COLOGNE, Germany — An influential report by NATO advisers has urged the alliance to find a common course toward standing up to China, nixing proposals to create a direct line of communication with Beijing in the style of the NATO-Russia Council.
The recommendation is included in a new report by the so-called Reflection Group, which started its work on reforming the alliance in April. Member states tasked Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the December 2019 summit in London with beginning a comprehensive soul-searching period about NATO’s raison d’être and its inner workings.
The report, which was produced by the advisory panel and unveiled this week, minces no words when it comes to China as a rising threat. “The scale of Chinese power and global reach poses acute challenges to open and democratic societies, particularly because of that country’s trajectory to greater authoritarianism and an expansion of its territorial ambitions,” it stated.
Unlike Russia, which the authors argue poses a more near-term threat to Europe’s security, the rise of China has the potential to affect the alliance’s security fortunes in the long run.
“China is the most consequential challenger,” said Wess Mitchell, a former diplomat who spearheaded the U.S. State Department’s Europe policy under the Trump administration until early 2019.
Mitchell co-chaired the Reflection Group along with Thomas de Maizière, a German lawmaker and former defense minister.
According to Mitchell, the advisers debated at length the idea of formal consultations with Beijing by way of a dedicated council, but they ultimately ditched the idea.
“We first need to come to a consensus on how to talk about China, not yet with China,” he said during an online event Thursday organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That’s the dialogue that needs to happen.”
To find such a consensus, de Maizière said NATO should foster a “new culture of consultations” among member states. That process could lead to a dedicated “body” within the alliance structure dedicated only to Chinese matters.
Officials on both sides of the Atlantic are putting a lot of stock in U.S. President-elect Joe Biden to reinvigorate the frosty relationship under outgoing President Donald Trump. Making NATO into a political organization, versus a strictly military one, is a key component of the reform group’s recommendations.
“This is the only place where North America and Europe come together on a daily basis to decide and act,” Stoltenberg said.
Amid the report’s portrayal of China as a force intent on world domination, Anna Wieslander, a defense analyst with the Atlantic Council, said the alliance should not forget about “dialogue paths” with Beijing.
Indeed, the experts’ report said NATO should “keep open the prospect of political dialogue on shared interests and differences,” for example in arms control.
“In all of its actions toward China, NATO should continue to show that it has no quarrel with the Chinese people and that any actions it undertakes are defensive in nature and in response to the stated intentions or actions of the current Chinese government,” the report stated.
A cluster of recommendations aims to streamline NATO decision-making. While the principle of consensus decisions within the alliance will remain in place, officials should find ways to end the practice of single states using unanimity as “an excuse for blockage,” de Maizière said.
In addition, the alliance should allow for select members to break off and conduct missions on their own, albeit with the endorsement of NATO, he said.
In effect, such a move would allow the organization to “claim the framework of ‘coalitions of the willing’ ” as a routine deployment mode, said Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, who heads the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.