China Is NATO’s New Problem
The alliance has been so focused on Moscow that it has missed Beijing’s growing clout across Europe.
Over the past decade, Chinese companies have invested billions of dollars throughout Europe—buying up critical infrastructure and increasing Beijing’s political clout across the continent. As Chinese firms, often with strong ties to the state and Chinese Communist Party (CCP), acquire parts of sensitive ports, pipelines, and telecommunication networks, China’s incursions into Europe’s security umbrella are drawing serious concern.
But NATO, long worried about Russia, has largely been silent on China. Now, that is changing. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently called on the alliance to stand up to Beijing’s “bullying and coercion,” underscoring how China’s rise is fundamentally shifting the global balance of power. It’s apparent that NATO can no longer ignore the threat. If the alliance hopes to remain competitive, it will need to develop a new strategy for dealing with Beijing.
First, NATO needs a common assessment of China’s hybrid threats—a mix of diplomatic, economic, security, information, and technological actions designed to quietly undermine democratic states and institutions to Beijing’s benefit while avoiding a traditional conflict. While China’s conventional military threat in the Indo-Pacific is far from NATO’s borders, its hybrid activities are happening in the alliance’s own backyard. Cyber-espionage, intellectual property theft, infiltration of critical infrastructure, debt manipulation, and disinformation are prime examples. While these threats may seem to fall outside of NATO’s purview, they pose serious security risks for the alliance. For instance, China’s desire to invest in Lithuania’s Klaipeda Port may not look like a problem for NATO on its surface. But its investments have worrying strings attached that give China operating control over the infrastructure. That control could decrease allies’ willingness to move military forces—including sensitive technologies—through the port and its surrounding networks. This could lead to disrupted planning and fewer military exercises, decreasing NATO’s ability to defend the Baltic States during a crisis with Russia. This could also open the door for pragmatic collaboration between China and Russia to undermine trans-Atlantic security.
Allies need to forge a shared understanding of these risks through information-sharing and dialogue—no small feat for countries that do not see eye to eye on China. Some are even willing to ignore such vulnerabilities, due to economic benefits or disenchantment with trans-Atlantic institutions. The United States has a critical role to play in getting allies on the same page and setting common goals for countering China’s hybrid activities.
Second, NATO needs to focus on public diplomacy. NATO has an important role to play in the battle against the CCP’s global narratives, which Beijing promulgates through hybrid activities. To defend the trans-Atlantic values on which the alliance is built—freedom, democracy, rule of law, and human rights—NATO should clearly communicate China’s violations of these principles and its propaganda efforts to cover them up. (These include, among others, human rights abuses against ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang and violations of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea in the South China Sea.) NATO should also enhance its outreach to key partners in the Indo-Pacific, such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea, which can serve as important counterweights to Chinese influence in the region. Effective public messaging also means getting serious about attributing the blame for attacks, as the European Commission recently did over Chinese disinformation around COVID-19, to raise the pressure on Chinese officials. Trans-Atlantic countries have struggled to shape China’s behavior because they cannot prove malign intent or agree to call out Beijing for its subversive efforts. Allies should develop clearer guidelines—what needs to be proved, by whom, and to what degree—to enable collective attribution. NATO is strongest when it speaks with one voice. It should use that voice to demand transparency and change from China.
Third, the alliance should step up its counteroffensive. China’s hybrid actions intentionally blur the lines between what is legally permissible, politically inappropriate, and downright escalatory. This makes it difficult for leaders to determine appropriate responses, producing a reactionary approach thus far. But an intensifying geostrategic competition has already begun. To compete in this environment, the trans-Atlantic community needs a more proactive approach. Rather than waiting for China to invest in the next major European port, allies should coordinate legislation to prevent the riskiest Chinese acquisitions. And rather than waiting for more Chinese cyberintrusions, allies should collaborate on responsible, targeted offensive cyberactions. Over time, this would help dissuade China from manipulating investments in critical infrastructure, conducting cyber-espionage, and other hybrid activities. While adopting a more offensive posture remains controversial among certain allies, it is gaining traction across Europe and is strongly supported in Washington. Although NATO, as a defensive alliance, should not implement such a counteroffensive, policymakers should leverage it as the primary forum to coordinate actions among willing nations.
Fourth, NATO needs to deepen its cooperation with other key players, such as the European Union and the private sector. Where NATO lacks the mandate and means, the EU and multinational businesses play critical roles in developing, implementing, and enforcing the legislation and financial incentives necessary to counter Chinese hybrid threats. Complementary to that, NATO and its allies can focus on providing intelligence, defending cyberspace, developing capability targets for new technologies, conducting exercises and contingency planning, informing resilience requirements for secure infrastructure, and bolstering deterrence. Despite the political obstacles that impede more formal NATO-EU cooperation, allies should look to the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki to bring together NATO and EU staff, national officials, and industry voices in one place to align their counter-hybrid policies for China.
The Chinese government’s manipulative efforts around the coronavirus have thrust China’s hybrid activities to the center of trans-Atlantic debates. Policymakers need to seize the moment and respond by “using NATO more politically,” in Stoltenberg’s words. NATO is first and foremost about its nations. In the fight against China’s hybrid threats, these nations bring much more to the table than military power alone. They have access to a broad range of tools—military, political, economic, technological, and information—which the alliance can use to its collective geopolitical advantage in the competition with China. What NATO needs now is a strategy to leverage those tools in a coordinated manner. That will go a long way in solving NATO’s China problem.
This piece is based on a forthcoming Atlantic Council report, “A Strategic Concept for Countering Russian and Chinese Hybrid Threats.”