The just concluded NATO summit in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius has been dominated by the news related to the war in Ukraine and its quest for membership in what is considered the world’s most formidable military alliance.
But, an aspect of the summit that deserves attention is what NATO heads of government said about China and recorded about it in their communiqué.
NATO is essentially a trans-Atlantic alliance. It was formed in 1949 to meet threats from Moscow. But, in recent years, as Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary-General of NATO, has repeatedly pointed out, China has become hard for the alliance to ignore.
For him, “China is coming closer to us” in all sorts of ways, from the Arctic to Africa and from cyberspace to 5G networks and other infrastructure investments in Europe, not to mention intensified joint exercises with Russia.
It is not surprising to see the Vilnius communiqué giving considerable space to China and “the threats” it poses to the rest of the world. Some of the important paragraphs on China are worth mentioning.
In its 23rd paragraph, the communiqué says, “The People’s Republic of China’s stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security, and values.
The PRC employs various political, economic, and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions, and military build-up.
“The PRC’s malicious hybrid, cyber operations, confrontational rhetoric, and disinformation target Allies and harm Alliance security. The PRC seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains. It uses its economic leverage to create strategic dependencies and enhance its influence. It strives to subvert the rules-based international order in the space, cyber and maritime domains.”
The NATO leaders have said in the communiqué how, “We are working together responsibly, as Allies, to address the systemic challenges posed by the PRC to Euro-Atlantic security and ensure NATO’s enduring ability to guarantee the defense and security of Allies. We are boosting our shared awareness, enhancing our resilience and preparedness, and protecting against the PRC’s coercive tactics and efforts to divide the alliance. We will stand up for our shared values and the rules-based international order, including freedom of navigation.”
They have taken seriously not only China’s support of Russia and its invasion of Ukraine but also its dubious role of standing by nuclear proliferators such as North Korea. The communiqué says they are worried about even China’s nuclear policy.
“The PRC (China) is rapidly expanding and diversifying its nuclear arsenal with more warheads and a larger number of sophisticated delivery systems to establish a nuclear triad while failing to engage in meaningful transparency or good faith efforts to achieve nuclear arms control or risk reduction.
“We oppose any attempt to produce or support the production of plutonium for military programs under the guise of civilian programs, which undermines the objectives of the NPT. We urge the PRC to engage in strategic risk reduction discussions and promote stability through greater transparency regarding its nuclear weapon policies, plans, and capabilities.”
Predictably, Beijing has lashed back at NATO’s accusation. The Chinese mission to European Union said in a statement on July 11 that the China-related content of the communiqué “disregarded basic facts, distorted China’s position and policies, and deliberately discredited China.”
However, contrary to the expectations of many observers, the communiqué has avoided mentioning anything about Taiwan, which is expected to be what is apprehended in strategic circles as the “Ukraine of Asia.” And here, the invader will be China.
But, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg did mention Taiwan when he told reporters at the summit that “China is increasingly challenging the rules-based international order, refusing to condemn Russia’s war against Ukraine, threatening Taiwan, and carrying out a substantial military build-up.”
Even otherwise, the Vilnius communiqué has mentioned the growing significance of the Indo-Pacific in global geopolitics.
“The Indo-Pacific is important for NATO, given that developments in that region can directly affect Euro-Atlantic security. We welcome the contribution of our partners in the Asia-Pacific region – Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea – to security in the Euro-Atlantic, including their commitment to supporting Ukraine.
“We will further strengthen our dialogue and cooperation to tackle our shared security challenges, including on cyber defense, technology, and hybrid, underpinned by our shared commitment to upholding international law and the rules-based international order,” it said.
It is noteworthy that four leaders of the Indo-Pacific – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins – did attend the summit in the Lithuanian capital. This trend began for the first time in NATO’s history during its summit in Madrid last year.
Of course, NATO’s concerns over China are not a new development. These predated even the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, whose foremost ally happens to be China at the moment.
A NATO report in 2020 titled “The NATO 2030: United for a New Era” clearly stated that “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.” Accordingly, NATO summits in 2021 and 2022 took note of this theme.
The 2022 Strategic Concept that was adopted at the Madrid Summit, 29-30 June 2022 (NATO 2022 – Strategic concept) officially designated China as a “systemic challenge” and pointed out how China’s “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge [NATO’s] interests, security and values,” adding “China is opaque in implementing its military modernization and its publicly declared military-civil fusion strategy. It is also cooperating militarily with Russia.”
It added, “The PRC’s malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation target Allies and harmed Alliance security. The PRC seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains. It uses its economic leverage to create strategic dependencies and enhance its influence. It strives to subvert the rules-based international order in the space, cyber and maritime domains.”
In essence, NATO’s fears of China flow from four angles.
First, China’s heavy investments in Europe in critical areas such as telecommunications networks and port facilities could weaken NATO’s ability to respond to international crises diplomatically and, if necessary, militarily, it is feared.
Apparently, China owns about ten percent of all European port capacity. Particularly worrisome is China’s investments in infrastructures in East Europe’s road and rail networks that could potentially complicate NATO’s military mobility and readiness in a crisis situation.
Secondly, military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow has recently increased, with Russian and Chinese navies conducting joint military exercises in the Mediterranean and Baltic
Thirdly, China’s long-range missiles, aircraft carriers, and nuclear attack submarines, with their “global reach” capabilities, now pose serious challenges to NATO. The situation could be more serious in this regard with the increasing cyber-attacks in Europe by China-based hackers.
Fourthly, if China’s increasing military threats to Taiwan, the protection of which is America’s moral and diplomatic commitment, leads to the outbreak of a war between the two, NATO, which the United States leads, will be an affected party in some way or the other.
Though Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which stipulates an armed attack on one alliance member is to be treated like an attack on all, may not apply here as it explicitly limits the response to attacks that occur in Europe and North America, things may not remain as simple as stipulated on paper.
It may be noted here in this context that leading European members of NATO, such as the UK, France, and Germany, are now playing a military role in the Indo-Pacific, which was not the case until recently.
In 2021, NATO members sent 21 warships into Asian waters, where they conducted joint operations with all the regional navies worried over the rising Chinese belligerence. The most important show of force was said to be the seven-month (May–December 2021) voyage of British Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21), based on the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and its escort of two Royal Navy destroyers, two frigates, two support ships, and a nuclear-powered submarine.
It led to a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) through the South China Sea. British naval forces conducted exercises with France, Japan, Singapore, and the US in the region.
France has also sent warships through the Taiwan Strait. France has territories in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, home to 1.6 million citizens and an EEZ of nine million square kilometers. It permanently deploys 7,000 military personnel, 20 maritime vessels, and 40 aircraft across its sovereign possessions. With ten fighter jets just before the NATO summit, France participated in exercises with the US in the Pacific islands.
It may be noted that France’s carrier strike group, built around the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, has also operated with the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean.
Germany is also turning its attention to the Indo-Pacific region. The German frigate Bayern’s sojourn to the Indo-Pacific was big news in 2021. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius announced at the Shangri-La Dialogue defense summit last month that Berlin would send two naval vessels to the Indo-Pacific next year.
All these military activities of the NATO countries in the Indo-Pacific are, no doubt, China-centered. Thus, NATO’s areas of concern now go beyond the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific.
NATO may be a regional alliance of Europe and North America. But its concerns and challenges are increasingly becoming global.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has been commenting on politics, foreign policy, on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
- CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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