Trump Wants NATO’s Eyes on China

The Trump administration says countering Beijing’s cyber and commercial power should be a priority for the alliance.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, U.S. President Donald Trump, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg sit at a working dinner meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on May 25, 2017. (Matt Dunham/AFP/Getty Images)
British Prime Minister Theresa May, U.S. President Donald Trump, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg sit at a working dinner meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on May 25, 2017. (Matt Dunham/AFP/Getty Images)

The Trump administration is pushing NATO to address potential threats from China in its day-to-day work in Brussels and at an upcoming meeting of foreign ministers in Washington next month, U.S. and European officials say. The move is part of a shift in American priorities away from fighting Islamist terrorists and toward a so-called era of great power competition.

For months, the administration has been working to persuade Europeans to rebuff Chinese investment in the continent’s critical infrastructure and telecommunications networks. The campaign has received a lukewarm reception in some parts of Europe, where U.S. allies are already troubled by the U.S.-China trade war and President Donald Trump’s hostile jabs at the European Union and NATO.

While many Europeans view China as a potential challenge to the West, some are skeptical that NATO, oriented toward deterring Russia and still engaged in the yearslong fight in Afghanistan, is the best forum to address the threat. China has never before been a key conversation topic in the alliance.

“China could pose a threat to NATO. But that doesn’t mean it’s through NATO we have to respond,” said one European defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg signaled the shift in a speech at a major security conference in Germany last month. “There is genuine potential for partnership and political dialogue. … But China’s rise also presents a challenge,” he said, citing China’s investment in Europe’s critical infrastructure, including its fifth generation, or 5G, wireless communications networks.

“We will continue to consult, continue to assess, and look into whether NATO has a role to play in addressing the security aspects related to this kind of infrastructure,” Stoltenberg added in a press conference on March 14. “But it’s too early to say anything about the outcome of the consultations which are going on now.”

Officials and experts are torn on what exactly the alliance can add to any Western approach on China. U.S. officials who spoke to Foreign Policy clarified that Washington is not pushing NATO to confront China, which remains Europe’s second-largest trade partner and one of the United States’ most important economic relationships. “It’s nothing beyond discussions with allies at this point, but they’re discussions that need to happen,” said one U.S. official.

Rachel Ellehuus, a former U.S. Defense Department official who worked on NATO issues and is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that China is undoubtedly seeking more influence in Europe, and it’s difficult to separate its commercial ambitions from geopolitical ones. “There’s this new understanding that much like Russia, China is seeking to use transactions, money, finance, and investment as leverage for influence in Europe,” she said.

But discussing the issue at NATO was “not something natural,” according to one European defense official familiar with internal deliberations. “China is not a direct military threat to NATO. But there are some solid elements that NATO can look at,” the official said. The official listed the growing cybersecurity threats posed by China, some Russian and Chinese military cooperation, and the Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s investment in Europe’s 5G infrastructure, which U.S. officials paint as a Trojan horse for Beijing’s digital spies.

Ellehuus said pushing NATO to discuss China could help. “NATO is a political as well as a military organization. They can use discussions to build consensus and highlight new threats,” she said. “It has mechanisms for talking about how you deter malign Russian and Chinese behavior, but it doesn’t have all the tools by any means.”

A State Department spokeswoman declined to comment on private diplomatic discussions ahead of the NATO meeting in Washington next month, which coincides with the 70th anniversary of the alliance.

“The United States has been very clear that we are concerned with certain foreign investment in and control over critical infrastructure, including telecommunications and transportation elements,” the spokeswoman said. “These investments represent a challenge to transatlantic security, including to institutions like NATO.”

U.S. officials also worry that China is gaining too many commercial footholds in some of Europe’s largest and most important ports, including Rotterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg, and Piraeus, that it could use to wield political influence over European governments.

In its 2018 National Security Strategy, the Trump administration identified Russia and China as top threats to global order, marking a new shift away from the yearslong fight against terrorism as Washington’s top national security priority. In a tour of Central Europe last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned countries against forging closer ties with Moscow and Beijing, citing Huawei as an example of China’s tactic of masking geopolitical aims in commercial ventures. “Beijing’s handshake sometimes comes with strings, strings that will leave Hungary indebted both politically and economically,” he said during a stop in Budapest. The United States has also threatened to curb intelligence cooperation with allies that allowed Huawei to build up new mobile internet infrastructure.

But the warnings may have fallen on deaf ears, as Germany, Britain, and other European countries signal they have no intention of banning Huawei from their 5G networks. European officials said U.S. intelligence briefings with allies on Huawei did not offer enough proof that Beijing would use the company to steal information, according to the New York Times. Some European countries, bristling from Trump’s repeated public broadsides against them on trade and defense issues, seem determined to resist U.S. pressure on the China issue.

On Tuesday, Italy became the first European country to sign on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious trillion-dollar infrastructure investment project to connect China with Europe, Eurasia, and Africa.

Growing U.S. concerns come as the EU, coordinating with NATO, is pushing its member states to boost infrastructure projects across Europe for military means. It aims to minimize logistical roadblocks for militaries to quickly deploy and confront a Russian invasion. Though the possibility of a full-fledged conflict with Russia remains remote, defense planners worry NATO members aren’t equipped to support quickly moving military columns in any worst-case scenario.

The projects include upgrading roads and bridges to support the weight of tanks and other heavy military equipment, preparing ports to handle a surge in military supplies, and ensuring each member country has permission to move its military through its neighbors’ roads and airspace.

The so-called military mobility initiatives center around the potential threat posed by Russia, but Western defense officials want policymakers to assess how Chinese investments in ports and infrastructure could hamper their plans in the event of a conflict.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer