By He Jun*
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an intergovernmental military alliance established by Western countries for defense coordination purposes. It was a product of the cold war, commencing in 1949 when the United States signed the North Atlantic Treaty with 12 countries including Western Europe. In 1955, the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries established the Warsaw Pact as a rivalling counterpart NATO. In the 1990s, with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States adjusted its European strategy and pushed for an eastward expansion of NATO, bringing the “vacuum” in Central and Eastern Europe into NATO’s folds. After several expansions thereafter, NATO now has 29 members.
The “Cold War genes” run deep inside NATO. Since its inception, NATO’s long-term mission has been engaging in geopolitical competition and military confrontation with the Soviet camp, and subsequently with post-Soviet Russia. After the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, NATO, with its identity as a dominant military alliance actually lost its counterpart. NATO and Russia then entered into peaceful relations that lasted for more than two decades. However, after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, NATO has once again strengthened its geopolitical and military pressures against Russia.
History shows that since the birth of NATO 70 years ago, its core targets have always been the Soviet Union and the subsequent Russia. The most important goal in NATO’s engagement in such geopolitical games is for the security interests of the West, chiefly of Europe. While China had never been in NATO’s vision, during the NATO 70th Anniversary Conference held recently in London, China has unprecedentedly becoming an important topic for serious discussions among NATO members. It is important to emphasize that this is the first time that China has been included in NATO’s agenda.
Scholars at ANBOUND noted in follow-up studies that many experts and leaders within NATO believe that NATO should now focus on emerging military forces such as China. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg remarked in London that “the rise of China — there are some opportunities, but also some challenges, and we need to face them together.” He also emphasized that, “it’s not about moving NATO into the South China Sea, but it’s about taking into account the fact that China is coming to closer to us. We see them in the Arctic. We see them in Africa. We see them investing heavily in European infrastructure. And, of course, we see China in cyberspace”. In the meantime, Stoltenberg noted that “China is now the second-largest defense spender in the world, after the United States”. He indicated that this would have certain consequences for NATO, and the allies will need to find a “balanced way” to meet challenges posed by China.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, has harsher criticisms against China. Hutchison said in a CNBC interview that “the rest of the world had let China get by with not meeting World Trade Organization (WTO) standards, but it was time for that to stop”. “They have now turned into a competitor, but they still expect to have the acquiescence to not abiding by the rules, to stealing technology and intellectual property,” she added. Hutchison also stated that, “We are now saying to China, you can’t take the advantages you have in the past, you have to come into a level playing field because you are growing.” She further noted that the Belt and Road Initiative has successfully taken control of ports and infrastructure across Europe and Asia, rapidly making China a strategic competitor of the United States.
Compared with the past NATO issues, it is very obvious that China has become the subject of NATO’s attention. In the China Strategic Environmental Report 2035, ANBOUND researchers pointed out that China’s strategic environment for its future development will undergo great changes. Moving from the “strategic opportunity period” in the context of globalization, China is now in the “strategic competition period” in the context of anti-globalization, and it has also changed from a “harmless existence” in the eyes of the West in the past to a perceived “strategic competitor” with increasing threats. It is worth noting that although NATO is a military alliance organization, its perspective of observing and assessing China’s impact is expanding. This stretches from the military to the economy, from industry to infrastructure, and from technology to intellectual property. This is very similar to the views of the United States and the European Union on China concerning the trade war. Obviously, NATO is adjusting its global concerns and strategies. One of the important concerns that it has is redefining its own relationship with China, which will affect the EU’s views and policies on China.
ANBOUND’s researchers believe that the competition and opposition between NATO and Russia may weaken in the future, but as NATO incorporates China into its core vision, the competition between NATO and China is bound to strengthen sooner or later. NATO may use its relations with Russia as a reference point and seek to establish a dialogue as well as a cooperation mechanism with China. Stoltenberg said recently that NATO as a military alliance does not want to create new adversaries, but would rather like to establish a communication mechanism with China. Currently, there is no “NATO-China Council” plan similar to the NATO-Russia Council (NRC), though it is entirely possible for a similar mechanism to be established in the future.
Final analysis conclusion:
China has begun to fall under the focus of NATO. Regardless of the differences between the NATO members, China is becoming an important “competitor” that NATO is beginning to pay attention to. China needs to prepare in advance for the complex changes that would be brought about by such a situation.
*He Jun is a master in the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, majoring in intellectual history of science and is a senior researcher at Anbound Consulting, an independent think tank with headquarters in Beijing. Established in 1993, Anbound specializes in public policy research.