In December 2019, NATO awoke to read its own obituary.
President Macron of France, donning the NATO-sceptic mantle of his hero, Charles de Gaulle, had blasted the Alliance as “brain-dead” in an interview with the Economist, where he also cast doubt over the effectiveness of Article 5 in the post-Cold War era.
This article was submitted by James Smith. James Smith is a student barrister in London. He holds an LLM from University College London and an LLB from Warwick. He will be joining NATO’s International Staff next year.
This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.
Determined, in the words of Mark Twain, to prove that reports of its death were an exaggeration, NATO commissioned a blueprint for the future of transatlantic relations. The fruit of these labours was ‘NATO 2030’. Most striking was its focus on one country: China.
Beijing reacted with fury. It accused NATO of creating “an excuse to manipulate bloc politics, create confrontation, and fuel geopolitical competition”. More menacingly, it went on to say:
“If anyone wants to pose a ‘systemic challenge’ to us, we will not remain indifferent.”
This waspish response is perhaps surprising, given that ‘NATO 2030’ is a rather modest document, replete with such equivocations as:
“We recognize that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.”
Indeed, at NATO’s most recent summit in June, the Secretary-General remained adamant that China was “not an adversary”.
But we ought to praise “NATO 2030”, not bury it. Ultimately, what matters is that NATO powers recognised China for the “systemic challenge” it poses. Now is the time for the Alliance to look eastward.
Admittedly, NATO seems an improbable vehicle to co-ordinate the West’s response to China. This is partly down to simple geography. An alliance committed to the defence of Europe under the looming shadow of Soviet invasion seems ill-equipped to deal with a rising power in the Far East. Different also is the nature of the threat. China’s domination is economic and technological, not military and territorial – so we might doubt whether a political-military organisation is the proper actor. Consensus among the Allies remains elusive, too. After NATO’s most recent round of talks, Angela Merkel reaffirmed that “Russia, above all, is the major challenge”. President Macron said, “China has nothing to do with the North Atlantic.”
Moreover, the UK’s Integrated Review sought to deepen the country’s economic ties with China – despite tension over the Uyghurs’ human rights and Hong Kong’s national security law.
However, there are good reasons to welcome NATO’s pivot to the Asia-Pacific. The threat China poses is – at least in part – a military one. China’s defence spending amounts to around 70% of the US defence budget. To show for it, they have a beefed-up navy capable of conducting expeditionary operations in the Mediterranean and the Baltic – so its long arm does not reach only into the Asia-Pacific. Chinese state-owned enterprises have interests in the European ports of Valencia (Spain) and Vado (Italy) – a development viewed with horror and alarm in NATO’s senior military circles, who fear being deprived of key strategic ports.
As Jens Stoltenberg, the organisation’s Secretary-General, has observed:
“China is coming closer to us, we see that in the Arctic, we see they are heavily investing in critical infrastructure in Europe, and we see of course China also operating in cyberspace.”
So, while China is not seeking a direct military confrontation, we cannot cleave the strategic risks from its economic dominance.
A more difficult question is: what exactly should NATO’s China strategy look like? Some parts of it will be – dare I say – obvious. Artificial intelligence, for example. Under NATO’s own AI strategy, the Alliance will hunt down new AI systems and consider possible military applications. On technology, too, the Alliance lags behind – as it well knows. “For decades, NATO allies have been leading when it comes to technology, but that’s not obvious any more,” the Secretary-General has told the Financial Times. What, however, lies beyond that?
I have some suggestions. For one, NATO should strive to fortify relations with its partners in the Pacific – such India, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. Especially India. To strengthen NATO-India relations, the Alliance has a range of approaches. At one extreme, India could be offered full NATO membership – although this is unlikely. India could also become a NATO partner.
At another extreme, NATO and India could forge their own customised partnership. While less firmly entrenched than other, more institutionalised arrangements this would secure a much-coveted tilt by India away from Russia and China. For another, some commentators have advocated a NATO-China Council – in the fashion of the NATO-Russia Council. This could be inspired. Some co-operation with China is certainly necessary – for example, on counter-piracy operations.
Above all, a China strategy would give NATO new spirit, new vitality. Adapting to emerging threats gives the Alliance renewed purpose in the aftermath of the Cold War, showing that the world’s oldest military alliance has enduring value. Though much has been taken from NATO, much abides as well.