The Rise of China, the NATO Alliance, and the Path Forward

By Hollace Matthews

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I. An overview of NATO 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military and political alliance of 30 member states which strives to ensure mutual freedom and security, founded on shared values of “individual liberty, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.” As a military alliance, NATO upholds the condition of collective defense as stipulated in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, the founding document for the alliance, which requires that an attack against one ally be considered an attack against all. To complement the military aspect of the alliance is the political component of NATO, as all member states are expected to adhere to shared values/norms of democracy and complete consultation on matters of defense and security. NATO has remained a dynamic alliance through commitment to its dual nature of military and political cooperation.

The decision-making mechanism of NATO is always by full consensus and with cooperation amongst allies. The North Atlantic Council (NAC) is the primary political body in NATO, with each member state retaining a seat in the council. The NAC is chaired by the Secretary General, who helps guide the council to a consensus on political and military decisions. Political diplomacy is always the starting point for action; however, when political decisions require the implementation of military operations, there are multiple key military actors involved. The Military Committee is composed of the Chiefs of Defense from NATO member countries, and the International Military Staff is the Military Committee’s executive body. 

Member states volunteer forces and military resources voluntarily which are then returned back to their respective member states once the operation is completed. NATO attempts to guarantee that its joint policies, abilities, and structures meet threats in the present and in the future. Enumerated in NATO’s “Strategic Concepts” are the core tasks, goals, evolving security challenges, and alliance adaptations for the next decade. The current strategic concept is the 2010 “Strategic Concept: Active Engagement, Modern Defence,” which outlines three core tasks of NATO: collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. The strategic concept also emphasizes the importance of solidarity, transatlantic consultation, and the need for continuous reform with the alliance. 

II. China’s rise to modernity 

“The scale of Chinese power and global reach poses acute challenges to open and democratic societies, particularly because of that country’s trajectory to greater authoritarianism and an expansion of its territorial ambitions.” These sentiments expressed in the NATO 2030 Reflection Group Report demonstrate the changing position of world leaders toward China, a country whose rapid economic growth, military aggrandizement, and staggering infrastructure initiatives have been the cause of great unease in the international community in recent years. When one considers NATO’s fundamental responsibilities and spheres of influence, that is, political cohesion, military cooperation, and collective defense, China’s shifting posture in the global system has created new areas of conflict and interest for NATO in the future. China should be considered a paramount threat to NATO for the coming decade as it threatens to undermine the founding principles and responsibilities of the alliance--a threat evidenced by China’s increasing global and regional military prominence, acts of aggression towards NATO allies, and staggering projects of infrastructure that undermine NATO’s ability to remain politically cohesive. 

China’s economic takeoff began around 1978 and has resulted in annual growth averaging nine percent per year since that time. This rapid economic growth has been coupled with rapid industrialization, making China an industrial and technological powerhouse. In fact, China is considered the largest exporter in the world and is also home to the largest economy, pursuing state-led economic policies and sectors. This trend of modernization and industrialization does not appear to be slowing down, rather, the opposite seems to be true: China is quickly surpassing many historically industrialized nations to become one of the most advanced countries in the world. 

In and of itself, economic growth and rapid modernization/industrialization are not  intrinsically negative realities. The global community is typically supportive when a country achieves great strides such as these. However, the cause for concern is evident when one considers China’s maneuvers in a broader context, keeping in mind Chinese motives, goals, and regional/global pursuits which may underline a greater threat to the international community. As far as NATO is concerned, China’s economic and industrial modernization is not of paramount importance; instead, it has been China’s exertion of global and regional military power, acts of aggression, and China’s infrastructure projects and economic assistance that threaten the cohesion of NATO. 

China’s military stature has improved dramatically in the last decade alone. China came to the realization in the 1990s, in light of U.S. intervention in the Gulf War and the Taiwan Strait Crisis, that its military was unprepared to contend with modern warfare tactics and resources, thus prompting sweeping changes and modernization within every level of China’s military.  Since that time, China has dramatically increased military spending and invested in programs to enhance the Chinese defense industry. Although data collection for actual Chinese annual defense spending varies, it is estimated that in 2019, Chinese defense spending amounted to between USD $234 billion and USD $261 billion. Additionally, in March, China announced a yearly defense budget of USD $209.2 billion, which marks a purported 6.8% increase in defense spending from 2020. This year’s increase in Chinese defense spending is not a new phenomenon, as demonstrated by data compiled by the CSIS China Power Project. The graphic below from the CSIS China Power Project reflects how China’s defense spending has increased steadily in the last decade alone, and one can only assume that there will be a further increase in the future. 


Source: CSIS China Power Project, “What Does China Really Spend on its Military?”

China’s naval capacity has improved significantly in the last decade. For instance, China’s navy has the greatest number of ships in its arsenal, making China the world’s largest naval force currently. Despite this fact, China still does not have the same level of updated naval equipment in comparison to other countries. China, for example, has two aircraft carriers currently completed in comparison to the United States’ eleven. The Chinese air force is also improving rapidly, as China has managed to acquire more advanced equipment (albeit, likely stolen from U.S. designs). Some of these advancements include but are not limited to: “airborne warning and control systems, bombers, and unmanned aerial vehicles,” as well as stealth aircraft (including J-20 fighter jets).

Perhaps most interesting in China’s military modernization is the advent of its rocket force. The rocket force is responsible for maintaining conventional and nuclear missiles and has an active troop count of around 120,000. China’s estimated warhead count is around 290, with a steady increase in China’s nuclear arsenal in the last decade. China is reported to have the most mid-range ballistic and cruise missiles, and is set to develop the DF-17 hypersonic missile--that is, a missile that travels faster than the speed of sound with the capability of changing targets mid-flight, making it difficult to defend against. Furthermore, China is now estimated to be the world’s second largest arms producer, lagging just behind the United States but ahead of other giants such as Russia. 

As stated previously, this modernization in and of itself is not an inherently negative occurrence. However, one must consider the implications of such a military modernization when coupled with some key Chinese military and security interests. Some of those key interests include deploying military resources on disputed islands in the South China Sea, hindering Taiwanese independence, and securing land borders with several of China’s neighbors, including India and North Korea. Furthermore, according to President Xi Jinping, his vision is to reestablish China as a great power, to introduce a world-class force that has the capability of dominating the Asia-Pacific region, and to ‘fight and win’ global wars by 2049. This thirst for regional dominance is an immediate red flag for NATO, as China’s interests likely will only serve to expand its influence further to surpass the immediate Southeast Asia region and extend power into Europe and Africa. 

III. China’s acts of aggression toward NATO allies 

NATO allies have been increasingly concerned with the rising level of cooperation between Russia and China, two countries considered to be NATO’s top military and political priorities for the coming decade. Although joint military operations between Russia and China are not as extensive in number and frequency as between NATO allies themselves, the volume of joint naval, land, and air military exercises has increased in the last decade. For instance, just three years ago, in 2018, China and Russia held their largest joint military exercise called Vostok-18, which included 300,000 Russian troops and large military displays. The Joint Sea 2015 exercise, including three ships from China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and six Russian naval ships, was the first of its kind. Since then, there has been a Joint Sea 2017 exercise, as well as the aforementioned Vostok-18. Additionally, the economic and political links between Russia and China have continued to strengthen recently, as their individual and autonomous interests have further polarized them from the West. On their own, these events may not seem like a viable threat to NATO allies; however, when considered in the context of Russia-China relations as a means to further juxtapose these two powerful nations against NATO, the threat becomes much more visible. 

Additionally, the frequency of cyberattacks originating from China and Russia have caused great concern for NATO allies. Nearly every NATO ally has been affected by malicious cyberattacks either claimed by or suspected of originating from China and/or Russia. Aside from the widely-known occurrences of election disinformation and interference in the United States as well as other European counterparts, there have also been numerous cyberattacks in the financial sector, in corporations, and in government structures. For instance, the RedDelta hacker group, believed to be backed by the Chinese government, hacked into Vatican computers just before important negotiations took place on renewing an agreement between China and Italy regarding the assignment of Catholic bishops in China. Last year alone, the United States Department of Justice charged five Chinese citizens for hacking into more than 100 U.S. firms and overseas entities, compromising technology systems and sensitive information. Chinese cyberattacks, whether or not they are directly claimed by the Chinese government, are largely considered to be state-supported and encouraged. 

China’s unfair trading practices have also caused NATO allies great chagrin. China’s intellectual property theft is considered to be the cause of some of China’s key military developments, particularly in China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Much of the PLAAF’s updated air force technology are imitations of United States Air Force counterpart technology, such as the Global Hawk and Reaper unmanned drones, the C-17 transports, F-35 stealth fighters, missiles that resemble the U.S. AMRAAM. Even China’s J-20, one of the most important military resources of the PLAAF, mirrors components of the U.S. F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, both of which are used by a majority of NATO allies. NATO allies have been made increasingly aware of the damaging effects of China’s intellectual property theft, not only in the military sector, but also in the business sector, technology and innovation industries, sensitive technologies, and more. Still, China’s intellectual property theft is a train that is difficult to stop, and there does not seem to be a clear approach on how to address this issue as of yet.

It would be remiss to complete this brief overview of China’s threat to NATO allies without mentioning the Huawei debacle that has come to light. As the world’s leader in 5G technology and smartphones, Huawei was once widely accepted by the international community as a beneficial and innovative strategy for incorporating 5G into even the remotest of areas. Although Huawei claims to be fully privately owned, the exact ownership construction of Huawei is unknown. Recently, the United States has taken up an initiative to restrict Huawei services and encourages other NATO allies to follow suit. The main concern, cyber espionage, centers around claims that Huawei has violated international sanctions and has committed intellectual property theft. The threat of cyber espionage is not an unfounded concern, for Chinese intelligence laws have left many loopholes for the Chinese government to require Huawei to surrender its data, and there is concern that Huawei’s infrastructure may have backdoors that would allow the Chinese government to essentially spy on consumers of Huawei and possibly commit cyberattacks. Although other NATO allies (apart from the United States) have not taken substantive steps in restricting Huawei’s reach, the NATO community is stirring and is growing increasingly uneasy with the possible threat Huawei poses. 

IV. China’s staggering infrastructure initiatives 

China has established several infrastructure/investment projects of which many Western nations have taken part, notably the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The AIIB was formed as a response to the lag and excess capacity in the Chinese economy in the mid-2010s, and also serves as a balance to other International Financial Institutions (IFIs), such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). China grew frustrated with the lack of cohesion in the IMF as well as a lack of focus on infrastructure growth and investment within the IMF. Thus, the AIIB serves as an Asian-focused counterbalance to IFIs such as the IMF. As the AIIB has increased in membership to nearly 60 countries, the threat of an over-exertion of Chinese dominance in such an institution is not as great as one that is solely Chinese-led. 

The Belt and Road Initiative, however, is a different scenario altogether. The BRI, known formerly as the One Belt, One Road initiative, is an enormous development project begun in 2013 by President Xi Jinping. Composed of a large collection of development and infrastructure projects, the BRI is set to span from Southeast Asia to Europe and into Africa. The BRI, although benevolent and helpful on the exterior, at its core serves to expand Chinese military and political influence, as many Western nations believe the BRI to be a “trojan horse,” a method of Chinese-led development and military expansion into the West. The BRI also has a dual component to it, as there is both a land and maritime initiative, doubly opening up avenues for Chinese expansion. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “To date, more than sixty countries--accounting for two-thirds of the world’s population--have signed on to projects or indicated an interest in doing so.”


Source: Council on Foreign Relations, “China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative” 

President Xi Jinping has envisaged a more assertive China under the BRI, as well as bolder statecraft initiatives that have the power to shape international norms and institutions. These infrastructure investments are tricky, for BRI projects are created using low-interest loans as opposed to official aid grants, and are opaque in terms of the loan agreement; oftentimes, this requires Chinese firms to step in and perform the projects themselves, leading to over-inflated costs and sometimes cancelled projects and political backlash. Once projects are completed, the countries who have signed onto the BRI project are then indebted to China, which creates a clear conflict of interest, particularly if those aforementioned countries are subject to international agreements and alliances such as NATO. This result will be more likely in the future, according to a report by the Center for Global Development. Currently, eight BRI countries are susceptible to debt crises, and comprehensive debt to China has skyrocketed in the last decade (exceeding 20% of GDP in some BRI countries). 

The question at hand then is what the implications of such vast infrastructure projects are for the NATO Alliance. Some NATO allies, such as Italy and Turkey, have already signed onto BRI projects, which poses a conflict of interest for the Alliance. NATO is built on principles of political cohesion and consensus, principles which are directly under threat if NATO allies have such deep connections/debts to China which might cloud their judgment and commitment to NATO. In the future, should NATO be forced to make a definitive stand on China, it is unlikely that allies would be able to reach a full consensus on a standard approach to China. China’s tactics are subversive, and as a result they undermine the cohesion of the NATO alliance, threatening the Alliance’s operability, cohesion, and legitimacy. 

V. The challenges posed by China-Turkey relations 

The amelioration of relations in recent years between Turkey and China is no coincidence, as Turkey’s economic downturn has created a perfect opportunity for China to extend investment into Turkey. China is currently the second-largest import partner of Turkey (second only to Russia), and has invested upwards of $3 billion in Turkey in the last five years, with plans to double that investment amount in the next year. Additionally, when the Turkish lira’s value dropped in 2018, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China extended around $3.6 billion of loans to the Turkish government to continue pursuit of energy and transportation initiatives. The two countries have also signed ten bilateral agreements on a variety of issues since 2016, further strengthening their economic bond to become a political bond as well. 

The Chinese BRI also provides Turkey with a substantial source of revenue, while also giving Beijing a direct gateway into the Mediterranean region. Some notable developments have taken place in Turkey under the umbrella of the BRI initiative. Turkey recently concluded a railroad from Kars, Turkey through Georgia and Azerbaijan, where it connects with transportation routes to China. China has also purchased 65% of a container terminal in Turkey, providing Beijing with access to key regional container transportation, while also extending broad energy investments, such as the Chinese investment in a coal-fired power plant located on the Mediterranean Sea, which could potentially produce 3% of Turkey’s electricity once the project is completed. These projects do not occur without incurring a great amount of debt. China’s Export and Credit Insurance Corporation has devoted up to $5 billion towards Turkey’s Wealth Fund to help fund these BRI projects. The fund is limited in transparency and is rather opaque regarding the terms of the loan, which has caused many to question the implications of such a large debt and Turkey’s ability to repay. 

The BRI is not the only connecting point between Turkey and China. Militarily, Turkey and China have entered a period of bilateral defense cooperation which has allowed for Chinese-backed military technology and innovation in Turkey. For example, Turkey’s Bora ballistic missile, which Turkey deployed in an operation against the PKK in Syria, is modeled from China’s B-611 missile. Non-militarily, China also has achieved a foothold in some of Turkey’s technology sector. The infamous Chinese company Huawei is not nearly as opposed in Turkey as in some other NATO allies, as the Huawei market share in Turkey comprises over 30%. This is concerning given how much of Turkey’s population uses the internet to disseminate information to bypass the state-controlled media. 

Politically, the ties between Turkey and China have become most evident in light of Turkey’s response to the Uighur Muslim crisis in China. President Erdogan, at one point, voiced his outspoken support of the Turkish-speaking Uighur Muslim population from Xinjiang who have been the victims of various gruesome human rights abuses in China. Turkey has served as a safe haven for Uighur Muslims since 1949, but this dynamic changed suddenly in 2016 with the extradition of Uighur activist Abdulkadir Yapcan from Turkey. The following year, China and Turkey signed an extradition agreement that permitted extradition even if the offense was only illegal in one of the countries. The arrest and deportation of Uighurs from Turkey has increased significantly, numbering in the hundreds since the beginning of 2019. This political shift in Turkey can be explained by Turkey’s need for China’s assistance, both economically and infrastructurally, which in turn has permeated into the political convictions and stances of Turkey towards China. 

These facts provide an important backdrop for Turkey’s relationship with China. In Turkey, China has found a strategic hold, for Turkey is an important NATO ally with a large energy and transportation sector, while also being a crucial geopolitical player due to its location, straddling the regions of the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and Russia. For Turkey’s part, China provides an avenue for desperately needed assistance to promote development and growth as Turkey strives to become more independent and autonomous in the global system. 

VI. Conclusion and Proposed Solutions 

The implications of this broader narrative of Chinese modernization, aggrandizement, and aggression are crucial now more than ever as the global community watches the changing power dynamics between the United States and China, as well as the changing cohesion of the NATO alliance. For many years, U.S.-Chinese relations were enveloped in forms of soft diplomacy, characterized by both sides making promises of cooperation, knowing well that diverging interests and strategies would make such cooperation difficult and unlikely. Recently, the United States has called attention to the economic coercion on American allies, cyberattacks, and aggressive actions in the Southeast Asian region, stating that China poses a threat to the “rules-based order that maintains global stability.” 

Additionally, the United States has appealed to NATO allies to work in tandem with the United States to deter Chinese aggression and coercion. In an address to NATO foreign ministers, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged allies, “There’s no question that Beijing’s coercive behavior threatens our collective security and prosperity and that it is actively working to undercut the rules of the international system and the values we and our allies share.” Blinken further encourages allies that while the United States understands the complex diplomatic relations that NATO shares with Beijing (undoubtedly a nod to member countries like Turkey and others who have strong economic and infrastructure ties with China), all NATO allies must work together to improve operability in areas such as technology and infrastructure, areas in which China exerts a great deal of power. This outward friction between the United States and China could mean a new era of relations between these two global superpowers, while providing a unique opportunity for the global community, and for NATO in particular, to define a modern approach to the rise of China. 

The NATO 2030 Reflection Group provides various recommendations on how the NATO alliance should approach China in the Reflection Group Report. These recommendations at many points are concise and emboldening, with great emphasis on political cohesion between the NATO allies when facing various challenges posed by China. Some key areas of focus mentioned are cyber and hybrid threats, emerging and disruptive technologies (EDTs), space, arms control, and more. The NATO Reflection Group recommends that strategies to address the China challenge are incorporated into existing structures and committees focused on the aforementioned focus areas, which denotes a comprehensive approach with the possibility of a broad sense of cooperation on critical areas between allies. 

The most innovative recommendation made by the Reflection Group is the creation of a consultative body, to work in tandem with pre-existing NATO structures and committees, whose primary focus would be to share information and discuss all relevant security interests as they relate to China with NATO allies, NATO partners, and other institutions as necessary. The concept of a consultative body within NATO with this sole purpose has the potential to be a concrete change implemented within the alliance’s framework, allowing for a standard approach to China, a clear dissemination of goals and concerns regarding the China challenge, and an opportunity for allies and necessary outside parties to collaborate. The more complete picture the NATO alliance has of China’s spheres of influence and the challenges that China poses to each individual ally, the more likely the alliance will be to approach these issues with cohesion and collaboration as a whole. 

The areas in which the NATO Reflection Group Report falls short is in some of the more vague recommendations regarding the China challenge. The Reflection Group makes recommendations for a more unified response to the security challenges posed by China, the need for allies to devote more time and political resources to address those challenges, the expansion of security capabilities to address China’s influence, and a call to invest in more adaptation, monitoring and defense towards China; however, there are no clear mechanisms for how this is to be accomplished. These recommendations greatly affirm the central focus of NATO’s approach to China and its need for improvement, but what the NATO allies need is a discussion and strategy to approach China on a multi-faceted level. China’s relationship with each NATO ally varies significantly, thus necessitating a multi-faceted approach geared towards the understanding of each ally’s nuanced relationship with China. 

This multi-faceted (yet standardized) approach is not a new theory. Many practitioners in the field of political science and international relations have called for a mechanism that approaches China from core policy interest areas, that is, economically, geostrategically, politically, etc. This is the most effective way to create a standard mechanism to approach the China challenge, for China’s relationship with each NATO ally varies significantly, and as such might not require a standardized, to the letter, approach. Having a broader framework through which to interact with China, with different plans of action focusing on different elements of China’s challenges, will allow NATO allies to have a more streamlined and relevant individual approach. Hal Brands and Zack Cooper in Foreign Policy posit a method of global powers (led by the United States) forming four coalitions through which to interact with China: the geostrategic coalition, the economic coalition, the technological coalition, and the governance coalition. This approach is certainly appealing, and represents a model that could be adapted by NATO allies to form coalitions within a consultative body (as mentioned above) that would be centered more on NATO’s key focus areas as enumerated in the Reflection Group Report to fully adapt to and address China’s challenges. 

What is most crucial to remember when considering NATO’s approach to China is the fact that each ally has independent and autonomous interests and relationships regarding China. NATO must safeguard political cohesion at the forefront of any initiative toward China, keeping in mind that NATO allies oftentimes act in their own autonomous interests. China provides a diverse range of benefits and threats to each individual country, thus NATO’s strategic approach must begin with each individual NATO member state before a strategy can be implemented in a broader institutional sense. A re-affirmation from all NATO allies on their individual commitment to NATO and its principles of military deterrence and, above all, political cohesion will ensure a favorable start to a comprehensive policy on China. 


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