How does China affect transatlantic relations? NATO’s biggest challenge

By Ozge Taylan

New challenges and transition to a new era in global politics have made the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s policies outdated. Moreover, political cohesion of NATO and decreased institutional bandwidth have made urgent, necessary, reasonable and practical new guides to meet the challenges. Actors including international organizations' ability to adapt to changing balance of power and global power transition is a real test now. NATO has to reform alliances and restructure themselves to meet new challenges: A rising China has become the major issue of NATO alongside the issues of the US role in neoliberal world order and Russia. Transatlantic policy focuses on these three issues.

NATO has survived many crises but now it has confronted both internal divergences and fractures and external threats particularly by China and Russia. It has aimed to extend its engagement with its members, partners and Indo-Pacific countries to tackle these various challenges to adapt itself to the changing balance of power because competition with China has not been limited to Asian region. Both as an institution and its allies have worried about China’s gigantic economy, its ever-growing military power, considerable intelligence capacity and its ambitious technology development efforts on artificial intelligence and 5G.

By being aware of the need of adapting itself to new developments, on February 4th, NATO launched its 2030 strategy. In the report, it is stated that in an unstable world, NATO's security environment has also been changing particularly since 2010. [1] The very likely reason for this is that the effects of China’s growth until the 2010s have only been absorbed by the existing international institutions and China has started to be more assertive in the last 10 years.

Most experts agree that 2019 was a critical turning point in NATO-China relations because for the first time in NATO’s history, the Organization recognized the challenges posed by China’s rise in a London Summit Declaration. Now, with the Reflection Group Final Report called NATO 2030: United for a New Era, NATO put China as a priority. We can summarize the highlights of the Report in two points regarding the China’s rise:

First of all, it is stated that China poses challenges to the rule-based international order.[2] The term “rules-based international order” was coined after the Cold War, refers to the sum of international laws, norms and institutions that govern international affairs. In the context of NATO, it both refers to the democracy and freer movement of trade, investment and people.

NATO attaches great importance to cooperation among like-minded democracies against autocracies for the future direction of the world. And all members commit to their responsibilities as members of a democratic alliance which necessitates to respect human rights and internal law rules. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated that China and Russia are at the forefront of an authoritarian pushback against rules-based international order.[3]

As for the freer movement of trade, investment and people, China’s rising and its massive economic weight to influence world politics is still going on. In 2000, China's share of the global economy was %3.6, but now it is about %18.[4] Today, China has more than 80 percent of the world’s supply. It is expected that China will overhaul the United States 5 more years before. Furthermore, China has been heavily invested in many parts of the world. China’s expanding economic activity and investments in key European countries’ infrastructure like Greece and Italy and the initiatives like the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement for Investment (CAI)  have worried NATO. Even if it is modest China will continue to grow; considering this fact, the NATO put significance on transparency on Chinese activities and has emphasized that China should be a fair competitor and fair trading partner.

Second issue regarding China’s rise is its military capabilities. NATO was designed to deter a primarily military threat from the Soviet Union. And other international organizations like WTO etc. were narrowly focused on trade agreements and rule-making to ensure fair economic competition. But now, these narrowly defined aims remain insufficient to address complex threats.  Economic, social, political, military threats are now inextricably intertwined.

NATO has been trying to harness technology and innovation by providing its internal cohesion and unity in order to stay ahead of developments. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated, “we are in an era where bytes and big data are as important as bullets and battleships.”[5] The Alliance commits itself to update in technologies such as AI, robotics, 3D printing, quantum computing, semiconductor manufacturing equipment, surveillance equipment, and other emerging and foundational technologies with significant national security value[6] because a new kind of battlespace has emerged with these development that have blurred the sharp distinctions. One of the main goals of NATO is to prioritize upgrading the digital means and technologies alongside the new domains like space capabilities[7], considering China's massive and transformative initiatives like the Digital Silk Road that aims to support Chinese exporters particularly Chinese technology companies. Furthermore, in the report it is stated that in order to keep NATO’s military capabilities sharp, coordination with the partner countries like Japan and Australia on trade, technology, information and intelligence sharing has been emphasized.


Where Turkey Stands for?

Turkey is an important contributor to the Alliance’s security however a deep political crisis and a major row with the US has affected the role of Turkey in the organization. Even though the tensions with NATO and the US were relieved in 2019, Turkey and China have expanded their ties. Turkey's geopolitical position is very important for China because Turkey is located in the central corridor of the Road and Belt Project. On the one hand, Turkey has an extensive relations with China that is another indication of China’s expanding influence in Europe that threatens the Alliance geostrategic aims. On the other hand, despite the close relations with China, there is a trust problem with China because of its human rights practices in Xinjiang Uyghur. Also, Turkey has an asymmetric trade dependence on China. That’s why she needs to produce an alternative to this.

Many middle income countries like Turkey do not firmly take an anti-Chinese nor pro-Western attitude. NATO avoids decoupling from China. Also, with the newly elected US President Joe Biden, the USA refrains from offering black-and-white world for the members of Alliance. [8] Thus, it seems that the Alliance (with 2030 Strategy report) and its members have been trying to analyze and understand the powerful challenger’s  i.e. China  strategies, goals and ambitions, and learning to cooperate in providing global public goods under changing circumstances.

[1]  NATO 2030: United for a New Era, Analysis and Recommendations of the Reflection Group, 25 November 2020. Available at:, p.16

[2] Ibid., p.17

[3] Available at:

[4] Available at:

[5] NATO in 2030: Adapting to a New World, Carnegie Europe. Available at:

[6] Available at:

[7] NATO 2030, op.cit., p.48

[8]Available at: