What is the future of NATO-China relations?

By THO Team Member, Beliz Aluc

China, as the fastest developing economy, is becoming more involved with international politics through its economy, deals, and various agreements. Naturally, NATO, as one of the world’s biggest and most established alliances, has been trying to develop the best response to potential threats from China while trying to protect its relationship with the Chinese government. In his latest speech, John Stoltenberg, NATO’s Secretary-General, has expressed that NATO doesn’t see China as an enemy or an adversary. However, before going into the implications of this statement, it’s important to look at some of the developments that have happened between China and NATO in the past year. 

Most of the superpowers within NATO seem to be hesitant about cooperation with China. This may include several potential reasons, one of which is related to China’s past actions regarding the principles of cooperation and alliances. China has been looked at as a threat especially with its incredible amount of military investments and its attack on cybersecurity. For example, China has sent ships into the Mediterranean and through the Arctic; it has also conducted military exercises with Russia in NATO’s backyard, built bases in Africa, and owns significant infrastructure in Europe, including the Greek port of Piraeus. In addition, China’s army has hacked computers to steal industrial and military secrets all over the globe and engaged in disinformation in NATO societies. However, Chinese investment in Europe and the trade deals between China and various NATO countries complicate this relationship further as it’s important for both parties to keep a stable relationship in order to protect their economies and trade deals. 

China as a Threat

Other than China’s physical, and cyber threats, the U.S. stance against China has been a great driving force in establishing a narrative of threat among other NATO Allies. However, the Australia-U.S.-U.K. Submarine Deal (AUKUS) which was established in early September of 2021 by President Joe Biden to better deal with the threats from China has infuriated France. Macron expressed in his speech by calling the deal “a stab in the back”, especially at a time when transatlantic cooperation to deal with China’s rise is crucial. The response has also raised some questions and concerns about NATO’s action plan towards China. However, despite common misconceptions about NATO’s negligence, China has been on NATO’s agenda for a long time. In fact, NATO 2030 report which was published in 2019 has a subsection on China. 

The section talks about China’s threat to democracy as well as its deepening relationship with Russia and what that entails. However, the section also highlights the important relationship that the Allies and China have in terms of trade. So, the recommendations section where it talks about various action items that NATO can take in order to deal with this dilemma include: establishing a consultative body to discuss all aspects of Allies’ security interests before China, devoting more time and resources to tackle the security challenges posed by China and engaging with China on a political level by maintaining conversations on mutual interests like arms control. 

China as an Ally

On the other hand, countries within NATO and China are dependent on each other when it comes to trade agreements and economic developments. That’s why the stance against the Chinese government cannot be as aggressive as it should be. So, can China be engaged in a way that will make the relations between the NATO countries and China less complicated? This question is one of the reasons why John Stoltenberg, in his statement, chose not to address China as an adversary. When Stoltenberg was explaining why he chose not to use that term, he emphasizes that China soon will have the biggest economy in the world and already has the second-largest defense budget and the largest navy. He also points out that China is investing heavily in new modern capabilities, including nuclear capabilities. That’s why NATO should be taking its steps more carefully as it’s important to recognize the certain stakeholders that contribute to the relationship with China. He also added: "NATO is the most successful alliance in history because we have been able to change when the world is changing, constantly adapting. And that's exactly what we do now,” So, how should NATO keep up with this change and what are some of the ways to deal with this dilemma?

Finding the Common Ground

NATO has to shift gears on its focus to better deal with the question of China and what the future holds especially when the U.S. is making an effort to come up with different ways to deal with this phenomenon. According to NATO 2030 Report, one of the ways that the NATO can focus on the problem by establishing a dedicated office that coordinates all PCR (People’s Republic of China)-related activity. This office can also engage with other Asian countries who are willing to cooperate with NATO Allies. This engagement can involve military exercises, developing cyber attack prevention strategies and any relevant security program collaborations. In addition, the office can also come up with ways to engage with China through various one-to-one meetings and negotiations. 

In conclusion, NATO should join U.S. efforts to deal with the threat of China, however it should serve as more than a military actor but a global democratic security network. This means that NATO, in addition to focusing on protecting its members from physical and cyber attacks, should also have a firm stance on democratic values, freedom and the rule of law in order to better influence and guide the narrative on the actual threat of China which is the threat to democracy and human rights. As John Stoltenberg asserted last April in India, “... we want to engage even more closely with our friends and partners around the world. Because that is the best way to protect the rules-based international order, secure our societies and ring-fence our democracies,”