At the recent NATO foreign ministers’ meeting, China was on the front burner. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted that China is not considered by NATO to be an adversary, but that China’s rise has direct consequences for alliance security. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken listed China first when speaking of major power threats to other countries. China will have a prominent place in NATO’s emerging new Strategic Concept. But many of America’s trans-Atlantic partners still take a fairly narrow view of China’s military impact on the alliance.
The focus tends to be on security aspects of Chinese investments in European infrastructure, the vulnerability of defense supply chains containing material made in China, the consequences of Chinese technology embedded in communications systems, China’s political influence in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, and small-scale Chinese naval exercises in European waters. Europe is now taking constructive steps to deal with many of these critical problems, but NATO also needs to open its aperture beyond Europe as it assesses the broader security challenge posed by China.
A report released recently by the Atlantic Council, called “The China Plan: A Transatlantic Blueprint for Strategic Competition,” makes the case that this Euro-centric view misses four interrelated elements that could have a profound impact on NATO.
First, the United States will increasingly focus on China as the pace-setter for its own military modernization. China’s defense budget measured in purchasing power parity may soon approach that of the United States. China’s time and distance advantages, its focus on a naval and missile buildup, and its growing tactical nuclear capabilities have already created a major challenge for America’s forces in the Indo-Pacific theater. With future U.S. defense budgets likely to be flat, at best, America’s defense priorities may need to concentrate on China. The European theater may get less attention than when Russia presented the primary major power threat.
Next, the ever-growing Sino-Russian defense relationship portends further difficulties for the alliance. While a formal Sino-Russian defense alliance may not be in the cards for now, the two nations are toying with the idea. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that “we don’t need it [an alliance], but, theoretically, it’s quite possible to imagine it.” China reacted warmly. The two nations hold multiple joint military exercises and conduct intense defense-industrial cooperation. Russia’s ability to produce military platforms coupled with Chinese digital capabilities will provide both nations with better weapons systems to confront America’s allies. And having strong Chinese support, Russia may become more assertive in its military activities in Europe.
Third, Chinese behavior in the global commons plus the security implication of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its Polar Silk Road, and its Digital Silk Road all have negative consequence for Europe beyond NATO’s borders. Whether it is efforts to limit freedom of the seas, malign cyber behavior, creating digital dependencies or growing anti-satellite capabilities, the challenges China poses in the global commons are relevant to all trans-Atlantic partners. Regarding the Belt and Road Initiative, investments and debt traps create coerced political influence. Along the Polar Silk Road, investments in resources and science are laying the groundwork for greater future Chinese involvement.
Finally, and perhaps most important, aggressive Chinese sovereign claims in the South and East China seas and on Taiwan could lead to unwanted conflict between the United States and China. Should this happen, Europe would be far from immune. A Sino-American war would probably not be regionally contained, as were America’s previous Asian wars in Korea and Vietnam. At a minimum, Europe would find itself in a costly economic confrontation with China. NATO’s mutual defense clause, Article 5, could be triggered. And the United States would probably need to pivot significant military assets to Asia, leaving Europe more vulnerable to Russian adventurism.
Several suggestions for NATO flow from these four broader concerns. Europe should enhance its own military capabilities so that Europe has effective defenses, should conflict in Asia divert U.S. forces. Europe should contribute to deterrence in Asia by clarifying to China that NATO allies would, at a minimum, take political and economic action should China attack U.S. forces in Asia. NATO needs to seek ways to help defend international freedoms in the global commons. Europe should limit further Chinese strategic investments in NATO countries that would stall NATO decision-making or mobilization during a crisis. And NATO needs to create new mechanisms to strengthen its ties to America’s Asian allies.
These steps are in Europe’s interest. They need not be seen as belligerent, but rather steps to avoid Chinese miscalculation and to further deter Russia. They can be combined with U.S.-European Union-China cooperative measures in areas like managing global warming, fighting pandemics and reducing nuclear proliferation.
Hans Binnendijk is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. He previously served as the U.S. National Security Council’s senior director for defense and arms control and as director of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.