Saturday, 27 February 2021

NATO at 70: Why China has become a strategic challenge

On 4th December 2019, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) will host a ‘Leader’s Meeting’ in London to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the alliance. This essay – which looks at the challenge from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) – is the final of a three-part series by Dr Andrew Foxall, Matthew Henderson and James Rogers, with a focus on NATO at 70.

Since Xi Jinping became head of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, the PRC has become increasingly assertive in projecting its power globally. Beijing now possesses an aggressive economic, political, intelligence and military presence in many regions across the world where the United States (US) had largely been unchallenged since the end of the Cold War. Despite underlying mistrust and a tacit rivalry, China has drawn in Russia to mount a parallel, partly collaborative, challenge to the US, other major democratic states, and the wider rules-based international order.

It should come as little surprise, then, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is starting to look at the PRC with elevated suspicion. As allied leaders prepare to meet in London on 4th December 2019 to mark NATO’s 70th anniversary, China will be near the front of their thoughts.

The centre of gravity in today’s world is shifting towards the Indo-Pacific, in both economic and strategic spheres. While China still lags behind the US in terms of military capability, Beijing’s development, theft and mastery of cutting edge military technologies poses a qualitative challenge to US supremacy and a threat to traditional concepts of strategic balance. The PRC’s many threats to the liberal international order include subverting democracy, supporting (and selling repressive surveillance systems to) undemocratic regimes, proliferating novel weapons such as heavy armed drones, and laying claim to and militarising the South China Sea in contravention of international law.

China is increasingly active in NATO’s extended area of responsibility including the ‘Wider North’ – the North Atlantic, the Arctic and the Baltic – the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal area, and the Gulf of Aden. The PRC is also active in much of the Indo-Pacific, where it poses a particular threat to Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore, while challenging Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US.

Under Mr Xi, China’s engagement with the outside world has been confrontational, probing and sharp. Beijing has targeted NATO allies through theft of their military and dual-use technology, intellectual property, and expertise; espionage of cyber and human resources; covert and overt influence operations; elite capture and corruption; pressure to build 5G systems using insecure Chinese technology; interference in democratic processes; and aggressive acquisition of key national infrastructure, such as ports and nuclear energy facilities. All of these pose real and tangible dangers to the security of NATO and its members.

The US now considers the PRC as a ‘strategic competitor’. The UK and EU are beginning to adopt a more assertive tone, with the latter defining it as a ‘systemic rival’ in relation to unwelcome aspects of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Nevertheless, Europe in general remains paralysed by deep commercial dependencies, while individual European countries differ broadly in their perceptions of China from a commercial partner to an economic competitor.

The PRC is now the largest trading partner for most European countries – including Germany – ahead of the US, while Italy has joined the BRI. A number of countries, not least Greece and Hungary, have received significant Chinese investment in infrastructure projects. Across the continent as a whole, debate abounds about whether at all, and to what extent, countries should allow the Chinese network supplier Huawei to operate in them. In the face of China’s ploy for regional influence, Europe is ideologically, economically, politically and militarily weak and divided. As Jan Techau, Director of the Europe Programme at the German Marshall Fund, has observed, ‘China paralyses decision-making in Europe’.

Only the combined power of NATO is capable of upholding the defence of Europe. The most pressing threat to NATO’s interests is connected to China’s strategic extension of control into more than a dozen Mediterranean and other European ports. Taken together, these ports handle around 10% of Europe’s container capacity. Expanding control of key Mediterranean ports, following on from Chinese acquisitions in the Gulf of Aden and investment in the Suez Canal region, seriously compromises NATO supremacy in the heart of European maritime space. 

The first Russian and Chinese joint naval exercises began in the Mediterranean in early 2015 and the Baltic in 2017 – activities that underscore China’s challenge to NATO in its own front yard. Likewise, they also present a riposte to US naval manoeuvres in the South China Sea and near Taiwan. China has taken swift advantage of regional tension and discord to extend its Mediterranean foothold. If an unfocused, under-resourced NATO and an increasingly Pacific-oriented US together loosen their hold on stability and security in the Mediterranean, China is increasingly well placed to shoulder them aside.

Kay Bailey Hutchison, US Ambassador to NATO, is clear on the way forward:

America brings a lot to the NATO alliance…We need to face China together. The Europeans should not think that they can meet the challenge of a rising China without the breadth and depth of experience that we have in our security umbrella.

So, as NATO’s leaders meet in London on 4th December, they would do well to recognise that the rise of the PRC, and its semi-strategic collaboration with Russia, poses a challenge to the rules-based international order that can no longer be left to the US, bilateral diplomacy, or market forces to hold in check. NATO therefore needs to establish consensus on a strategic response to China’s geopolitical aspirations. Unlike the regional challenge from Russia, the PRC’s ambitions are global, and represent the most significant strategic challenge to NATO and democracy since the downfall of the Soviet Union. This is not merely a matter of China’s geo-economic reach. It is about the strategic implications of China’s westward drive to the Middle East and the Mediterranean and the country’s expansion into new theatres, including the Wider North.

Working together with the US, Britain ought to encourage NATO literally to pull itself together and restore Euro-Atlantic unity, so it can take coordinated steps that will prevent the emergence of a dystopian new world ‘order’ based on Beijing’s arbitrary, self-interested diktat.

This is the final part of a three-part series focusing on NATO at 70. The first essay, by James Rogers, assesses defence spending and burden sharing in the alliance, while the second essay, by Dr Andrew Foxall, looks at NATO’s growing role in Space.

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