NATO’s New Division of Labor on Russia and China Won’t Be Easy

The bloc’s formal designation of Beijing as a threat is just a first step. Now comes the hard part.

By , a senior China fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies.
U.S. President Joe Biden and other leaders pose for a photo during the NATO summit in Madrid on June 29.
U.S. President Joe Biden and other leaders pose for a photo during the NATO summit in Madrid on June 29.
U.S. President Joe Biden and other leaders pose for a photo during the NATO summit in Madrid on June 29. Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images

For the first time since the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13th century, Europe now views an Asian power as a direct security threat. Unlike Japan, which overran Europe’s East Asian colonies during World War II, China is a superpower with global reach. In NATO’s new Strategic Concept, adopted at its Madrid summit last month, the alliance identifies China’s ambitions and coercive policies as a challenge to its members’ interests, values, and security. However, focusing on China will be fundamentally different from the bloc’s traditional role of warding off territorial threats in Europe, with several fault lines between the United States and NATO’s European members already built in.

Five factors explain NATO’s landmark decision. Some have been familiar parts of the security debate for years; others gained salience only recently.

First—and most obviously—NATO’s strategy is responding to China’s rise and the emergence of a new bipolar international system, replacing the so-called U.S. unipolar moment of the 1990s and early 2000s. With China’s economy estimated to be 25 percent larger than the United States’ by 2026 (measured in GDP at purchasing power parity), Beijing has the resources to further increase a defense budget that is already four times larger than Russia’s. As realists such as political scientist Kenneth Waltz have emphasized, a bipolar power structure compels other states to choose a side. Although the United States announced its rebalance to Asia in 2011, geographic distance and a certain strategic sloth have slowed Europe’s response to China’s growing power. Thus, it has taken Europe and NATO another decade to categorize China’s rise as a security challenge.

For the first time since the Mongol invasion of Europe in the 13th century, Europe now views an Asian power as a direct security threat. Unlike Japan, which overran Europe’s East Asian colonies during World War II, China is a superpower with global reach. In NATO’s new Strategic Concept, adopted at its Madrid summit last month, the alliance identifies China’s ambitions and coercive policies as a challenge to its members’ interests, values, and security. However, focusing on China will be fundamentally different from the bloc’s traditional role of warding off territorial threats in Europe, with several fault lines between the United States and NATO’s European members already built in.

Five factors explain NATO’s landmark decision. Some have been familiar parts of the security debate for years; others gained salience only recently.

First—and most obviously—NATO’s strategy is responding to China’s rise and the emergence of a new bipolar international system, replacing the so-called U.S. unipolar moment of the 1990s and early 2000s. With China’s economy estimated to be 25 percent larger than the United States’ by 2026 (measured in GDP at purchasing power parity), Beijing has the resources to further increase a defense budget that is already four times larger than Russia’s. As realists such as political scientist Kenneth Waltz have emphasized, a bipolar power structure compels other states to choose a side. Although the United States announced its rebalance to Asia in 2011, geographic distance and a certain strategic sloth have slowed Europe’s response to China’s growing power. Thus, it has taken Europe and NATO another decade to categorize China’s rise as a security challenge.

Second, technological developments have finally forced Europe’s hand. Here, too, many European countries enjoying growing trade with China and preferring to view Beijing as a partner on all kinds of issues were slow to rise to the challenge. The opportunities for Beijing to weaponize cybertechnology, 5G, and other fourth industrial revolution technologies have brought China closer to Europe. More than any other topic, restricting Huawei’s operations in Europe has dominated the debate on China between Washington and European capitals over the last three or four years.

What accelerated Europe’s shift on China is a third factor: increased uncertainty in Europe about U.S. long-term commitments to trans-Atlantic security. As long as Washington was committed to containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Europe could take the U.S. security guarantee for granted. This, of course, is no longer the case. For the past decade, Europe has seen the United States gradually rebalancing its strategic focus and resources to Asia, and then-U.S. President Donald Trump abruptly awakened European elites to the possibility that a U.S. withdrawal from Europe could be just one election away. In hopes of binding the United States to Europe more closely, European NATO members are aligning themselves with Washington—including by shifting their stance on China sooner than they might otherwise have chosen.

The U.S.-China rivalry presents NATO with a different challenge than the U.S.-Soviet one.

Fourth, China’s ideological shifts also accelerated Europe’s categorization of China as a threat. Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian turn under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, its tightened grip on Hong Kong, and its iron rule policy in Xinjiang did much to destroy China’s image in Europe. The European Union’s decision in 2021 to put the European Union-China investment agreement on ice was a direct response to Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang against it Uyghur population. China’s more aggressive wolf-warrior diplomacy and increasing ability to block EU decisions in Brussels via its client states in Europe didn’t go unnoticed either.

The fifth factor accelerating NATO’s shift on China is the evolving Sino-Russian axis, most recently enhanced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This is molding a distinct geopolitical divide. By stepping up its economic and diplomatic support for Russia since the start of the invasion, China has inserted itself as an actor into the most momentous war in Europe since 1945.

Nonetheless, even though the new Strategic Concept sends a strong signal of trans-Atlantic unity, it is too early to conclude that it enables a joint and well-coordinated U.S.-European approach on China. The reason for caution is geography. The U.S.-China rivalry presents NATO with a different challenge than the U.S.-Soviet one. During the Cold War, from its pivotal position in the Eurasian heartland, the Soviet Union constituted a threat to the entire Eurasian rim, from Europe all the way to the Far East, and it was a two-flank challenge to the United States. Europe was the core area of the Cold War strategic theater, and this consolidated not only a united threat perception among the United States and its European allies but also a common military strategy. China’s geographic position, on the other hand, does not preordain trans-Atlantic unity in a similar way.

Moving from strategy to policy implementing the Strategic Concept, the United States and European NATO members will find that the geopolitical logic of U.S.-China rivalry will shape a new, and not always easy, trans-Atlantic division of labor in three major ways.

First, from its geographic position on the Asian rim facing the Pacific Ocean, China represents a one-flank challenge to the United States. U.S. balancing of China will thus be largely regional, focusing on the Indo-Pacific with a lower priority for the trans-Atlantic flank. In fact, the new U.S. National Defense Strategy presented in March—after the Russian invasion of Ukraine had already started—clearly states that priority will be given to deter the China challenge in the Indo-Pacific. One important outcome of the war in Ukraine—and the consolidation of the European side of NATO with Finland and Sweden as new members—is a more balanced burden-sharing within NATO, which allows the United States to channel more resources to Asia over the long term. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the debate had increasingly shifted toward putting Europe in a position to defend itself. With Germany and other European countries committing to greater defense expenditures in the wake of Russia’s war, European defenses will indeed be bolstered.

Secondly, balancing China in the Indo-Pacific theater will require the United States to lean more on Quadrilateral Security Dialogue members and other Asian partners than on NATO. In recent years, the larger European nations have eagerly deployed naval vessels to sail in Asian waters, though some of these deployments have been little more than symbolic. NATO is strengthening relations with its formal Asia-Pacific partners—Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand—with an agreement to step up cooperation in areas such as cybersecurity, other new technologies, and countering disinformation. Nevertheless, it is still nebulous how exactly European militaries will add value to U.S. balancing efforts in Asia. European navies have been in constant decline since the end of the Cold War, whereas the Chinese navy has surpassed its U.S. counterpart in terms of number of vessels. China is now building the equivalent of the entire French Navy every four years. Elbridge Colby, co-founder of the Marathon Initiative, has suggested that it might serve the United States better to have Europe play to its strengths in the Euro-Atlantic area, an opinion echoed by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Commenting on the British deployment of its new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, to the Indo-Pacific region in 2021, Austin indicated that Britain is more helpful closer to home than in Asia.

Finally, due to its limited geographic reach across Eurasia, China will remain a lesser threat to European security than Russia. With Russia an openly belligerent threat for the foreseeable future, European resources will be pinned down at home, impeding the implementation of a joint trans-Atlantic approach in the Far East. For instance, NATO plans to increase the strength of its rapid reaction force dedicated to the defense of its Eastern European members nearly eightfold to 300,000 troops. Even though U.S. armed forces will remain engaged in Europe, the bulk of NATO’s increased presence along its Eastern European frontier will have to be provided by European countries. And the security challenges in Europe’s own neighborhood are by no means limited to Russia. At a time when the United States is increasingly preoccupied in Asia, Europe faces crumbling stability in the Middle East, North Africa and other regions directly affecting Europe, not least through potential migration and refugee crises.

Against this background, it is inevitable that the main challenge for the United States and European allies over the coming years will be to design a trans-Atlantic division of labor. The problem is that this division has to be crafted in a more sophisticated fashion than the simple logic of Europe deterring Russia while the United States balances China. Such a simplistic division of labor not only risks a trans-Atlantic drift, but it could also result in a gradual military transformation gap, leaving NATO and Europe behind as a second-rate defense force. Moreover, deterring Russia is no simple, one-dimensional task. In Eastern Europe, it is a land-based theater, whereas in Northern Europe, it is largely sea based. Each creates different requirements for trans-Atlantic collaboration.

The division of labor debate has already begun. The Aspen Strategy Group has made the simple and obvious recommendation that Washington and Europe strengthen the trans-Atlantic dialogue on China. Others emphasize how the United States could save billions of dollars by suggesting NATO transcend geographic boundaries by focusing on defending cyber and outer space. As these examples show, the discourse is still in its infancy. A successful strategy will require much more work and fine-tuning, including inputs from policymakers, diplomats, defense officials, and the wider strategic communities in the United States, Europe, and Asian partner countries. NATO’s belated acknowledgment in Madrid of a new global balance of power means this work can finally start.

Jo Inge Bekkevold is a senior China fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies and a former Norwegian diplomat.

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