NATO's China problem

NATO's China problem
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Not since the Golden Horde headed east has Europe talked as much about security threats from Asia. When NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was asked on Wednesday about concerns for the alliance, he remarked, “This is not about moving NATO into the Pacific, but this is about responding to the fact that China is coming closer to us.” He got it exactly right.

For starters, NATO needs to focus on the home game. There are two major external threats to the collective security of the transatlantic community — and dealing with them is Job 1.

NATO’s top priority must be countering the destabilizing activities of Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinMaher: Republicans 'right' to say Democrats 'never got over Trump's behavior' We, the People: A radical idea that must persist Trump's 'soldier of fortune' foreign policy MORE. The Russian leader wants nothing more than to break the transatlantic alliance and push the U.S. out of Europe. With that done, Putin can run amok in a fragmented Europe. The only thing constraining him now is the solidarity of the NATO alliance.

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Let me be clear. Putin will never stop meddling. He will never stop looking for weaknesses to exploit or fissures he can create and widen by lying, cheating, intimidating, bullying or bribing. He is a consummate opportunist.

But Putin has no interest in fighting World War III. He wants to win without fighting. Or strike quickly and win before things get out of control. 

NATO can’t stop Putin from being Putin. It can, however, keep Putin from believing that he can score a cheap and easy win against NATO. Keeping Putin in line requires both a peace-through-strength strategy and a practical demonstration that NATO has both the strength and the will to fight if need be.

The second major threat is that the problems of the Middle East may spill over into and destabilize Europe. This threat may come in the form of a restless Iran, a rampaging Islamist terrorist campaign or the chaos from conflict in places like Syria and Libya. To deal with all those very real possibilities, NATO needs to have the capacity and capability to look and act south.

But the secretary general is right NATO needs to be able to do more than walk and chew gum at the same time. It must expend some effort to counter the rising influence of China — not just in NATO’s general neighborhood, but in its own backyard.

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Chinese actions and power could well erode NATO’s capacity to exercise self-defense. From telecommunications to industrial control systems, from space and cyberspace to bridges, railroads and ports, China already has a heavy footprint presence throughout the transatlantic community.

NATO will need all this infrastructure to deter conflict and defend itself. Yet if China controls the off-switch or has the capacity to conduct malicious or denial activities, NATO’s capacity for self-defense will be severely compromised.

NATO has other concerns, as well. It cares a lot about arms control, and not just in a Eurocentric sense of the U.S., Britain and France v. Moscow. NATO correctly views arms control as a global issue—and China is a necessary player in global arms control. The alliance has a vested interest in the future of that dialogue.

What should NATO do? For starters, it need not open its headquarters to Chinese officials to get their “take” on how to deal with Russia, the Middle East, etc. There’s little sense to give China yet another international forum for bloviating.

What is needed are sober intra-NATO discussions on how to deal with the boys from Beijing. Currently, NATO member countries are far from being of one mind on the matter.

A good place to start these discussions would be with threat assessments. NATO commanders need to roll up their sleeves and hash out a rigorous assessment of the Chinese threat—one that all parties can agree on. This is the way the West dissected the Soviet threat in the early stages of the Cold War.

Once there’s agreement on the nature and scope of the threat, NATO can move on to mitigation planning. The key question is: How do we ensure that China has little or no capacity to mess with NATO’s ability to exercise collective defense?

China is moving closer to NATO. It’s time for NATO to get ready for this visitor from the East. 

James Jay Carafano is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation, where he directs research in matters of national security and foreign relations. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.