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.

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JR
JR
21 days ago

The article asks “what exactly should NATO’s China strategy look like?” Maybe it should become something else, more global, such as WITO (Western Ideals Treaty Organisation). Isn’t that NATOs ultimate end game – world military domination?

Last edited 21 days ago by JR
Positroll
Positroll
20 days ago
Reply to  JR

Only in the minds of paranoid Russians, projecting their imperial ambitions on everyone else. Or people paid by them.

Geoff Roach
Geoff Roach
20 days ago
Reply to  JR

I think we should all look at the highly democratic processes of China, Iran, Russia and North Korea before the west tries for global domination or of course they could give their people a free vote and see what happens.

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
18 days ago
Reply to  JR

NATO is a defensive alliance. Regional domination, let alone world military domination, has never been part of the mandate.

Tommo
Tommo
17 days ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

Correct only when article 5 is inacted such as the 911 attacks does Nato become an offensive organisation, the best way Nato can continue as a counter weight too countries such as Chiba and a resurgent Russia,, is to cut loose the Deadwood, France let them construct their own EU defence Organisation Gtaham

Positroll
Positroll
20 days ago

“NATO should strive to fortify relations with its partners in the Pacific – such as … Australia”
I guess this was written before AUKUS? In such cases, one should really give an author a chance to rework his article instead of publishing it as-is …

“At one extreme, India could be offered full NATO membership ”
India has been friendly with the USSR and is a friend of Russia. That idea is patently absurd for anyone on the continent.

simon alexander
simon alexander
20 days ago
Reply to  Positroll

macron now offering the french security council seat to the eu in exchange for a euro army.

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
18 days ago

You can’t be serious?
France gained its P5 seat by being one of the victorious powers in WW2, but I always thought that was a bit dubious given that they folded in 6 weeks, were occupied for 5 years and were largely liberated by US, British and Canadian troops. De Gaulle did some ridiculous showboating in the Paris victory parade when he had spent the war in London. They were lucky to get the seat and I thought Macron would hold on to it at all costs – they do like their national sovereignty.

Bluemoonday
Bluemoonday
17 days ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

Are you seriously arguing that Britain would have fared any better against the Nazi war machine at that stage of the war? The Channel was all that stood between Hitler and complete Western European domination in 1940. Or have you forgotten about Dunkirk?

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
17 days ago
Reply to  Bluemoonday

It would have helped if the French had built the Maginot line properly. You know without 2 great big gaping holes in it. The line should have covered the Ardennes forest for starters and secondly Belgium and the Netherlands, if they’d had any sense, would have worked with France to extend the line along their borders with Germany. Since they didn’t do this, France should have simply continued the line up to the Channel along Belgium’s border with France. AIUI the line held where it existed.

Last edited 17 days ago by Hugh Jarce
Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
16 days ago
Reply to  Bluemoonday

No, he is saying the French got a UNSC seat by doing very little to earn one. And he is correct.

Whether the channel is there as an accident of geography is irrelevant.

Might as well say Hitler was lucky the western powers did not move against him in 1936 when the Nazis moved on the Rhineland.

It is all moot.

Bluemoonday
Bluemoonday
16 days ago

When the war ended, the French still remained an influential colonial presence around the globe. They were also the strongest Western ally left on the continent, as American paranoia about Soviet aggression took hold. Regarding my comment on the Channel; what I was suggesting is that criticising the French for falling to the Germans, infers that the British would have done better? I feel safe in saying that not many observers of that period would reach that conclusion. As a small example, many critics of the French defensive strategy point to their failure to prevent an attack through the Ardennes.… Read more »

eclipse
eclipse
16 days ago
Reply to  Bluemoonday

By “repeated that error” I assume you mean the Battle of the Bulge. Calling it an error isn’t true since it didn’t work. Even though the Allies were pushed back at first it did not achieve Hitler’s aim in breaking Allied lines and pushing into France once more. Even had this tactic succeeded the end for the Nazis would have only been pushed off; air supremacy, control of shipping lanes and victory in the Battle of the Atlantic, industrial might, and the Soviet Union’s millions of men and tanks crashing down on the other side would have and did decide… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli
Daniele Mandelli
16 days ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

Agreed.

eclipse
eclipse
16 days ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

I suspect the main reason for giving France a seat is to ensure that America and Britain had a majority on the UNSC. China, USSR, Britain and America had credible claims to be on it. While India and Canada arguably played larger roles than France, they were at the time under the umbrella of the British Empire and couldn’t be on the SC. The only other country that could remotely claim it played a role as a victor of WW2 was France. Btw, I’m aware that the UNSC P5 function on vetoes and all have to agree or abstain for… Read more »

Last edited 16 days ago by eclipse
Branaboy
Branaboy
15 days ago
Reply to  eclipse

You all forget that the Republic of China ( Nationalist now running Taiwan) though overrun by Imperial Japan and then losing the main land) held a permanent security council seat until the 1970 when it was transferred to the Communist People’s Republic. So France on those basis also deserved a permanent seat as it was an original member of the alliance that in 1939 declared war to fight Fascism in Europe and protect Poland’s sovereignty and confront Imperial Japan in the far East. Without France first declaring solidarity with Poland first, there would have been no western alliance for Russia… Read more »

Sean
Sean
14 days ago
Reply to  Graham Moore

France only got a P5 seat because Churchill didn’t want the U.K. to be the only European power with the responsibility of underwriting security in Europe. He thought the French should share the burden, and the cost involved. The French were lucky in getting the seat. When Germany was divided up between the victorious allied powers, the French Zone was composed of areas carved from the U.K. and US zones, as the USSR didn’t believe they deserved any.

Graham Moore
Graham Moore
14 days ago
Reply to  Sean

Hi Sean, that makes sense to me. I can see why the USSR thought France should not get the P5 seat – France did little to win the war. In fact by caving in (and quickly), they provided Germany with a close base to attack us from by air and sea for 5 years, so they were net negative in their contribution.

Peter S
Peter S
20 days ago

” China’s domination is economic and technological not military and territorial” I’m not sure this is entirely true. Much of China’s technology is at best copied, at worst stolen. Their big success has been in producing cheap goods by exploiting their vast and poverty stricken rural population. Much of what they produce is of poor quality, something that also affects their military equipment. But as with Taiwan and South Korea, the quality of product gradually improves. So China is economically powerful if still technologically inferior. Nor is China’s domination confined to this. It has augmented its territory by invasion and… Read more »

Supportive Bloke
Supportive Bloke
20 days ago
Reply to  Peter S

There is the matrix point of enough volume of something crossed over with good enough for it to be a real threat? Whereas the way UK seemed to be going was exquisite levels of equipment in tiny numbers. OK that comes back to the old value / accuracy arguments if you need 10 XYZ and you have 1000 of them to take out target ABC rather than 1 QRS to take out said target and you have 100 of them: is one really better than the other? OK then you get into vulnerability of single platforms as opposed to diffuse… Read more »

JR
JR
20 days ago

Are the UKs growing global ambitions any different to China’s, albeit on a vastly smaller scale?

JR
JR
20 days ago
Reply to  JR

The west fed the dragon to satisfy it’s middle class lifestyles and short term capitalist agendas. Now the dragon is too big and wants to spread it’s wings. The dragons own people in the east now feed it, it doesn’t need the west anymore. All the west can do is try and kill the dragon. WW3

Last edited 20 days ago by JR
Steve M
Steve M
20 days ago
Reply to  JR

‘Dragons Fury’ by Jeff Head !!!!

AlexS
AlexS
20 days ago
Reply to  Peter S

“I’m not sure this is entirely true. Much of China’s technology is at best copied, at worst stolen.”

You really think that China with +1 Billion persons isn’t creative?

Peter S
Peter S
20 days ago
Reply to  AlexS

That has been its route for years, whether it’s retro engineering Russian aircraft or straight copying of car designs etc. One of the biggest causes of friction between China and the USA has been the issue of the theft of intellectual property, not to mention the hacking of military secrets. China has been able to achieve accelerated development by these means but has now reached the point of being able to design and manufacture original designs. In some areas, advanced jet engines for example, it is still having problems. China is facing a number of problems. Its one child policy… Read more »

Gfor
Gfor
15 days ago
Reply to  AlexS

Do you think China is creative?
It is one of the main reasons China sends so many students to Westernised countries for university education.
You have to look at the country and especially its education system to realise it struggles to nurture the inquisitive and creative side of children.
It is noteworthy that Chinese students at university still struggle with this, but the occasional few do get something out of it.

Spyinthesky
Spyinthesky
20 days ago
Reply to  Peter S

Precisely to think their is no question of expansion is naive in the extreme. Vassal states is the initial aim but who knows what thereafter as land or asset ownership is integral to its economic expansion and influence.

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
17 days ago
Reply to  Peter S

“First by countering its economic strength. The West needs to wean itself off cheap Chinese consumer goods and components such as microchips on which we have become dependent.” I totally agree (although rare earths are a serious problem since so many come from China), but I can’t see this happening. Western companies love being filthy rich and Western consumers love cheap products, even when it’s totally against their best interests from a security standpoint. That said, even if you WANT to buy products not made in China (and are prepared to pay a premium), it’s not easy because so much… Read more »

Last edited 17 days ago by Hugh Jarce
Klonkie
Klonkie
20 days ago

I’d suggest the PACRIM regions need a NATO type agreement for our region. An attack on one is an attack on all. That will give the Chinese’s something to think about.

Frank62
Frank62
20 days ago
Reply to  Klonkie

Indeed, that may come, hopefully including Taiwan. S Korean-Japanese relations need a massive improvement though. But so long as we don’t allow the PRC to pick them off in detail, the combined strength of China’s neighbours should hold her in check territorally. That’s why it’s so important not to allow any more territory seizues, like the SCS 9 dash line, Taiwan or any more annexations.

Mickey
Mickey
19 days ago
Reply to  Frank62

Totally agree. The closest thing I have seen in defence cooperation between these three countries is intelligence sharing between South Korea and Japan. Japan made a commitment to Taiwan that it would come to its aid if attacked. Japan is assuming the US would be there too.

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
17 days ago
Reply to  Mickey

“Japan is assuming the US would be there too.”

That’s a big assumption.

Mickey
Mickey
15 days ago
Reply to  Hugh Jarce

Big assumption indeed.

Frank62
Frank62
20 days ago

Given the high levels of PRC global & domestic propaganda, if it upsets them like that, it’s probably on target:Not because we’re out to upset them, but stand firm against the CCP extending its sinister tentacles across the globe, seeking total control. Most of the accusations against us are things the CCP are doing, often more so. Of course NATO needs a common strategy against the strongest force for oppression in the world present & future. Glad the mask has slipped recently & we’re waking up to the threat. Rampant western myopic greed amongst top capitalists has enabled this threat… Read more »

James
James
20 days ago

The simplest thing to do is stop foreign companies setting up in China and using the place to build everything. Financially will impact them and will also stop them controlling supplies of far too many things.

It wont happen unfortunately but collectively western governments should start subsidising companies on a large scale to produce in said country instead.

Will also stop China stealing every bit of tech from said companies the second they start making anything in the country.

Mark B
Mark B
19 days ago

I suspect there will be a club similar to NATO but focusing on the Pacific and Indian Oceans. I would not be surprised if members of that club were not also members of NATO. It rather depends if they view themselves as global powers or not.

Does it matter if China is intending on using military force or not? Surely the logic of deterence holds either way.

Meirion x
Meirion x
15 days ago
Reply to  Mark B

Yes Mark, similar to my view as well.

Hermes
Hermes
19 days ago

“President Macron of France, donning the NATO-sceptic mantle of his hero, Charles de Gaulle”:

Sorry but not, Macron is not a “Gaulliste”, being french doesnt mean being gaulliste, all of what Macron has done is against the de Gaulle view of what he wants for France and the EU.
Macron is more federalist and want to share as a part of a “United States of Europe”.
de Gaulle was more in a view where europeans countries will enhance each others by a common view of the world while keeping their sovereignity

simon alexander
simon alexander
19 days ago
Reply to  Hermes

i find the french position so interesting as they could have have adopted the air craft ‘QE’ carrier program with us, we could now be having joint anglo french exercises at sea.

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
17 days ago

What would that have achieved? Carriers that can’t get close to China to launch F-35Bs because of DF-26 (and Kinzhal for that matter). A carrier group staying out of the range of DF-26 is impotent. Carrier groups are currently useless against China (and Russia) unless we can find a way to refuel the F-35Bs* and significantly increase their range.

*This comment also applies to the F-35C, Super Hornet and Rafale M.

Last edited 17 days ago by Hugh Jarce
John Hartley
John Hartley
18 days ago

Reshoring. Hard to take a tough line with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), if you depend on China for a lot of your supplies. We need to increase tariffs on Chinese goods & use that to fund a sovereign wealth fund to build new factories in the UK.

Jonathan
Jonathan
17 days ago

We really need a strategy to manage our weakness and that’s neo liberal capitalism, the view that the market means everything literally means that if chine makes it cheaper we destroy our own security and wealth. China figured out the best way to defeat the west was to use it’s own neoliberalism against it by resurrecting an old idea Mercantilism. It’s brilliant really they sell everything cheaper than we can produce it and we destroy our own wealth creating industries as well as hand over all our wealth to China. without wealth and wealth creation a nation cannot defend itself….we… Read more »

Hugh Jarce
Hugh Jarce
17 days ago
Reply to  Jonathan

“without wealth and wealth creation a nation cannot defend itself….we are literally losing a geopolitical conflict one cheap plastic toy at a time.”

A bit simplistic, because it’s not just toys, but you’re essentially right.

George Parker
George Parker
16 days ago

NATO needs a new SEATO. With the defence of Taiwan and freeing the Chinese people from CCP tyranny, front and centre.

Meirion x
Meirion x
15 days ago
Reply to  George Parker

SEATO was nothing to do with NATO,
Only that two member Nations of SEATO were members of NATO as well.

I think it is up to the nations of South-east Asia/Pacific to form a NATO like organisation, to defend the region.
The UK could help the process though diplomacy, but not demand it.

George Parker
George Parker
14 days ago
Reply to  Meirion x

Hence my suggestion for a new SEATO. The old defunct version was non-functional. There were eight full members of SEATO and 3 associated, under their protection. There was some overlap with NATO.

Proposed members of the new military alliance SEATO – India, Taiwan, Japan, Philippines, Burma, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, Canada, USA, GB. Open to others.
That alliance could defeat the CCP both politically and militarily if necessary.

peter cann
peter cann
14 days ago

“despite tension over the Uyghurs’ human rights and Hong Kong’s national security law.” Given the fact that these are not real things, or in the case of H.K., nobody elses business, of course, there is still economic co-operation. The world is capitalist and run by the money, not by ideology or ethics.