NATO is turning its focus to China. Here’s what that means.

The NATO alliance has strengthened its eastern flank over Russia’s war on Ukraine but its focus is also starting to shift even more eastwards: China.

This has led to criticism from some of the alliance’s member states but also Beijing that it is straying from its initial mandate. They argue that the trans-Atlantic alliance should remain just that, trans-Atlantic.

Still, China made it into the alliance’s new Strategic Concept released over the summer and on the agenda of the NATO ministerial meeting in Bucharest this week.

“China is not an adversary but it is stepping up military modernisation, increasing its presence from the Arctic to the Western Balkans, from space to cyberspace and seeking to control the critical infrastructure of NATO allies,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg flagged ahead of the meeting.

NATO’s posture against Russia involves tens of thousands of troops and important military capabilities from air defence systems and missile launchers to fighter jets and warships deployed across Europe. 

Allies also regularly carry out joint exercises on land, at sea and in the air, held anywhere between the Arctic and the Mediterranean.

Could this model be replicated in the Indo-Pacific to counter China? This is highly unlikely.

But four NATO allies, including two European ones, have stakes in the Indo-Pacific and any conflict there could see them dragged in. The aim, therefore, is to anticipate what could happen in the region, what the alliance’s response should be, and what it means for European defence.

‘One day China could attack the US’

The US, the biggest contributor to NATO, is behind the drive for the alliance to consider China a threat and prepare accordingly because its west coast and overseas territories including Hawaii and Guam also make it a Pacific country.

Washington cited China in its latest National Security Strategy as its “most consequential geopolitical challenge” and “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it.”

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed after the NATO meeting on Wednesday that “we do not seek conflict with China; on the contrary, we want to avoid it” but that “we are working to adapt in concrete ways to meet the challenge.”

Yet at the Pentagon, “there’s absolutely thinking that one day China could attack the United States,” Kristine Berzina, a senior fellow on security and defence policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank, told Euronews.

“Is that hugely likely in the short term? No. Is that possible in the medium to long term? Yes, that is a concern,” she added.

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
U.S. President Joe Biden, left, arrives with Chinese President Xi Jinping for a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting.AP Photo/Alex Brandon

The US strategy towards China, per its national security paper, includes ensuring that allies and partners are on the same page so as to act “with common purpose and in common cause.”

European allies, however, are not there yet, mostly because they don’t evaluate the military threat with the same sense of urgency.

‘Not just weapons, ammunition, and missiles’

EU countries see China as a systemic rival, a competitor and a partner and the degree to which it is viewed as either of those varies from capital to capital, largely depending on economic ties.

But several factors have started to tip the scale more and more toward the systemic rival part.

These are China’s refusal to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine, the growing realisation that Chinese investments in European critical infrastructure can carry security risks, and the large trade imbalance to the benefit of China with Beijing limiting access to its market to foreign players.

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There is also the more aggressive rhetoric toward Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of its territory, its bullying behaviour in the South China Sea, and its border dispute with India.

Yet the battle with China, in Europe, is mainly one of values, influence and interests.

The Indo-Pacific is a global commercial hub. About 60 per cent of maritime trade passes through Asia, and about one-third through the South China Sea, so any disruption there would have consequences for Europe too.

“There are a whole bunch of situations in the geostrategic and geo-economic field that can concern NATO member countries, and in particular supply issues or even food issues, environment, in a way, even the major pandemics, all these issues are security issues,” Philippe Le Corre, a non-resident senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, told Euronews.

“It’s security in the broadest sense, it’s not just weapons, ammunition, and missiles,” he added.

China’s continuous efforts to use its economic might and geopolitical clout to sow disunity within international organisations are also increasingly grating, experts say.

“The world of international organisations or multilateral diplomacy is something that is incredibly important to the European Union and to European countries,” Berzina said, citing the World Health Organisation’s attempts to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic as an example.

“China has sought entry into all the relevant international organisations and has strategically undermined them from within.”

‘Can Europe defend itself?’

For NATO allies, the work is two-fold: protect its values and interests at home through stronger cyber resilience and anti-disinformation efforts as well as more engagement in the Arctic and in space; and in the region through strengthened relations with local partners.

“China is looking with interest at what is happening around Ukraine — the sanctions, the economic sanctions regime and so on — and the way in which NATO countries are helping Ukraine, and is thinking, this is what we can learn from this in case of an attack on Taiwan,” Le Corre argued.

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The US and Canada, as well as France and the UK, have alliances in the Indo-Pacific and the main partners are Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

AP Photo/Lee Jin-man
South Korea soldiers take part in a joint river-crossing drill between South Korea and the United States in Yeoju, South Korea, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-manAP Photo/Lee Jin-man

Some of these alliances are formalised like the Quad — Australia, India, Japan, US — and AUKUS which involves Australia, the UK and the US.

For these NATO allies, that might mean boosting their military cooperation and interoperability with these countries even further, and holding more joint military exercises, although both Berzina and Le Corre said that this would be done bilaterally and not through NATO.

But reflection is still needed at the alliance level.

“France is an interesting case, I would say because it has a very large maritime domain. It has land, overseas departments and territories in the Pacific. Can it trigger NATO’s Article 5 in the event that its territory is affected?” Le Corre said.

“This is clearly a new area because until now NATO has not been involved in this region.”

Another impact this growing American focus on the Indo-Pacific could have on Europe is fewer US troops and equipment on its soil.

“There has been a philosophical long-term objection from the US that it foot the bill for European defence,” Berzina said.

And while the “US would like to be able to remain in Europe, and values its European partners and sees Russia as a threat and is totally, completely philosophically, strategically, ideologically on Europe’s side, the question now is about American capabilities and capacity to take on both a European territorial military attack and a Pacific one at the same time.”

“And if that happens, can Europe defend itself? That is more of the conversation today than it has been in the past,” she said.