Friend or foe: China has NATO worried

A new report warns NATO that a rising China poses "acute challenges." But if the alliance only considers Beijing a "bully" and not a "threat," is there enough reason to rally?

The biggest headlines out of an expert group's new 'reflection paper,' NATO 2030, are centered on China, a country the alliance didn't even formally discuss until last year. Last week, foreign ministers approved the first-ever assessment of China-NATO relations, which remains classified.

Meanwhile, Beijing has built up the second-largest defense budget in the world.

China on the rise

Now, analysts are rushing to correct what may have been years of serious strategic oversight and underestimates.

"Russia will remain the primary military threat to NATO for the foreseeable future," a co-chair of the expert group, former US diplomat Wess Mitchell, said in a discussion on the report, but the "rise of China is the single biggest, most consequential change in NATO's strategic environment and one that the alliance really has to reckon with."

The group, whose other co-chair is former German defense minister Thomas de Maiziere, urges the alliance to "devote much more time, political resources and action to the security challenges posed by China."

The most robust of the report's recommendations suggests greater investment in NATO's "ability to monitor and defend against any Chinese activities that could impact collective defense, military readiness and/or resilience."

Furthermore, if the allies perceive any threat from the Asian superpower, the "NATO must be able to demonstrate its ability to be an effective actor to provide protection," the report says.

Far from friend

But an initial hurdle to achieving these goals lies within the alliance itself, in the difficulty of shepherding 30 governments' disparate positions into a unified assessment of the situation.

At the moment, NATO's own rhetoric can be best summed up in Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's statement that China "does not share our values, it undermines human rights, it bullies other countries and is increasingly engaging in a systemic competition with us." Nonetheless, Beijing is not seen as an adversary, much less a threat.

However, the United States, most often in the person of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has tried to push and pull allies to the hawkish end of the spectrum.

Lauren Speranza, Director of Transatlantic Defense and Security at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), says to some extent it's working. "There has been a significant sea change in the mindsets of European policy leaders, who are waking up to the severity of the China challenge," she told DW.

But when it comes to the alliance's willingness to act," Speranza adds, "too many NATO members are still hung up on the short-term economic benefits of Chinese investment, making it easier for them to neglect the security risks."

Coronavirus changed calculus

The German Marshall Fund's Bruno Lete agrees that convergence is coming and he believes Beijing's behavior during the coronavirus crisis has sped up the process. "We're much closer to a transatlantic threat perception vis-a-vis China than was the case a year ago," Lete told DW. But he doesn't believe there will be any military response.

"The focus will be to take a political position," he said, with emphasis on strengthening "NATO's relationship with partner nations such as Australia and Japan, who are really feeling the heat of Chinese influence."

Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies (CREAS), says NATO's concerns are well warranted, especially given the "de facto entente between Russia and China, and their combined strengths...[with] both seeking to erode western institutions and values."

Challenges for, not just because of, China

Fallon thinks China will have worries of its own. "There is an entire spectrum of tools to use which are short of hard-power which Beijing fears," she explained, "which include blocking of Chinese investment in strategic infrastructure, controls on the export of dual-use goods, and thwarting the growth of China's digital silk road." 

Beijing will work hard, Fallon said, to prevent the growing cohesion by using the same techniques it has "successfully deployed" in the European Union, for example, to "pull countries into its orbit to prevent these organizations from speaking with one voice."

Among such countries, the Balkans provide a particularly attractive combination of interests for Beijing, according to Jelena Milic, Director of the Belgrade-based Center of Euro-Atlantic Studies (CEAS), which advocates closer ties with NATO. "The Balkans are convenient" for China, she explained, "as we do not have harsh ecological and procurement regulations and have more 'flexible' rule of law."

The region is important real estate for Beijing, Milic points out, as it connects the ports China already owns in Greece - to NATO's consternation - to the European Union. In addition, the U.S.'s accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 continues to serve the interests of those wanting to stoke animosity to NATO.

CEPA's Speranza says NATO has plenty of options to deter China from continuing to try to expand its influence and "manipulate critical infrastructure," but that it needs to get more comfortable using those capabilities at a situation well below Article 5 - the call for collective defense in the North Atlantic Treaty signed in 1949.

"This will be key to the alliance maintaining its strategic edge in the competition with China," she said, "but we're not quite there yet."