China Brought NATO Closer Together

NATO (1)

The December 2019 NATO Leaders Meeting in London could have been a disaster. Ahead of the event, the alliance had rarely been more divided. President Donald Trump’s October 2019 surprise decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria provoked French President Emmanuel Macron to argue that NATO was becoming brain-dead. “It is a very, very nasty statement,” Trump replied. Meanwhile, an underlying suspicion that Trump’s motive is to terminate NATO — he had threatened to do so at the 2018 summit — cast a shadow over the alliance.

Remarkably, the NATO meeting was a success, in large part due to China. Leaders managed to break new ground by including a reference to Beijing in the joint London declaration. The document stated that, “We recognise that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.” For sure, it also contains plenty of boilerplate text on shared values, burden-sharing, “threats and challenges emanating from all strategic directions,” and NATO’s “360-degree approach to security.” Ideal rhetoric for papering over strategic differences among allies. However, that it singles out China is historic, and portends a new direction for this 70-year old alliance.



NATO’s language is carefully crafted. It cautions that China presents “both opportunities and challenges.” The statement is measured, even timid, but hugely significant. With this reference to Beijing in an official document, NATO has forewarned that China has entered NATO’s orbit and will remain as a strategic point of concern. To skeptics doubtful of NATO’s ability to stay focused on China, a NATO official we recently spoke to on background cautions, “It may be that NATO loses interest in China, but China will remain interested in NATO.”

Pains of Adjustment

Traditionally, external threats generate alliance cohesion. However, China offers unique challenges to NATO strategists used to thinking about Russia. First, China does not pose a classical military threat to the allies. Moreover, Beijing can project power globally, requiring a considerable shift of collective thinking for an alliance that, despite operations in Afghanistan, has primarily considered Europe its traditional heartland.

That China is a challenge is self-evident: Europe is as inundated by products made in China as are the United States and Canada, and China is successfully investing in the emerging technologies that will define the next great industrial wave of digitized production and value chains. Moreover, China’s military reach is steadily growing, as is its political self-confidence in international diplomacy. Put differently, NATO might have to deter Russia, but Russia does not have the ability to dominate Europe and Asia. In contrast, China is gaining the vision and muscle that will allow it to extend its influence across the Eurasian landmass and beyond, fundamentally altering global politics.

NATO identifies and grapples with the broad character of this challenge in its London declaration. It places China in a context defined by societal resilience, critical infrastructure, and the security of communications and new operational domains such as cyber and outer space (NATO declared outer space to be a part of its operational domain). In other words, China is not a kinetic challenge, and NATO’s next step is not to deploy maritime forces to the South China Sea.

The deeper challenge for NATO is that the character of China’s involvement in Western economies effectively puts the alliance on a collision course with the two political domains within which European governments typically handle foreign direct investment issues and technology policy: either individual states themselves or the European Union. NATO does not have a legacy or profile of being a tool for regulating political-economy issues. To the contrary, allies such as France and Turkey jealously guard against NATO’s further involvement into these other domains.

Complicating matters is the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and how it selectively draws certain European countries into alignment with China’s interests. The countries of greatest concern to the NATO officials and decision-makers with whom we recently discussed these matters were Greece, Hungary, Portugal, and Italy. It would be a big deal if Italy economically tilts to China. Italy is a sizable European economy, an important NATO ally that hosts U.S. military bases, and one of four major European allies — the United Kingdom, Germany, and France being the other three — that receive 70 percent of China’s foreign direct investment in Europe, with investments increasing over 17 times from 2010 to 2016.

But smaller countries such as Portugal and Greece, where China has targeted investments in energy grids, transportation, and ports, are equally capable of preventing coordinated action among European countries. In fact, the growth of Chinese business in the Greek port of Piraeus motivated Italy to bandwagon with China and compete with Greece. As Italy prepared to sign on to the Chinese initiative in April 2019, French President Macron lamented that China was exploiting Europe’s divisions.

NATO’s handicap is compounded by the fact that it does not have in-house expertise (i.e., international staff at the strategic headquarters in Brussels) on China, foreign direct investment, and global value chains. NATO staff can be augmented by so-called “voluntary national contributions” — staff seconded from capitals. But this will only help NATO move forward if there is political alignment at the top echelon of member states.

Tipping the Scales

The United States has made the difference in moving the alliance from tacit disagreement on China to explicit agreement on the desire for NATO to have a China policy.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis set the agenda in February 2017 when he linked the value of the transatlantic bond, among other things, to the ability of the allies to address “a more assertive China.” The Obama administration had previously sought to pivot or rebalance to Asia but did not make China a NATO issue. Instead, Washington sought a transatlantic bargain whereby European allies would do more of the heavy lifting in Europe in order to facilitate U.S. policy in the Pacific. The Trump administration has adopted a distinctively different approach.

NATO foreign ministers eventually agreed in April 2019 to study the issue and thus prepare a common position for the December London meeting. Prior to this agreement, American diplomacy had been increasingly vocal in cautioning allies about Chinese technology, particularly in regard to Huawei and 5G networks. Even allies close to President Trump’s political agenda, such as Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, would not gain a free pass on this one, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned. This U.S. drive, aided by under-the-radar consultations inside the NATO headquarters, resulted in a NATO agreement to put China on its agenda for the Foreign Minister meeting in April 2019 — the occasion of NATO’s 70th anniversary and an occasion for Pompeo to argue that NATO must adapt to “Chinese strategic competition.”

The European scene was at this point ripe for American leadership. The general assessment we have encountered in our research is that Eastern European allies, whose overriding strategic priority remains Russia, not China, soon came to an obvious conclusion — they could support U.S. China policy in return for continued explicit U.S. support on Russian deterrence. For them, China is but a quid pro quo.

Other allies have been willing to go along with a stronger China policy but with some reservations. Most European allies are comfortable with the elastic or open-ended framework they agreed to in the European Union in early 2019, whereby, depending on the issue involved, China is a systemic rival, a challenge, or an opportunity. This framework may seem unnecessarily ambiguous, but it is a marked change compared to past E.U. practice of mainly emphasizing China only as a business opportunity.

The pivotal European allies, France and Germany, supported the U.S. drive to define a NATO China policy but within these new E.U. parameters. Their insistence on elastic thinking caused some turbulence through October–November 2019, as the allies finalized their confidential report, “Understanding China Better,” that underpins the London declaration. Where the United States sought tough language on how China caused vulnerabilities in allied critical infrastructure and resilience, France and Germany resisted. The outcome was softer language on vulnerabilities and therefore fewer “taskings” to NATO planning staff (i.e., orders to “do something” to counter vulnerabilities), and an enhanced emphasis on NATO’s broader and generic need to clarify its understanding of China — hence the title of the report. The report remains confidential. It’s understood that its focus is first on defining the strategic context and its implications for NATO, the need for engagement with China, and finally the role of partners, including the European Union, in managing the relationship. In sum, the tenor of the report concerns political engagement, not operational implications.

Britain was notably active in facilitating this compromise. Our interlocutors explained that London was motivated to play this role to advance its own view of China, and partly by a wider British desire to revitalize NATO now that the country is exiting the European Union. Traditional Atlanticist allies in Europe such as Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands supported these British efforts, with Canada, particularly struck by Chinese pressure to bend its Huawei diplomacy in China’s favor, emerged as a particularly vocal ally in support of NATO policy.

Turkey bears special mentioning. The country has gained a reputation as a NATO and E.U. spoiler on account of its actions in Syria, manipulation of refugee flows into Europe, continued block of a NATO-E.U. rapprochement, and, most recently, its veto of NATO Baltic defense plans in order to extract allied concessions on Kurdish issues. However, Turkey has not blocked NATO’s new thinking on China. In fact, it has been treading carefully between its interest in Chinese investments — Turkey has launched a Middle Corridor Initiative to match and benefit from China’s Belt and Road Initiative — and popular indignation with Beijing’s prosecution of Uyghurs, a persecuted Turkish language minority in China’s Xinjiang province. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, our interlocutors assess, is thus divided between pursuing economic partnership with China and appealing to his mobilized national base at home.

By the NATO meeting in December 2019, the scene was thus set for a U.S. initiative that was likely to bring NATO consensus on China. The key was for the United States to reach an understanding with its most long-standing allies, France, Germany, and Britain. This set-up is vintage NATO: never dull, but never void of purpose or impact either.

Staying the Course

NATO has officially signaled its interest in China. But will this interest translate into policy? By December 2020, analysts will gain a sense of how allies have managed to operationalize their view of “opportunities and challenges.” Specifically, a host of NATO committees will work through the spring of 2020 to define the scope and nature of NATO vulnerabilities in a number of respects, from cyber to military supply chains. Their conclusions will by June go to the Deputies’ Committee (deputies to the ambassadors, workhorses of alliance diplomacy), which will then have a further six months to hammer out a common view of how they “understand China.” By the end of the year, NATO will be teed up for strategic reflections at a 2021 summit.

This process plan does not come with a guarantee of smooth sailing in alliance diplomacy. For one, Trump may be adopting a more dovish position on China — given his interest in securing a follow-on trade deal with Beijing in an election year — than members of his administration. Moreover, European governments might be reluctant to pursue a strategic confrontation with China that could threaten economic growth. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has sought a balancing act with his decision to restrict, and not ban, the role of Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei in Britain’s coming 5G wireless network. The risk is that the United States will come to see London and other European capitals as unreliable on issues related to China. Pompeo has urged patience but also forewarned that “trusted networks” are “western systems with western rules.”

To steer clear of disruptions and to capitalize on the momentum of the London leaders meeting, the allies, and the United States in particular, can take three steps. First, the allies should build on NATO’s core competence — hammering out transatlantic agreement on pragmatic, limited, and practical political-military issues. Such a focus on military capability and infrastructure — from transit points to safe command and control systems — will reassure Eastern European allies that consider China a mere quid pro quo for a strong Russia policy, and Western European allies that do not want NATO to intrude into national and E.U. spaces where economies are regulated. Issues such as critical infrastructure and cyber security may tend to move diplomacy beyond NATO’s core focus, but NATO staff and decision-making was set up to resolve such definitional issues.

Second, NATO should avoid seeking a formal agreement with the European Union on China. The European Union and NATO have different mandates and interests, and trying to adopt a common policy would do more harm than good. Turkey, which is not an E.U. member state, can be counted on to zealously police the European Union’s limited reach. NATO should instead embrace ambiguity between NATO-E.U. approaches toward Beijing, although this should not preclude informal coordination and discussion. This flexibility would also grant allies with particularly fragile domestic governing coalitions — Germany and Italy come to mind — scope for going along with NATO policy, while entertaining certain disagreements on wider trade policy.

Third, NATO allies should be mindful that they have ample ground for pursuing a more ambitious political-military remit. As mentioned, the alliance agreed in London to define outer space as a NATO operational domain. This is virgin territory for NATO and one where China’s ambitions loom large. If the alliance can muster the will to go for a big China policy, they do not need to look to trade or foreign direct investment: They can choose to flesh out how China (potentially) threatens their interests in outer space.

Next Steps

Political divisions have taken such a toll on NATO leaders that in London they announced that they will not meet again until 2021. In the interim, they’ve tasked their secretary general to devise a “reflection process” with a potential to strengthen NATO’s “political dimension.” In short, they have bracketed 2020 as a year of transition — to possibly a new U.S. presidency, Brexit, and a stable German governing coalition.

Naturally, NATO has many storms to weather, and President Trump’s challenge to NATO remains a very fundamental one. But in the long run, China’s rise will be at such a scale and at such proximity to core NATO interests that no ally can afford to sidestep or ignore it. Future analysts will therefore look back to 2019 and the London meeting as the point at which China offered NATO critical and enduring life support.



Jens Ringsmose, Ph.D., is dean of the Faculty of Business and Social Sciences, University of Southern Denmark. He was previously the head of the Institute of Military Operations, the Royal Danish Defence College. His research interests are NATO, small state and alliance theory, and military transformation. 

Sten Rynning, Ph.D., is professor of war studies at the University of Southern Denmark. He headed the university’s Center for War Studies from 2011 to 2019. His research interests are NATO, diplomacy and deterrence, and crisis management operations.

Image: NATO