The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) declared China a “systemic challenge” at the end of its 2021 summit. While the organisation has been historically directed towards Russia as the main aggressor, NATO’s threat analysis has reoriented itself with reference to China’s ambitious and assertive behaviour. Beijing’s industrial development that is complemented by its Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) strategy, commercial presence in the Euro-Atlantic Area via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the 17+1 format, that is cemented by numerous bilateral agreements, creates a complex security anxiety for NATO to navigate changing geopolitics. And subsequently, China was called out “to act responsibly in the international system”. NATO does not notice that these pronouncements are perceived as patronising to the rest of the world. Moreover, this view is not cohesively held within the alliance; French President, Emmanuel Macron, drew the focus back to the practicalities; while China’s presence is growing economically, military concerns need a more strategic orientation than just a pivot towards Asia. China reacted by stating that its perception is being impacted by “slandering” and that it is well within its pragmatic rights to pursue development according to its own vision.
NATO’s raison d être was born as a product of its time (the Cold War’s military-political-normative alliance protecting Europe against the USSR) and sees itself as a vanguard of western values and democracy but this leaves little room for others that have differing world views. Pragmatically, there is still a fear that Russia will seize land it feels belongs to it. For the US, NATO allows it to have easier access to its business and security interests in the Middle East but also economic interests across Europe. And in general, promoters of NATO feel that that life without NATO would be more dangerous and less prosperous leaving Russia and China to do as they please. But emerging threats extend beyond its traditional geographic and functional mission and include the cyber, technological, and strategic-commercial realms. And given global experiences since the start of the Covid pandemic any parochial estimations of security are being forced to take a back seat. NATO has the capacity to internalise changes in geopolitics, especially given their human capital to respond to the Covid pandemic from the first wave.
Due to all the unprecedented changes during former US President Trump’s term, there was uncertainty if the US would have remained in NATO if President Trump stayed another term, in spite of its anti-Russia rhetoric. While some may feel that China’s addition to the NATO discussion was because of US lobbying, there is a general anxiety among Europeans around China’s geostrategic rise. In reality, economic, political and national security interests of Europe and the United States differ in 2021, but reassessing China’s trajectories gives NATO an opportunity to diversify its thinking around the nature of security that is changing rapidly.
In calling out China, much attention is drawn to China’s 2025 aspirations; China wants to compete with the world and be considered a source of scientific and technical excellence. The BRI brings these aspirations physically closer to the US and Europe, and the BRI does have pragmatic gains for China. The BRI has practical origins in China’s surplus capacity to produce steel and supporting value chains, as well as cement and construction workforce. However, the direction of materials as well as their capacity to strengthen military industries is a concern for how industries may be used in the future. The emphasis of the BRI is to create an interlining infrastructure series that extends the land-based silk route across China, to Eurasia, the Middle East and Europe, as well as creating maritime links to include Africa. In this, China has pragmatically inserted itself in key points: between India and Pakistan as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a sore point for India-China tensions; the Straights of Malacca, which is key for China’s shipping and adds pressure to the US’s naval presence; the Horn of Africa, which has fast become an immensely concentrated zone with countries competing for military and logistical space; and Iran’s inclusion in the BRI also adds to US-China tensions (to name a few). Moreover, NATO’s partners (Australia, Japan and South Korea) and members’ (like the US) pivot towards the Indo-Pacific together with China’s engagement in that region, and the rise and expanding influence in Europe presents risk in the sense of driving a wedge between alliance members.
With the BRI, it presents a new interpretation of transnational movement but also de-territorialisation. China has emphasized that each country will have ownership of respective BRI infrastructure, but the amorphous nature of the BRI and various understandings creates immense uncertainty with those who equate Chinese foreign policy to the BRI without additional nuances. While it is an extension in terms of China’s vision and grand strategy, it carries through spatial expansion, there is a concern for competing interests in how territories and geostrategic influence is going to be unbundled. With the financial impact of the Covid pandemic, there is a fear that European infrastructure has been left susceptible to China shoring up strategic points of interest. While hard infrastructure is the most visible, there is more emphasis on protecting western technology because of structural implications that includes potentially diverting flows of trade or losing control over foreign trade.
NATO’s evolved stance confirms geopolitical trajectory; NATO does not want to be surprised or eclipsed, and interpreting China’s rise from a number of facets shows that China is able to chart its own course and a consequence has been that geopolitical competition has become heightened. Within the NATO alliance, members and partners’ perceptions and experience with China vary, but does China’s rise and expanding influence present a driving a wedge between alliance members with China as an opportunity and challenge? For observers, very polarised optics are presented; that you either with democracy or against it, leaving little room for anything in between and trepidation for those seeking to forge their own understanding of the world.
For NATO, the Euro-Atlantic has been the primary focus for the military alliance, but the orientation towards China is illustrative of how geopolitical assessments are taking place; insecurity extends further than competition in space, cyber dimensions and military dominance. As fluidity in security remains, NATO will need to deepen consultation and political dialogue with China (as promised), as well as its partners on the changing geopolitics of the shifting power landscape.
Arina Muresan is a Researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD. For more commentary listen to Arina Muresan’s SAfm interview here.