As NATO’s Madrid summit approaches, some allies are pushing back against more robust language about China and Indo-Pacific security issues in the alliance’s new “Strategic Concept.” It is understandable that Europeans are more focused on the immediate security threats posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing war on Ukraine than on what some may view as more abstract challenges emanating from half a world away. Nonetheless, even as NATO rightly addresses Russia’s aggression, it must use its Strategic Concept to address a sobering new reality: The security of the North Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific are increasingly linked.
European concerns are twofold: They do not want NATO to diffuse its strength by becoming a global alliance, and they do not want to label China as an adversary. Most European countries rely heavily on trade with China, as does the United States. The new Strategic Concept should be able to address the challenges posed by China robustly and implement some structural changes without undermining these European concerns.
NATO is not about to go global. There is no desire anywhere in the alliance to change the regional nature of its Article 5 defense commitment. And the Strategic Concept language on China should be balanced, stressing areas of competition, confrontation and cooperation.
First, the new concept should address the fact that Chinese technological advances and infrastructure investments create dependencies with direct security implications for NATO. For example, Huawei’s presence in the telecommunications networks of some allied countries raises concerns over the future of allied information sharing and growing cyber dependence on Beijing.
Chinese investors target Europe’s strategic assets, infrastructures, and research and development networks. For example, Chinese purchases of strategic ports in allied countries could complicate allied military mobility and reinforcement. Chinese purchases of tech companies can generate defense-related supply chain dependencies.
Allies can address this by exploring deeper coordination under Article 2 of the North Atlantic Treaty, an underutilized provision that commits allies to promote “conditions of stability and well-being” and to “encourage economic collaboration.” Article 2 offers a frame through which allies could work to enhance the screening of foreign investments in security-related infrastructure, companies and technologies, as well as other steps to protect individual allied nations from security-related dependencies on China.
Next, China challenges the alliance’s commitment to a free and open global commons. The vast majority of Europe’s trade with Asia flows though maritime passages that are contested by China. China’s maritime claims and related activities have limited the ability of its neighbors to access resources in their own waters in contravention of international law.
China now has the world’s largest navy, bolstering its capacity to challenge freedom of navigation operations. Over the next decade, China is likely to extend its maritime reach into the Atlantic. It is already working to establish Atlantic ports in Africa.
Similarly, China is militarizing outer space with anti-satellite capabilities. Chinese strategists regard the ability to use space-based systems and deny them to adversaries as central to digitally enabled warfare. China is also being assertive in the Arctic region, with a strong focus on research activities, which can easily have military effect.
Third, Chinese autocratic behavior now extends well beyond China proper. NATO leaders have agreed that China presents systemic challenges to the rules-based international order. Those challenges include gross human rights abuses, widespread diplomatic coercion and disinformation campaigns, unfair trade and investment practices, and creation of economic and technological dependencies among a range of states across Eurasia and into Africa.
Fourth, these challenges to NATO are amplified by China’s “no limits” partnership with Russia. Beijing has adopted a stance of pro-Russian neutrality toward Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. It parrots Putin’s justification for attacking Ukraine but has not yet overtly violated sanctions. Beijing and Moscow have stepped up the frequency and scale of joint military exercises, including in the Baltic and Mediterranean seas, complicating NATO defense planning.
Greater Russian-Chinese defense-industrial cooperation on sensitive technology — such as theater hypersonic weapons, counter-space capabilities or submarine technology — would present significant challenges for NATO allies.
Finally, the Strategic Concept should reflect the fact that conflict in the Indo-Pacific would have significant implications for the North Atlantic. Despite Russia’s aggression, China is America’s pacing factor in developing defense capabilities. China’s aggressive territorial claims in the South and East China seas, and its threats to the integrity of Taiwan, present real risks of conflict. In such situations, critical sea lanes of communication, maritime shipping and European commercial interactions with China — and with Asia more broadly — would be completely disrupted. The interests of various European allies in the Indo-Pacific would be at risk. Opportunities would be created for Russia, as U.S. forces might not be available to adequately reinforce European allies against a simultaneous Russian military challenge. European allies would quickly need to fill those gaps. They need to plan now how they would do so.
To present a common trans-Atlantic approach with likeminded Asian partners, the Strategic Concept should pursue several institutional steps. For example, it should invite Japan and South Korea to join Australia as high-level NATO partners. Varying levels of enhanced military cooperation could be considered, from information sharing and joint exercises to joint operational planning and establishment of NATO liaison offices in Tokyo and Seoul.
An Indo-Pacific/NATO forum could identify cooperative activities and share assessments about evolving security challenges, including from China. The alliance could also explore a dialogue with India, which has not indicated interest in a deeper partnership with NATO, yet shares overlapping concerns regarding Chinese actions and intentions.
To maintain balance and satisfy European concerns that NATO not label China as an adversary, the Strategic Concept should present a dual-track approach toward China that focuses on competition and possible confrontation on the one hand, and cooperation where possible on the other hand. One way to accomplish this is to establish a “NATO-China Council,” designed to maintain a constant dialogue with Beijing and address areas of mutual concern.
Hans Binnendijk is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former senior director for defense policy on the U.S. National Security Council. Daniel S. Hamilton is a senior nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state.