NATO, China, and the Vilnius Summit
In late 2019, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg could confidently claim that “there’s no way that NATO will move into the South China Sea but we have to address the fact that China is coming closer to us.” Yet, three and a half years later, the NATO alliance arguably no longer has the luxury to stay out of the Indo-Pacific region. The impact of the war in Ukraine has been felt well beyond the shores of the European continent, creating increasing connections between the Indo-Pacific and European security theaters.
We argue that the war in Ukraine has already reshaped, and will continue to redefine, NATO’s approach to China in several ways. First, the alliance is less and less willing to engage with Beijing, considering its close alignment with Moscow throughout this horrific war. Second, NATO is being increasingly drawn into playing a more active role in the Indo-Pacific, despite its pre-war claims downplaying that prospect. And third, NATO allies should be discussing now how they would react to a Taiwan scenario, even as they seek to avoid exacerbating existing intra-European and trans-Atlantic divisions when it comes to confronting Beijing more generally.
The upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania will be understandably dominated by discussions regarding the Russo-Ukrainian war. Following the meeting, analysts will pay much attention to what the heads of state and government will say about Ukraine’s actual path to membership 15 years after a NATO summit declaration first stated that Ukraine (and Georgia) “will become members of NATO.” If there’s another issue that most analysts will be focused on, it will be Sweden’s accession to NATO membership, currently awaiting ratification by Hungary and Turkey for reasons having nothing to do with the country’s qualifications to join.
Less noticed will be what NATO leaders say about China. This is understandable, given that Europe is dealing with the largest land war on the continent since 1945. And yet what NATO says about China has become increasingly important for the alliance because of its centrality to its most powerful member, the United States. It would be a mistake to ignore what NATO says and does about China because while all eyes are on Ukraine, differences between the United States and Europe on how to approach China loom large in determining the future health of trans-Atlantic relations.
The Rise of China on NATO’s Agenda
The Vilnius summit will demonstrate how NATO currently understands the challenge posed by China. It will also be a marker to judge how the alliance’s rhetoric has changed on this issue over the past year. It is fair to say that the analysis of the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions has undergone a drastic evolution in recent years.
China, for a long time, was not on NATO’s radar. It did not even warrant a single reference in the alliance’s 2010 Strategic Concept. Yet, persistent lobbying by the Trump administration, and a partial convergence of views among European partners, helped to place China on the alliance’s agenda. In December 2019, NATO included a mention of the People’s Republic of China for the first time in an official communique. The allies wrote: “We recognise that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.” At that difficult time for the alliance, highlighted by French President Emmanuel Macron’s famous words about NATO being “brain dead,” allies agreed to address China for various reasons. Identifying a new common challenge undoubtedly helped to foster greater cohesion. The allies also feared (with good reason) that President Donald Trump might withdraw the United States from NATO. With this in mind, they wanted to show that they added value on Trump administration security priorities.
The December 2019 communique was just the first salvo, and in subsequent months, NATO increased its references to China, taking a more and more assertive and warning tone. Thus, in the aftermath of the 2021 NATO summit in Brussels, the first one held after the election of President Joe Biden, the communique warned: “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.”
Prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the alliance took a narrow approach, content to only address China’s role in Europe and not in other regions. As a result, there was little talk about creating a more expansive role for NATO in the Indo-Pacific. Still, China’s growing importance meant that NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept paid far greater attention to it than the 2010 version, which had not mentioned China at all. Stoltenberg was already highlighting the need for the 2022 Strategic Concept to do more to address the China challenge in 2021. More attention to China in the 2022 document would have likely occurred had it not been for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to expand the war against Ukraine a few months before the Strategic Concept was released.
Even so, the Strategic Concept framed the China challenge as one that could harm the alliance’s “interests, security, and values.” It also warned about Beijing’s disinformation capabilities, as well as its desire for control over technological sectors and critical infrastructure, and underlined the larger geopolitical challenge, especially the deepening Sino-Russian partnership and how it strove to both undermine the liberal international order and divide the Western alliance.
The Impact of the War
Prior to 2022, NATO’s China policy relied arguably on a few key assumptions: European allies agreed to put China on the NATO agenda for the sake of allied unity with the United States; the alliance would confine its focus to Europe, and not the Indo-Pacific; and NATO kept open the prospect of limited engagement with Beijing. This was as a nod to the European Union’s 2019 position of defining China as a “partner, economic competitor, and systemic rival.”
The war, however, has forced NATO member states to re-evaluate the assumptions underpinning its China policy. For instance, the fear of internal disunity has seemingly become far less salient in the context of the Russo-Ukrainian war, which has had a galvanizing impact on NATO’s cohesion.
Additionally, the NATO allies have had to confront some difficult questions, most notably better understanding the continued impact of closer Chinese-Russian relations. The 2022 Strategic Concept did not simply talk about the threats emanating from Beijing. It suggested that the alliance remain open to constructive engagement with China. But the past year has only confirmed the Chinese government’s very close alignment with the Russian government. Whatever reservations China may have about Russia’s policies and actions in Ukraine are dwarfed by the value of having a partner in confronting the Western-led international order.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has a stake in ensuring that Putin’s folly doesn’t lead to a change of regime that has the potential to bring a new leader interested in rapprochement with the West. The past year has dampened hopes for any meaningful Chinese engagement. The question is to what extent can China be encouraged to play a constructive role in Ukraine, whether by urging Russia to avoid dangerous escalatory moves — particularly involving the use of nuclear weapons — or to push for serious peace talks.
Meanwhile, Stoltenberg’s earlier suggestion that NATO was not moving into the South China Sea is belied by actions over the past year. NATO has conducted a frequent and more sustained dialogue with key partners in the Indo-Pacific — especially Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea. As with the NATO Madrid summit in 2022, these countries are being invited to attend the Vilnius summit. NATO is debating whether to open a permanent office in Japan. There is no talk of integrating these partners into NATO’s military plans, but the war in Ukraine is certainly drawing the alliance further into Indo-Pacific. The growing realization of the region’s importance and NATO’s success in countering Russia is making it a more desirable partner for Japan and other countries taking stock of their ability to deter and defend against a rising China.
Perhaps most importantly, the Russia-Ukraine war has raised difficult questions about the connections between the European and Indo-Pacific theaters, and the implications for the alliance. Experts have argued that today’s interdependence between Europe and the Indo-Pacific is greater than it was during the Cold War, and that a challenge to the United States in Asia adversely affects NATO and European security. However, accepting that the European security theater and the Indo-Pacific theater are more interconnected means that NATO allies will need to set common priorities and make decisions about the best balance between the two theaters, in order to develop a robust and cohesive strategy toward China.
Notable, of course, is the Taiwan question. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the deepening Russian-Chinese partnership have led many experts and commentators to connect Ukraine and Taiwan, even if they disagree at times as to which of those two partners should be given greater attention or how these two countries are connected. Some experts suggest that the United States should prioritize Taiwan over Ukraine and limit support for the latter to focus on the former. Alternatively, supporting Ukraine has been framed by others as necessary so as not to embolden Chinese designs on Taiwan. This is especially true in the United States, whose commitment to Taiwan’s defense prior to February 2022 far exceeded its commitment to Ukraine.
The Taiwan issue, however, also has the potential to create huge differences across the Atlantic. On a visit to China earlier this year, Macron underlined his concerns about being dragged into a war over Taiwan. And Germany’s recently released National Security Strategy was conspicuous in the fact it did not mention Taiwan a single time.
These two examples are emblematic of broader intra-European divisions when it comes to tackling the alliance’s approach to China and Taiwan. Taiwan’s role as a critical exporter of semiconductors means that its security is critical for European stability, but this is balanced by the fear of the major economic backlash that could ensue with wide-ranging sanctions against China, were it to invade Taiwan. Indeed, a recent report predicted that large-scale sanctions against China could lead to a $3 trillion disruption in world trade. And added to this, geographical distance cannot be ignored. As Philippe Le Corre stated, “the remoteness […] does not favor a possible European involvement in a conflict in Taiwan or in the China Sea.”
Article Five of the Washington Treaty establishing NATO geographically limits alliance obligations to come to one another’s defense in response to attacks on members “in Europe or North America.” A Chinese attack on U.S. forces in the Pacific would not qualify, and so the United States shouldn’t expect a large European defense contribution in the event of a Chinese attack against Taiwan. It would, however, expect significant political and economic support in countering Beijing in such a contingency. In light of the hesitations underlined above, NATO should have serious discussions about the European response in the event of a Chinese attack, and about what those political and economic actions would be in order to ensure cohesion during such a scenario.
That conversation is also particularly necessary because of the current state of public opinion in Europe. Indeed, a recent poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations revealed some nuanced and complex findings. Whereas the needle has clearly moved against Russia, Europeans remain more open to engagement with China.. The European public is generally more supportive of a neutral stance in case of a Chinese attack against Taiwan but would also endorse economic sanctions against Beijing if it provided weapons for Russia to use in Ukraine. And America’s allies in Europe have to consider their nightmare scenario: A majority clearly believe that a return to the American presidency by Trump would weaken the trans-Atlantic partnership.
The Russo-Ukrainian war has dramatically illustrated Europe’s dependency on the United States for its defense, heightening European fears of another wild oscillation in U.S. foreign policy after the next election. It’s not just support for Ukraine that is at stake for NATO in November 2024, but the alliance itself, and a big piece of that is whether there will be trans-Atlantic unity on how to deal with the challenges emanating from the Indo-Pacific. Having conversations at NATO now about how the alliance would react in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan would help to ensure a more unified response if Beijing takes such action in the future.
Garret Martin is a senior professorial lecturer at American University’s School of International Service, as well as the co-director of the Transatlantic Policy Center.
James Goldgeier is a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor of international relations at American University.
Image: The White House