WASHINGTON — As the leaders of the 29 NATO nations gather in London to celebrate the alliance’s 70th birthday, officials will talk up what the next 70 years could bring.
And if you listen to those same officials, as well as analysts, you’ll hear that the alliance doesn’t only need to counter the threat from Russia, but also the potential danger posed by China.
Speaking in Washington in early November, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that the alliance must “better understand the rise of China and what it means for our security in terms of opportunities and challenges.”
“We have to remember that as long as NATO allies stand together, we represent half of the world’s economic might and half of the world’s military might,” Stoltenberg said. “So as the global power of balance is shifting, it is even more important to keep your allies and friends close.”
Formed as a challenge to the Soviet Union, NATO certainly has experience in dealing with a major state challenger. But the potential threat from China is different, said a panel of experts at an event hosted by the Atlantic Council think tank in November.
“I think NATO is beginning to step up to this challenge, but it is right now a somewhat delicate issue. Some allies don’t want to see NATO go global, and don’t accept that China is a direct military threat to NATO,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former NATO deputy secretary general and American ambassador.
“I think what NATO is doing, and has been doing the last year, is trying to better understand the threat, with more intelligence exchanges, more discussions among the nations, trying to kind of raise their awareness of the nature of the Chinese threat,” he said.
There are two broad issues to consider for the alliance. The first is that for now, China seemingly poses no direct military threat to Europe. That means it would be difficult to position the alliance against China for a forward-looking hypothetical situation — perhaps in the Arctic or areas of influence outside of Europe. This is particularly true for an alliance that is already divided over regions of focus, with some NATO members more concerned with immigration from the south and others to Russia in the east.
Secondly, China, unlike the Soviet Union or modern Russia, is an investor in Europe. In many cases, nations on the continent have spent the last 20 years encouraging Chinese investment in their respective countries. That means if a nation decides China is a threat, it must balance that decision against the economic value of relations with Beijing.
The issue was summed up by Italian Army Gen. Paolo Ruggiero, NATO’s deputy supreme allied commander for transformation, in a November interview. “You have to consider also the many, many countries in NATO. All the countries in NATO have some kind of relationship with China,” he said. “NATO is a defense organization. So far we don’t see China as a potential adversary in terms of security, in terms of defense. In the future?”
Ruggiero paused for several seconds before answering his own question: “I don’t know.”
A direct threat?
Richard Hooker, a former director for Europe and Russia on the U.S. National Security Council, believes it might take a crisis to shock allies into action against China. What that crisis might look like should be a point of discussion for NATO allies because it could affect NATO’s durability, Hooker warned.
“You’re looking at something that looks like state capture on the part of one or two small allies. If the government is in the end financed by the Chinese, if its economic dependence becomes so great that China can effectively influence its sovereignty — those kind of things would be a direct threat,” Hooker said.
There is reason to fear such a situation. China is suspected of using its foreign economic power to influence votes in multinational bodies, such as a vote in the European Union by NATO member Greece in 2017, and a vote in the United Nations by a number of African countries. China has also attempted to gain footholds across Europe, notably with investments into ports around the continent, which Vershbow called “something that could directly affect NATO’s ability to carry out reinforcement operations in a crisis.”
That would represent “not a military threat right now, but a direct threat to the cohesion of the alliance,” Hooker said. “The Chinese challenge is going to have to become more manifest to the allies themselves in a more shared way before you’re going to actually see big moves and concrete moves — which is not to say individual nations aren’t doing this, but collectively as an alliance, I think it’s a little bit of a ways off.”
Meanwhile, there is a growing consensus that technological investments represent an early competition space between Brussels and Beijing, affecting investments in future defense capabilities that would be needed in a potential high-end fight, as well as how NATO members manage Chinese technological investments in Europe.
Stoltenberg pointed to 5G, facial recognition and quantum computing as three areas where China has emerged as a global “leader,” and where the alliance must keep pace.
The Chinese technology giant Huawei and Beijing’s investment in 5G — a fifth-generation network — may be the first major test for Sino-NATO relations.
The Trump administration considers Huawei a national security risk, and the U.S. has pressured European nations not to allow the company, to build telecommunications networks on the territory of alliance members. But for some nations, Huawei represents the cheapest and best option for a piece of critical infrastructure, and some says the U.S. has not offered viable alternatives.
“It’s not the same as the Soviet Union in the Cold War, but there are some similarities. The next step is to use NATO’s ability to exchange classified intelligence to do a risk assessment of where China possess a direct threat to allied interests,” Vershbow said. He identified potential vulnerabilities of computer networks, as well as China’s control of rare earth minerals. He also called out the need to reexamine export control regimes for NATO members in order to keep key technologies from landing in Beijing’s hands.
NATO’s meeting in London could, on paper, serve as a jumping-off point for an alliance-wide China strategy. But Vershbow tempered expectations: “I’m not sure this summit will be the inflection point. but I think it will be a start for NATO to start thinking about some basic principles and guidelines for dealing with China.”
Hooker was more blunt, saying that the alliance is too “distracted” by personality fights and internal rifts to sit down and have a meaningful, honest discussion about issues.
“To meaningfully think through and address and do concrete things about China in the alliance right now, it’s very, very difficult,” he said. “We’re in a difficult place in the alliance, and we’re going to need to work through some of these issues, and it’s going to take some time to do that.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.