NATO has spent most of the past 70 years focusing on how to defend the Continent against Russia. To survive the decades ahead, it’s beginning to think more about a threat farther east.
China is top of mind as NATO officials gather in the American capital this week to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Washington Treaty, which established the alliance on April 4, 1949.
Questions about whether and to what extent alliance members should allow Chinese network supplier Huawei to operate in their countries, along with Italy’s move to join Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, have put the question of how NATO should respond to the Asian power front and center.
“China is set to become the subject of the 21st century on both sides of the Atlantic,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a speech in Washington on Wednesday. “China is a challenge on almost every topic. It is important to gain a better understanding of what that implies for NATO.”
It’s a fraught issue for much of Europe, which, like the U.S., has deep commercial ties with China.
“We are partners on one hand and competitors on the other — not only regarding the economy, but we also have very different political systems,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a European Council summit in Brussels last week. “We want relations on the basis of reciprocity. We also want good trade ties with China.”
China is now Germany’s largest trading partner, ahead of the U.S. For the EU as a whole, trade with China ranks a close second after the U.S. In addition, China has shown a willingness to invest substantial sums where others won’t: in sorely-needed infrastructure projects in countries such as Greece, Hungary and Italy.
While the Trump administration has been focused on China from day 1, European leaders are only just beginning to confront increasing signs that China’s largesse could pose a long-term strategic threat to the region.
So far, Europe’s China debate has been confined to the political realm. The European Union has vowed to take a harder line with China on cyber espionage and intellectual property theft, issues that are expected to top the agenda at an EU summit with China next week.
Some European military strategists believe the region’s NATO members should prepare to take the lead in confronting Russia.
What role NATO, with its geographic limitations, should play in the West’s effort to protect against China isn’t clear. Nonetheless, there’s a growing conviction among security officials on both sides of the Atlantic that at a time of increased tension in the alliance over burden-sharing, China policy is an area of common interest between the U.S. and its European partners.
Questions on how to ensure open shipping channels in key trade corridors such as the South China Sea, for example, are every bit as important to Europe as they are to the U.S. The threat posed by China’s cyberwarfare capability is another area of crucial strategic importance.
All that’s missing is a strategy.
“We could all benefit if we could develop joint approaches with the U.S.,” said Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador who now heads the Munich Security Conference. “But we don’t have an EU strategy yet, and you can’t have a joint strategy if you don’t have your own strategy.”
Europe’s biggest worry is that in a world of great power competition between the U.S. and China, it will be left by the wayside. The recent decision by President Donald Trump to withdraw from the the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a Cold War-era agreement designed to keep mid-range nuclear weapons out of Europe, stoked those fears. The Trump administration took the decision without engaging Washington’s European allies, even though Europe would be most exposed to the Russian nukes.
U.S. officials say the decision was driven both by years of evidence that Russia had stopped complying with the treaty and concerns that China, which is not party to the INF and has deployed similar nuclear weapons in Asia, was gaining a strategic advantage.
What frustrated the Europeans was that they had virtually no voice on an issue of existential importance to them.
“A strategic question of the highest order for Europeans was decided for reasons that lie outside of Europe, but have massive implications,” said Jan Techau, director of the Europe program at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., a think tank. “You can see that we’re given secondary consideration at best.”
Despite such frustrations, there’s a consensus among senior European defense officials that notwithstanding recent rhetoric about a “European army,” NATO remains absolutely essential for the region’s security.
The question is how Europe can convince Washington it’s worth the trouble. One way for Europe to show its value would be to start pulling more of its own weight in NATO, analysts say. The U.S. accounts for more than two-thirds of NATO defense spending, a source of deep aggravation for Trump. While a number of countries have made progress in fulfilling NATO’s spending target of 2 percent of GDP, others, notably Germany, remain far off.
A big risk for Europe would be a crisis in Asia that diverted U.S. resources away from NATO. Such a shift could come suddenly, as happened in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, when the U.S. redirected its focus almost overnight to the Middle East.
That’s why some European military strategists believe the region’s NATO members should prepare to take the lead in confronting Russia. A number of European countries, including the U.K. and Germany, already play a central role in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence operation in the Baltics and Poland, which is aimed at discouraging Russia from encroaching into the region.
For all the talk about Moscow’s meddling in elections and incursions into its neighbors’ territory, there’s a growing consensus in the alliance that despite its considerable nuclear arsenal, Russia can be managed. Europe’s NATO members dwarf Russia in terms of military spending and economic might. Russia’s energy-dependent economy is stagnating and is smaller than Canada’s, for example.
If Europe were to focus on Russia, it would free the U.S. to concentrate more on Asia (where European NATO allies have virtually no presence), a division of labor that would likely make NATO an easier sell in Washington in the long run. Trump’s bluster and aggressive tweets have distracted from the fact that he’s not the only one in Washington who would like to see NATO allies shoulder more of the burden in Europe.
“China paralyzes decision-making in Europe” — Jan Techau
“The U.S. is very, very concerned about what’s happening in the Pacific,” Barry Posen, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a prominent NATO critic, told a forum of Western defense officials in Washington on Wednesday. “It defies the imagination that the U.S. still has to provide such a tremendous weight of resources needed to secure [Europe].”
With or without Trump, the realities of confronting China are bound to force a reckoning about NATO’s future. Whether the Europeans, given their growing economic reliance on China, can reach a consensus amongst themselves, much less with the U.S., is another question.
The eagerness of countries in Southern Europe to welcome Chinese investment is a worrying sign to those urging a unified approach.
“China paralyzes decision-making in Europe,” Techau said. “We should be making the kind of investments China has been making. But we’re not rich enough anymore to keep China out of our market.”