A NATO action plan for China
At the close of the 2021 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit, the leaders of the 30 member nations issued a joint communique, which states that “China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.” NATO’s position is an important first step but is not sufficient. As a follow-up to the summit, NATO should develop and implement an action plan.
For the short term, the plan should involve organizational restructuring to ensure sustained focus on the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This step should include the establishment of a dedicated office headed by a senior official for coordination of all PRC-related activities. This office could provide regular updates regarding China’s actions of concern and prepare an annual, formal classified threat assessment. In addition, NATO ambassadors should convene regularly to discuss security issues related to the PRC, inviting senior officials from friendly Asian nations to attend. The planned update of NATO’s Strategic Concept, which provides overall policy guidance, should include detailed guidelines regarding the PRC.
NATO also should enhance relevant security programs and Asian security relationships. For example, NATO’s cyber-defense mission can include protection against PRC cyber attacks; its space security program can monitor PRC outer space capabilities; and its Arctic mission can focus on security concerns about China’s presence in that region. NATO’s intelligence cell can assess and alert NATO to PRC technologies, investments and infrastructure access in or near Europe that have security implications.
In addition, NATO can strengthen security relationships with key Asian democracies (Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea) that it maintains through its Asia-Pacific partners program. Thus, NATO should convene regularly scheduled military-to-military meetings in Europe and in Asia involving naval forces, provide briefings on maritime intelligence capabilities and operations, and compare assessments regarding PRC military capabilities.
If, as is likely, the PRC challenge to a free and open Indo-Pacific grows, NATO in coordination with its Asia-Pacific partners should deploy a “show-the flag” naval task force to the Indo-Pacific region to assert a right to free maritime passage through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Alliance has a compelling security interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific, including unhindered maritime passage, and it should be prepared to protect these interests.
Additional steps that can be taken include planning military exercises with Japan and other Asian friends, and connecting militarily with India through Delhi’s membership in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). NATO also can follow the U.S. example and engage in informal military-to-military interaction with Taiwan.
Some may argue that a focus on China would detract from existing NATO priorities, especially regarding Russia. However, NATO is — and will remain — global in its security interests. NATO has had naval deployments outside of Europe through its maritime anti-terrorism and anti-piracy naval missions, and warships of key NATO members (United Kingdom and France) are individually traversing through PRC-claimed sea lanes in the South China Sea. Further, building upon ongoing Alliance structures, programs and missions requires only modest initial costs.
The U.S. is engaged in a global struggle with China, which is seeking to overturn the rules-based international system, undermine a free and open Indo-Pacific and attain global dominance. European security and its democratic values are very much at stake as well. Thus, NATO allies must join with the U.S. and share responsibility for responding actively to the PRC challenge. As former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said, “Our freedom is at stake, so democracies must stop deluding themselves about the real challenge posed by China’s actions.”
The PRC challenge is not only in the security dimension. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has observed: “China does not share our values. It persecutes ethnic and religious minorities, such as the Uyghurs, suppresses human rights in Hong Kong, and it is using new and advanced technology to monitor and control its own people, creating state surveillance without precedent.”
This fundamental values divide reinforces the need for a NATO response to the PRC. In addition to its military role, NATO can serve as a global democratic security network for nations that share a common democratic security culture. Such nations will respond to the PRC challenge not only for geopolitical reasons but also because they are, as the NATO Treaty states, “determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”
W. Bruce Weinrod is an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a Halifax International Security Fellow. Appointed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, he served as the defense adviser to the U.S. Mission at NATO and also served as acting U.S. ambassador to NATO. As a Japan Society fellow, he spent several months in Asia researching regional security issues.
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