NATO’s expansion into the Pacific has China on edge

Introducing Grid Health, our new weekly health and policy newsletter

Why China is mad at NATO right now

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appears to have given NATO a new lease on life. While the 73-year-old security alliance has sometimes seemed strategically adrift since the end of the Cold War — described as “obsolete” or “brain-dead” by the leaders of some of its own members — in the last four months it has refocused on its historic core mission: defending Europe from Russian aggression. Current members have been sending weapons to Ukraine and bolstering their defense capabilities, and two new members (Sweden and Finland) are on the verge of joining, as a direct response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Despite this renewed focus on Russia, and the urgency of the war, another major power got considerable attention at NATO’s Madrid summit this week. There, NATO released its new “Strategic Concept,” a long-term planning document last updated in 2010, and for the first time the alliance singled out China as an area of focus. According to the document, China now poses a “systemic challenge” to Euro-Atlantic Security. NATO accuses the country of “malicious hybrid and cyber operations,” seeking to exert control over critical infrastructure and supply chains, and using “economic leverage to create strategic dependencies and enhance its influence.” The document also takes note of “the deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order.”

The Chinese government, which in recent months has often echoed Russian criticism of NATO expansion, was quick to condemn the NATO paper — not just the specific charges but the idea that an alliance built to safeguard peace and stability in Europe would have anything to do with the Asia Pacific region.

“We firmly oppose certain elements clamoring for NATO’s involvement in the Asia Pacific, or an Asia Pacific version of NATO on the back of military alliances,” Chinese Ambassador to the United Nations Zhang Jun told the Security Council on Tuesday.

ADVERTISEMENT

Grid spoke with two experts — Mirna Galic, senior policy analyst for China and East Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Leah Scheunemann, a former Pentagon official who is now deputy director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council — to discuss what we should make of NATO’s new China focus, how Beijing is likely to respond and what an alliance with “Atlantic” in its name is doing talking about the Asia Pacific at all.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: Given all the discussion about NATO refocusing on its historical mission of confronting Russia, is it a surprise to see the sort of prominent place of China as a systemic challenge in this strategic concept document?

Leah Scheunemann: It is not a surprise for those of us who have been watching NATO’s evolution toward China for the last several years, especially under the Trump administration. There was a lot of focus from Washington on getting them to focus more on the threat of China.

But the language on China is striking. It’s literally a list of all the ways the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is challenging the interests and security and values of NATO. I think it’s stronger language, or at least more explicit language, than we would have expected even two years ago. But the cyberattacks emanating from China, sponsored by the PRC, have been a persistent problem in Europe for years. So has Chinese investment in critical infrastructure and the supply chain — issues that the pandemic exacerbated. I think it’s really important that Europe has woken up to this threat, even if it’s not putting it at the same primacy that the United States is right now

ADVERTISEMENT

Mirna Galic: If you look at that document, China is in there, for sure, and that’s a big deal for those of us who have been following NATO’s shift in this direction. But what this document is is a reflection of changes in the geopolitical environment since 2010 that NATO faces. So there are a lot of new things in there in addition to just China. For example, North Korea is mentioned in the context of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] threats. That’s a first. And so is Iran. Neither of those were in the 2010 Strategic Concept. Climate change is mentioned 10 times in the document, and it was only referenced once in the 2010 document.

So this is reflecting a lot of the changes to the geopolitical environment that NATO is facing. And one of those changes is a more assertive and more militarily capable China that has expanded its nuclear arsenal and has recently flexed its muscles against European allies, in addition to the challenges that it has posed in the region, and a China whose relationship with Russia has grown more prominent. So it would be very strange for NATO not to consider this development when looking at the strategic environment it faces in the next 10 years.

G: New Zealand and South Korea and Japan and Australia also attended the summit this week — several of them for the first time. Does that speak to a shift toward NATO working more closely with those partners?

MG: It’s very significant that they have come at the leader level, all four of them, all at one summit. I think what’s happening now is you’re seeing basically an evolution of NATO’s existing relationships with these four countries, which far predate NATO’s focus on China.

These partners sit in this region, and they have a very unique and informed perspective of what is happening in the region. They’ve been neighbors with China for a very long time, they’ve dealt with trying to balance economic and security priorities and imperatives with China, so they have a lot to share with NATO in terms of Europe’s ability to learn lessons from them.

ADVERTISEMENT

G: So what does this emphasis on China look like on a practical level for NATO?

MG: It doesn’t mean NATO is going to be sending ships to monitor freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; it means NATO is going to be coordinating with its partners in the region. NATO is going to be looking at how China might pose challenges to the Euro-Atlantic region, and it’s going to be trying to inform itself more about what’s happening in China. Why is NATO trying to insert itself in the region? It’s not. NATO is trying to ensure that it’s coordinated with the partners that it has in the region and that it is able to respond to any security challenges that China provides to NATO.

LS: On the cyber front, a big thing that came out of the summit is the establishment of the new innovation investment fund and an innovation accelerator that NATO has started up. That could be an opportunity for Asia Pacific partners to either contribute monetarily or reap the benefits of cooperation that’s happening between allied democratic states working on similar problems, especially in cyberspace.

G: What do you take from China’s response to NATO’s labeling it a “systemic challenge” and the attendance of Asian partners at the summit?

MG: I think it’s really interesting to look at who is China actually messaging to when it’s addressing NATO and the Asia Pacific partners of NATO, when it’s telling them that closer relations are a dangerous and unnecessary thing. It’s not really addressing them. Because as we’ve said, these four countries have had relationships with NATO for a long time, and they’re not just going to suddenly change their minds because China is unhappy about it. What China is really addressing is Southeast Asia and the broader region, and ASEAN in particular. And it’s trying to rally them into — to quote from a Global Times op-ed — “not letting the sewage of the Cold War flow into the Pacific Ocean.” What it means by that is not just NATO, it’s talking about alliances in general and the many sort of alliance measures that have sprung up in the Indo-Pacific from the United States, like AUKUS [Australia/U.K./U.S.] and the Quad [U.S./India/Japan/Australia]. NATO is a proxy, I think in many ways, for China’s disapproval of the springing up of these mini-laterals, or those multilateral coalitions in the region.


G: Do you think there are consequences to China feeling cornered by those alliances?

MG: It’s an important question. It’s a question I really hope that is also on the minds — and I think is — of NATO allies. … But I think, again, this is why they have explicitly said in their strategic concept that they want to continue to have constructive engagement with China.

G: Do you have any concerns that this could push China and Russia closer together? We’ve seen China echo Russia’s rhetoric about how NATO’s eastward expansion put it under threat. Could this add to the shared sense of threat?

LS: One of the things that I heard a lot about last week when I was in Brussels, meeting with NATO and EU officials, is that Europeans, especially, are very concerned to see a huge uptick in energy flows from Russia to China. So, while the West has cut off Russia in a lot of important ways, Russia obviously still has buyers globally, and it seems like China has really stepped up its purchases as well. This is worrying but doesn’t necessarily reflect some sort of closer strategic alignment or partnership. And I think it’s been a good sign that China has not been more supportive of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

I am in the camp that sees alignment between China and Russia as an alignment of convenience. They have some strategic interests that are the same in terms of undermining the rules-based international order and not being held accountable for breaches of sovereignty.

ADVERTISEMENT

But I don’t think that the Chinese, when looking to play the long game, are expecting Russia to be a power player in the decades to come.

G: Do you think that NATO’s focus could have an impact on specific potential points of conflict in the Pacific — Taiwan in particular?

LS: The Russian war against Ukraine is obviously going to be the strategic focus of European NATO allies for as long as the war is fought. Hopefully it’s not much longer, but I think there are a lot of people who are kind of settling into the reality that it could be a lot longer than we had hoped.

So, I don’t think that strategically Europe is going to be able to focus on the Taiwan situation, but there are obvious parallels between aggressive authoritarian regimes using military power to subvert a sovereign neighbor who is trying to be closer to the West.

MG: I’m not sure that NATO would be a primary respondent to a situation in Taiwan. I think you would see Europe coordinating on a response, but I don’t think that it would be through NATO, I think you’d probably be through the European Union.

ADVERTISEMENT

G: We’ve seen other examples in recent years of NATO shifting its focus beyond Europe — in particular the war in Afghanistan and the post-9/11 focus on counterterrorism. Are there lessons you think the alliance should be drawing from those experiences?

LS: Yeah, there are a lot of lessons to be drawn. And at the end of last year, the [NATO] secretary-general had ordered a report looking at “lessons learned” specifically from Afghanistan, and unfortunately, that report has not been released. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the lessons drawn are not good news for NATO, especially on the political level, and the mistakes that were made in terms of setting strategy.

It’s important to make sure these lessons are implemented, and so I do worry that with the Russian war against Ukraine, and attention shifting to collective defense and territorial defense, which is really important, that some of those lessons might not be learned in the correct way. So in the future, if NATO is proposing larger-scale out-of-area operations like Afghanistan, I do worry that there are not enough lessons being learned.

G: Do you think NATO’s new attention to China will distract from its core focus on Russia? Do these different priorities draw resources from each other?

MG: No, I think they all can be managed, and I think there’s different levels of engagement. I think NATO is really actively involved in dealing with Russia right now, and the direct and immediate security challenge Russia poses to Europe. That doesn’t mean they can’t also simultaneously be strategically thinking about how to coordinate on China over the coming decade.

ADVERTISEMENT

But there’s also an element of interconnectedness here. What the Ukraine War has shown us more than anything else, it’s that what’s happening in Europe can affect the security of the Indo-Pacific region and vice versa. China’s reaction to Russia, or lack of reaction, China’s continued support for Russia — that’s had an impact.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.

  • Lili Pike
    Lili Pike

    China Reporter

    Lili Pike is a China reporter at Grid focused on climate change, technology and U.S.-China relations.