The next strategic guidance published by NATO will aim to contend with expanding Chinese influence abroad, marking the first time that the alliance makes China a strategic priority, according to experts, who say firm, principled engagement will be necessary.
The 2022 Strategic Concept will be only the fourth unclassified strategy, and the first to be unclassified since 2010, to be released by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; it’s set to be adopted in June at the Madrid Summit.
The Strategic Concept is the second-most important document in NATO, after the Washington Treaty of 1949 which formed the legal basis of the alliance. It reaffirms NATO’s values and purpose, provides a collective assessment of the current security environment, and guides NATO’s political and military development.
That makes the appearance of China as a strategic priority an important event.
Last year, the leaders of the 30-nation alliance agreed for the first time that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) posed a systemic challenge to the international order. To that end, they released the Brussels Summit Communiqué, outlining their shared understanding of the PRC and its actions globally.
“China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security,” the communiqué stated.
“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.”
Better Late than Never
While the new focus on China is likely to be welcomed by many, experts and NATO insiders are quite aware that there has been growing frustration over the alliance’s apparent sluggishness in responding to the Chinese regime’s operations.
Stefanie Babst, a senior associate fellow for the European Leadership Network, a group of leaders working on political and security issues, spoke about NATO’s slow response to the growing Beijing threat during a webinar hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States on Jan. 19.
“We are late,” Babst said. “We are late in the game.”
Babst said that NATO was slow to see that the PRC’s malign influence wasn’t limited to Asia, and to acknowledge China as a truly continental power with a broad array of statecraft tools at its disposal.
Whether NATO’s tardiness in accepting the reality of an ascendant China was corrected in time to prevent the wholesale altering of the international order remains to be seen. To this end, Babst said the diplomatic mechanics of NATO were slower than usual.
“NATO has always been a little bit late in the game when it comes to acknowledging that there is really something important out there on the strategic horizon,” she added. “But on China, I think, we were particularly late.”
Better late than never seemed to be the mood of the webinar, however, and Babst highlighted what she considered to be many points of mutual or converging interests that NATO and the Chinese regime might be able to work on together.
She highlighted arms control, terrorism, cybersecurity, climate change, and maritime security as arenas ripe for mutual engagement.
Importantly, Babst said, these issues could be approached in a meaningful and mission-oriented way, without getting bogged down in too many high-level discussions.
Concerning climate change, for example, Babst noted that NATO and the PRC could engage directly in civil emergency and disaster planning. Arms control, meanwhile, could be approached with specific treaties between individual nations.
Babst pointed out that, while the Chinese regime had historically preferred bilateral relations to multilateral relations, its leadership was growing adept at playing other multilateral organizations, such as NATO, against themselves.
To that end, she said that a joint framework would need to be created for effectively addressing malign intrusions into international systems by the PRC.
‘Principled Engagement’ Needed
One of the greatest difficulties now faced by NATO, then, is balancing its need to defend against the Chinese regime aggression with its desire to engage Beijing in meaningful international work.
For that, it’s hoped that the Strategic Concept will provide important guidance.
“The Strategic Concept reaffirms NATO’s values, purpose, overall tasks, and it gives very importantly, collective allied assessment of our security environment,” Robert Dresen, a policy planning adviser at NATO headquarters, said during the webinar.
Dresen noted that China’s integration within the global community both economically and diplomatically meant that real engagement was necessary and outright aggression was to be avoided except when strictly unavoidable.
“China is becoming more active in our own region and in the regions around us,” Dresen said. “China is impacting the international rules-based order. And, as, such, we have obligation to consider that and to develop a strategy about it.”
“We need principled engagement with China based on what their concerns are but also on our interests, on our mutual interests.”
NATO’s developing policy toward the PRC is thus something along the lines of friendly but firm.
Alliance leaders will need to refrain from hostility but also hold their ground, Dresen said. They will need to avoid looking for fights but be realistic in their expectations on hot-button issues. Moreover, they will need to uphold the values that the alliance was built on: liberty, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
Dresen said that such would demand more effectively engaging with the alliance’s partners in the region.
“It is very important for NATO to step up our engagement with our partners and other stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region.”
He noted that Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea were key partners who would need to be consulted with closely. Other nations such as Singapore and India, he said, should be approached for expanded dialogue through new forums.
“These conversations are also very important as we go forward on charting a way toward China, because these countries understand China’s behavior very well and we can learn a lot from them,” Dresen said.
Dresen underscored, however, that although the allies were coming to a consensus on how to integrate their approach to the PRC, NATO had no ambition of reaching beyond its mission as a trans-Atlantic organization.
“NATO has no ambition to become a military player in the Indo-Pacific region,” Dresen said. “But Chinese actions and state ambitions do have impacts on the security configuration, both in our allied areas and adjacent to them.
“We are talking about an approach to China that is not confrontational, but that is realistic, and makes sure that the alliance will be able to deal with the rise of China in the years ahead.”