. Otherwise, China-related issues should be left to the EU, national governments, or other institutions better suited to the task.
At the London summit in 2019, NATO leaders publicly addressed the issue of China for the first time in the history of the alliance. It may have been just a single sentence, but its appearance in one of NATO’s joint declarations marks a significant shift in policy; China has put itself firmly on the alliance’s radar, and it is unlikely to disappear from it anytime soon. Now, however, NATO must follow-up this policy shift with concrete, measured action. An effective Euro-Atlantic response to the rise of China will be more akin to a marathon than a sprint, and NATO must pace itself.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly or any of its members.
Author : YPFP