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China’s rise is exactly the kind of threat NATO exists to stop

The alliance has been adrift for years. Countering China would give it focus.

This undated handout photograph released by the Indian Army on February 16, 2021 shows Chinese soldiers and tanks near a disputed part of the India-China border.
This undated handout photograph released by the Indian Army on February 16, 2021 shows Chinese soldiers and tanks near a disputed part of the India-China border. (AFP/Getty Images)
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As promised, President Biden and his administration are moving swiftly to repair America’s damaged relationship with its NATO allies — following four years in which President Donald Trump bitterly complained that they weren’t pulling their weight. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s first official call after his confirmation was to the long-suffering head of the NATO alliance, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg; Biden followed up by releasing a video of his own call with Stoltenberg, purposefully going beyond the traditional print “readout.” “We’ve got a mountain of work to do ahead of us, from covid to climate to tackling security challenges,” Biden told the NATO head.

But once the “America is back” calls and speeches are finished, the Biden team must face the hard task of preparing NATO for its next chapter. Thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the mission of this organization founded after World War II to safeguard the freedom of Western Europe and North America is no longer clear. Restoring European allies’ trust in U.S. competence won’t be enough to rehabilitate the transatlantic partnership if the allies don’t solve this identity crisis.

With Trump gone, the alliance can’t simply go back to business as usual — because for some time now business as usual in NATO has meant taking on more and more roles and activities in a frantic quest for relevance. And while Trump absolutely damaged the alliance, it would be foolhardy to blame all of its problems on him: Mission drift, for instance, long predated his administration. A longer-term corrective may involve reorienting the security organization’s focus toward its traditional role of deterring and defending against strategic competitors: Russia, yes, but even more so China. That nation is the obvious successor to the mid-20th-century Soviet Union in harboring global ideological aspirations at odds with those of the major Western democracies

The end of the Cold War understandably precipitated NATO’s identity crisis. With U.S. guidance, the organization pivoted away from its longtime focus on collective defense against Moscow — an attack on one member would be considered an attack on all — toward a global peace-enforcement role. The security of nations outside the alliance became a concern on the theory that instability and violence beyond NATO’s borders could spill over onto alliance territory, and because intervention to stop humanitarian catastrophes was seen as inherently right. (In the 1990s, then-Sen. Richard Lugar famously declared that the alliance must go “out of area” lest it risk going “out of business.”) This shift was accompanied by expansion: Since the late ’90s, NATO has nearly doubled its membership, from 16 to 30, incorporating states that were once part of the Soviet Union, like Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, or members of the Warsaw Treaty Organization, like Poland.

Early examples of NATO’s new role included the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 to halt violence against Kosovar civilians perpetrated by Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, followed by peacekeeping duties there. In 2003, NATO took on the task of enforcing peace in Afghanistan after the invasion by a U.S.-led coalition. In 2011, it intervened in Libya to impose a U.N. Security Council cease-fire resolution on the Moammar Gaddafi regime.

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Civil strife and violence in these and other hotspots are unlikely to recede anytime soon, but NATO is ill equipped to fix such problems. Worldwide crisis stabilization is too open-ended a goal to serve as the organizing principle for a military alliance — and such ambitions stretch valuable NATO resources at a time when threats to the North Atlantic region are growing. Refocusing NATO to check the dangers posed by China’s rise would restore it to something closer to its original mission of safeguarding allies from strategic competitors.

What about Russia? It remains meddlesome, but it is largely under control — and a shadow of its former self. Yes, Moscow retains the ability to wreak havoc in any manner of ways, but in conventional military terms it doesn’t pose the same threat to the alliance it once did, and NATO has moved swiftly to counter what threat there is. Following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, NATO established new commands and headquarters in Poland, Latvia and Romania — its biggest investment in force structure since the Cold War. There remain areas of internal disagreement: On matters like the spreading of misinformation in elections, some European members — France, for instance — seem inclined to shrug off President Vladimir Putin’s provocations. And Germany in particular is eager to embrace financial and energy collaborations with Russia (though it faces pressure to back off as Putin clamps down on dissidents). Putin will use these splits to try to divide the allies against themselves, but on the big question — checking and containing Russian military adventurism — NATO is united, and effective. 

It is China that represents the bigger menace over the long term to Western values and interests. At present, China is primarily an economic and political threat, not a military one, but NATO should prepare for the latter possibility, given Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy. After all, it has cracked down on Hong Kong, clashed with India in the Himalayas, levied tariffs on Australia after officials criticized its handling of the coronavirus, and said Britain would “bear the consequences” for excluding telecom firm Huawei from its 5G network.

China has been steadily investing in European infrastructure: State-run shipping companies own significant stakes in 13 European ports, for instance, and the telecom equipment company ZTE has a large presence in southeastern Europe. When countries cede control of their infrastructure, their “resilience,” or ability to recover from the shock of a natural disaster or armed attack, suffers. (Maintaining resilience is a core part of NATO’s mission statement.) Such developments also make it easier for Beijing to impose its will on NATO members — by threatening to end access to a port, say. 

China has already proved itself adept at using other tools in its arsenal — such as economic influence — to intimidate and coerce states, as when Beijing imposed an eight-year ban on Norwegian salmon in retaliation for the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident. To safeguard against a future when China decides to use its growing military power in similar fashion, NATO should invest more in military assets and planning today.

Narrowing the alliance’s focus and prioritizing China hardly mean that NATO-flagged vessels would appear tomorrow in the South China Sea, where Beijing has been expanding its naval bases. The shift would, at least at first, represent more of a change in strategic mind-set. 

But China has already begun to encroach on the North Atlantic region. In the Arctic, for example, Beijing is working on liquid-natural-gas drilling projects with Russia; it is also sending icebreakers to the Norwegian Sea. To address these developments, NATO could start by formally including the “High North” in its strategic documents for the first time and by increasing its presence in the region.

Biden certainly seems focused on China at the national level — promising to maintain Trump’s tougher stance, without the counterproductive measures (like tariffs) — but it is not clear that his administration has grasped the role NATO can play. When the president spoke with Stoltenberg, he proposed adding global issues ranging from democratic backsliding to climate change and the pandemic to the alliance’s agenda. Defense Secretary Austin similarly identified a laundry list of tasks, including tackling corruption and international criminal organizations, during the NATO defense ministers’ meeting in February.

Still, at a Munich Security Conference event last month, Biden said that America and its allies “must prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China.” And there’s a growing movement in D.C. think tanks — from which Biden is drawing many of his advisers — arguing for such an orientation. Stoltenberg, an early and frequent advocate of having NATO address the implications of China’s rise, would be a key figure in the refocusing: In his own comments at the Munich gathering, he stressed that China is the “defining issue” for the transatlantic relationship. Stoltenberg and a group tasked with charting the alliance’s long-term course — the NATO 2030 working group — have recommended deepening and broadening relationships with partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

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By necessity, refocusing on China would involve curtailing NATO’s other sprawling activities — beneficial in itself. Beyond ending the training and advising missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, pausing NATO expansion would make sense, since it would be inadvisable to add new members — such as Ukraine and Georgia, thereby provoking Russia — as it works out its identity crisis. Russia is already pretty much contained; admitting Ukraine and Georgia, a move for which many Europeans have little appetite anyway, would doom arms-control and other negotiations with Moscow.

Regrettably, as with Russia, Europe is divided over how to deal with China. Many European allies are wary of picking sides in the struggle for influence between the United States and its Asian rival. Some, like Germany, even appear outright resentful at the suggestion that they must choose. German Chancellor Angela Merkel rushed last year to conclude the E.U.-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment — even though the incoming U.S. national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, had strongly signaled that Europe should wait till Biden’s inauguration.

China’s rise is indisputably the most significant geopolitical development of the 21st century. It would be strange for an alliance as potent as NATO to ignore the challenge. A Europe that continues to downplay the danger posed by China’s growing influence in the North Atlantic area could lead Xi to succeed where Trump and Putin failed: He could splinter the alliance.

International organizations like NATO move slowly, and it will take time to lay the groundwork for tackling the security implications of China’s ascendance. By beginning that shift now, the alliance may avoid a greater challenge later.

Twitter: @sb_moller

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