NATO Needs to Deal With China Head-On
The Western alliance is unprepared to counter the direct and growing challenge from Beijing.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
When the leaders of the 30 NATO countries meet this spring in Brussels, it will be no ordinary summit. The alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, has put NATO’s future on the agenda. It will also be the first major international summit for U.S. President Joe Biden, who has said that strengthening alliances will be a priority of his foreign policy. The decisions reached at this meeting will determine NATO’s plans and priorities for a long time to come.
It is therefore vital that the summit directly address the one topic with the biggest geopolitical implications for the coming decade by far: China. Encouraged by Washington and other allied capitals, Stoltenberg has already been nudging the alliance to deal more comprehensively with this challenge. The trouble is that some allies do not see China as NATO’s business while others are afraid that putting it on the alliance’s agenda will antagonize a powerful trade partner.
Both concerns are misplaced. Just because China is an Asian power doesn’t mean that its activities lie outside the scope of the Western alliance. It’s true that NATO’s Article 5 guarantee of mutual assistance in the event of military attack only applies to the Euro-Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer. But China is already active in exactly this geographic area in ways that profoundly affect the allies’ security. China’s control of a growing portion of critical European infrastructure—from telecommunications networks to port facilities—directly affects NATO readiness, interoperability, and secure communications.
China’s presence is not just commercial. Through its military-civil fusion strategy—which aims to systematically harness technology for military aims—Beijing is extracting private sector technology and talent from NATO member states for use by China’s People’s Liberation Army. Chinese military ships and planes are increasingly active in the eastern Mediterranean, northern Atlantic, and Arctic Ocean. At the same time, China is waging aggressive and increasingly sophisticated information campaigns to influence NATO members’ populations and opinion-makers—and divide the alliance from within.
If anyone thinks that ignoring these and other obvious security dimensions of Chinese activity will make their society safer or richer, they are mistaken. As Chinese behavior toward a growing list of countries in Europe and elsewhere shows, Beijing’s preferred strategy for expanding global influence is to bring its immense power and wealth to bear against smaller, isolated states. The greater the asymmetry in power, the better from Beijing’s perspective. The more Western countries can jointly advance their interests, therefore, the better equipped they will be for offsetting that asymmetry.
The scope for NATO to do more on China is considerable—and underdeveloped. Even though China comes up more and more in internal NATO processes and committee work, it may come as a surprise that there is at present no NATO China strategy, no regular working group or other body focused on China within the alliance, and no designated mechanism for defending allies against Beijing’s military-civil fusion program or other Chinese challenges to NATO’s security.
It is for this reason that an expert body, commissioned by Stoltenberg to conduct a strategic review for the alliance, placed China at the forefront of its recommendations. In its final report to NATO late last year, the group (which we co-chaired) wrote: “NATO must devote much more time, political resources, and action to the security challenges posed by China—based on an assessment of its national capabilities, economic heft, and the stated ideological goals of its leaders.”
To get serious about China and adapt to the many geopolitical changes that have occurred over the past decade, NATO urgently needs to update its 2010 Strategic Concept. The current version of that document, which outlines the goals and priorities for the alliance, reflects a world before the advent of great-power competition. It does not even mention China. Its priorities are those of an alliance that can safely assume it has no peer competitor—and focus on out-of-area operations on that basis. Although NATO has done a lot to update itself since that document was written—in particular, by strengthening deterrence and defense capabilities against Russia in the wake of its 2014 attack on Ukraine—it still lacks a comprehensive blueprint that reflects geopolitical reality.
Parallel to updating its strategic concept, NATO also needs to take practical steps to address the China challenge. Our report recommends the establishment of a consultative body modeled on the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, which oversaw restrictions on technology transfers to the Soviet Union during the Cold War—and including the European Council when appropriate. This would finally create a dedicated, institutional basis for the allies to discuss China and coordinate policies.
Perhaps most importantly, NATO needs a comprehensive China strategy that maps out how the alliance will, for example, monitor and defend against Chinese activities that negatively impact NATO’s readiness and resilience in the Euro-Atlantic region. This should also identify vulnerabilities of key sectors and supply chains and include provisions for maintaining NATO’s cohesion against Chinese influence through its Belt and Road Initiative.
NATO also has a role to play in ensuring its members retain a lead in the emerging technologies needed in the years ahead to retain critical military advantages and protect the privacy of their citizens. This should include better mechanisms to deconflict with European Union data regulations when security is at stake. The alliance should also establish its own version of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to spur and fund defense-related research and development among its members.
Finally, NATO can do a lot more to strengthen partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. This could be done by deepening cooperation under the existing NATO+4 format—in which the alliance engages with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea—or through NATO engagement with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which groups Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. This should include regular dialogue, information-sharing, and technological cooperation. In addition to these formats, NATO should extend an offer of formal partnership to India directly.
Is it unrealistic to think NATO will act on the China challenge? We don’t think so. Some observers contend that the United States and Europe are on divergent paths when it comes to China, but the two sides of the Atlantic have far more in common with each other on fundamental national-security interests and democratic values than either has with the Chinese Communist Party. Perhaps that is why the vast majority of the 30 NATO member governments that held consultations with our group placed security challenges emanating from China at or near the top of their list of concerns.
In addressing the challenge from China, NATO has a compelling rationale, an organizational mandate, and plenty of actionable recommendations to work with. Under Stoltenberg, the alliance has taken important first steps to dealing with this challenge, so a failure to act on China now would be a troubling step backward. Taking action will require political leadership at the highest levels. But the hour is late, and the time to act is now.
The authors were co-chairs of the NATO 2030 Reflection Group.
Thomas de Maizière is a former German defense minister who currently serves as a member of the German Bundestag.
A. Wess Mitchell is a principal at The Marathon Initiative and a former assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia during the Trump administration.