NATO Got It Wrong: China Is a Bigger Threat Than Russia

June 16, 2021 Updated: June 22, 2021

Commentary

NATO finally addressed China in a half-serious way. The U.S.-led alliance system described the country as a “challenge” in a communiqué. But NATO continues to plod along, way behind the curve. While NATO rightly recognizes Russia as an aggressive threat (the country did invade Ukraine in 2014, and is still there), history’s most powerful democratic alliance system continues to downplay history’s biggest totalitarian threat: China.

NATO isn’t filled with dummy intel analysts. Most likely its public communiqué, however, was carefully sanitized by heads of state more concerned with pleasing their billionaire political donors, than writing the truth. And their political donors are making a lot of money in China, so they don’t want it to be a threat. The United States and European Union jointly do over $1 trillion in annual trade with China, plus more than $300 billion in two-way foreign direct investment.

The NATO communiqué, issued June 14 at the end of a summit that included heads of state from all major NATO countries, cannot therefore be accepted as an unbiased description of the threats facing NATO members. For that, we must go elsewhere.

Asked which is the bigger threat, China or Russia, U.S. Naval War College Professor James Kraska responded that “China is a threat orders of magnitude greater than Russia.” Kraska, who also teaches international law at Harvard University, wrote in an email that, “Russia is a one-dimensional power, with a potent armed forces and nuclear weapons. But Russia lacks political and economic power, both of which China has.”

Professor Kraska sees the need for NATO to act as a balancer that maintains the international equilibrium. Asia, not Europe, is getting out of balance, and so needs NATO’s attention. “Russia’s economy and population are both about one-tenth the size of China’s,” he writes. “While Russia is well balanced by the three or four most powerful European NATO states that independently have an economy and population greater than twice that of Russia (plus a UK and French nuclear deterrent), in East Asia the largest three or four states resisting China are combined outmatched in terms of population, economic heft, and of course military power.”

Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in the Washington, D.C. area, also argues that China is ultimately the bigger threat, including through its influence in Moscow. “In the very long run China is the greatest challenge to NATO as it is China’s goal [to] subordinate Russia to its objectives,” he wrote in an email.

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A Russian worker walking before cranes at the RasonConTrans coal port at Rajin harbor in the Rason Special Economic Zone, on Nov. 21, 2017. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

The NATO communiqué mentions Russia 62 times, terrorism 23 times, and China only 10 times, and with weaker language. While terrorism certainly remains a threat, the United States and its closest allies are currently withdrawing from Afghanistan, a terrorist safe-haven, and reorienting towards China. Terrorism, as bad as it is, does not pose the existential threat to global democracies that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does. Beijing is no longer content to promote its own national interests. The country is now putting its substantial economic heft, and terrorist tactics, behind promoting authoritarian over democratic forms of governance on a global level.

Counter-terrorism is a hypocritical Chinese talking point, and a justification it uses for its genocide against the Uyghurs. So it’s a safe point for Europeans trying to do more business with China. Russia too, is a safe target. That the United States and Europe focus on Russia and terrorism leaves China free to continue its expansion.

“As an alliance, NATO is at the beginning of its recognition of China [as] a ‘challenge,’ as it still values ‘dialogue’ with China and has not set any force level goals to meet what is a rapidly developing China-Russia strategic and military challenge,” Fisher wrote.

Compare the magnitude of the China threat against NATO’s timid start of the China discussion in its communiqué. “China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an alliance. We will engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the Alliance.”

How obvious.

“We are increasingly confronted by cyber, hybrid, and other asymmetric threats, including disinformation campaigns, and by the malicious use of ever-more sophisticated emerging and disruptive technologies,” NATO notes in the next sentence, without explicitly tying it to China.

To be fair, some individuals with current influence at NATO, namely President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (who writers at Politico.eu dismiss as pandering to American money), have pushed the alliance to take a stronger stand against China. Former President Donald Trump’s threat to leave the organization, likely in part over its failure to address China, may have been consequential in getting the Europeans to include the China language now. They’re giving good grandpa cop Biden the credit, for what bad crazy cop Trump achieved.

In June 2020, Stoltenberg rightly focused comments on China, while discussing bullying and the need for closer coordination with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. But NATO is a product of consensus, and Germany, France, and Eastern European and Baltic states, which do relatively extensive trade with China, continue to push the focus onto Moscow. Trump, and now Biden with his Putin meeting, are rightly, or should be, trying to pull Russia out of an alliance with China.

Europe’s trade-driven willful ignorance of the China threat explains Trump’s threat to leave NATO. French President Emmanuel Macron’s answer is a more unified European Union defense and foreign policy, which is needed for an independent and therefore stronger defense of Europe against Russia and China. But a more unified Europe should not be an excuse for leaving the United States to face the more dire China threat alone. Europe must fight China equally with the United States, or China’s divide-and-conquer strategy will win.

Later in the NATO communiqué, China’s challenge is rightly called systemic. “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security. We are concerned by those coercive policies which stand in contrast to the fundamental values enshrined in the Washington Treaty.”

The Washington Treaty, signed in 1949, established NATO. The values and goals of NATO are set forth in the treaty’s preamble, “to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”

Though the June 14 NATO communiqué does not go far enough, it is at least consistent with these goals and values. It also details China’s rising power, noting, “China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal with more warheads and a larger number of sophisticated delivery systems to establish a nuclear triad. It is opaque in implementing its military modernisation and its publicly declared military-civil fusion strategy. It is also cooperating militarily with Russia, including through participation in Russian exercises in the Euro-Atlantic area. We remain concerned with China’s frequent lack of transparency and use of disinformation. We call on China to uphold its international commitments and to act responsibly in the international system, including in the space, cyber, and maritime domains, in keeping with its role as a major power.”

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China’s military shows off their latest missiles during a parade in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2009. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

But if the European members of NATO were honest about addressing the China threat, NATO would not beg China to uphold commitments and flatter it with language about acting responsibly “in keeping with its role as a major power.”

In reality, China is ruled by a bunch of communist thugs who imposed an empire by force starting in 1931, including from sometimes independent chunks of territory held by Chinese nationalists, Tibetans, Uyghurs, Japanese imperialists, and a smattering of European traders. The CCP, since then, has never stopped expanding.

Xi Jinping and the CCP, which now rule 18 percent of the world’s population, including at-risk minority ethnic and religious communities, as their own personal fiefdom, are nowhere to be found in the communiqué. The CCP already proved itself untrustworthy, having reneged on the Hong Kong treaty with Britain, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The CCP just definitively grabbed the South China Sea in 2009, tearing it from the often impoverished fishers and traders of the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.

It’s long past time to stop begging China to follow its international commitments. Instead, NATO must demonstrate military resolve against the CCP’s apparently never-ending military aggression and human rights abuse.

Fisher argues that Europe needs a more robust nuclear deterrent against China, and its ally Russia. “For example, NATO nuclear member Britain and France may require a combined total of 700 to 1000 nuclear warheads in order to deter a combined China-Russia nuclear threat.”

Is NATO up to the task, or will it let our nuclear deterrents degrade, and thereby risk nuclear war? Its communiqué flatly states that civilian and military cooperation with Russia is over, but hastens to welcome cooperation with China, fast becoming the bigger and more cunning nuclear threat.

Shouldn’t we be taking the opposite approach, attempting to split off China’s allies, like Russia, Iran, and North Korea, while leaving China out in the cold and at the point of a bayonet? Otherwise, China holds the power position in the middle between NATO and China’s gallery of rogue nations and satrapies. We grant China power when we make it an intermediary to our many relatively weaker global adversaries.

According to the communiqué, “NATO maintains a constructive dialogue with China where possible. Based on our interests, we welcome opportunities to engage with China on areas of relevance to the Alliance and on common challenges such as climate change.”

While global warming is real, against which we desperately need international agreements, NATO is falling over itself by clownishly attempting an agreement with a country that has proven itself unreliable as a counter-party. Experts widely panned half a century of “engagement” with China as a disastrously failed strategy that only empowered the country to now threaten not only the United States, Japan, and Taiwan in Asia, but NATO in Europe. Yet, NATO continues with the engagement charade.

Its communiqué naively urges transparency on China’s nuclear capabilities, when we know that the CCP is a habitual liar on issues ranging from its own economy, to the origins of COVID-19. NATO even includes Beijing’s own talking points when it promotes yet more unending dialogue.

“Allies urge China to engage meaningfully in dialogue, confidence-building, and transparency measures regarding its nuclear capabilities and doctrine,” NATO blandly states. “Reciprocal transparency and understanding would benefit both NATO and China.”

Chinese dredgers work on the construction of artificial islands on and around Michief Reef in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea on May 2, 2015. (U.S. Navy)
Chinese dredgers work on the construction of artificial islands on and around Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea on May 2, 2015. (U.S. Navy)

Anyone who loves freedom should by now be sickened by NATO continuing to act the chump. A call for dialogue at this late stage of China’s aggression is little more than falling for China’s take-and-talk strategy. While China has since the 1970s grabbed new territory in the South China Sea through violence, and since the mid-2010s fortified its South China Sea islands with sand dredgers, airstrips, missiles, and docks for aircraft carriers and submarines, NATO is still begging for dialogue, now from a position of increasing weakness. Had NATO taken a robust military stand against China’s island-grabbing in the South China Sea fifty or seventy years ago, we would not be facing the much graver threat we now face in a stronger and bolder China. The clock is still ticking, and China is building its navy faster than we are ours. Time, and therefore ever more dialogue, is on China’s side.

Rather than begging and flattering China, NATO should show much more military resolve. Beijing respects nothing less. It watches what NATO does, not what it says. The rest of us should, too. And if NATO doesn’t get stronger, tougher, and more united in the next 10, 50, or 100 years, Europe could be invaded by not only Russia, but China. The latter already has a military base in northern Africa, has patrolled the Mediterranean, and is nosing its way around the horn of Africa to its western side.

Would a President Trump defend the democracies of Europe from China after Europe refused to defend the democracies of Asia from the same? I’m not sure.

NATO’s failure on China implies the need for more citizen involvement. Citizens of NATO countries must more closely investigate why NATO policies are weak and failing when its citizens and values are so gravely threatened.

NATO should strike fear into our adversaries, or at the very least show an aloof distance from genocidal and territorially aggressive communists who lead a country that is one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. Leave diplomacy to the diplomats. In times of military crisis in places like Ukraine, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea, NATO should shed its velvet-gloved parochialism, and realize that the world and its worst authoritarian powers are ever-more global, connected, and coordinated.

NATO must emit a fiercer image, and a strategic stance of military readiness and forward deployment, before it weakens any further. Lift yourself up, NATO. Stand taller. Think not about one nation’s interests, but of the interests of democracies and freedom-loving people everywhere. Be a champion.

Anders Corr has a bachelor’s/master’s in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. He authored “The Concentration of Power” (forthcoming in 2021) and “No Trespassing,” and edited “Great Powers, Grand Strategies.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Follow Anders on Twitter: @anderscorr