Taylor and Francis Online

Chinese Perspectives on Alliance and Alignment: Entrapment Concerns in China’s Foreign Relations

Senior Fellow (Non-Resident)
A man walks past China's and Pakistani national flags installed on the constitution avenue ahead of the visit of Chinese Vice Premier He Lifeng, in Islamabad on July 30, 2023. (Farooq Naeem/AFP via Getty Images)

The article traces concerns about entrapment in Chinese thinking about foreign relations and how these concerns have resulted in a general rejection of alliances. The People's Republic of China was born with entrapment dilemmas vis-à-vis the Soviet Union that became real when Beijing was drawn into the Korean War at a time that did not suit Beijing's strategic interests. During the post-Cold War era, China's dialogue and coordination with NATO has given its leadership greater knowledge of the alliance's strengths and weaknesses and confirmed Beijing in its scepticism towards formal alliances. Instead, China has set out to build more flexible partnerships, particularly with Russia, that allow both sides of the arrangement to avoid entrapment in each other's different geopolitical security agendas. In an era of strategic competition with the United States, Beijing's partnership with Moscow has become the cornerstone of Chinese efforts to protect its global power and influence. At the same time, China's leadership has sought to avoid new entrapments by expanding its security engagement with countries in the ‘Global South’. Besides commitments to limited cooperation such as joint exercises and training, protection of Chinese overseas interests in arms sales, in countering Western strategic aims, and in establishing a strategic military presence are at the centre of such engagements. Far-reaching commitments to protect the security interests of other countries and close integration of Chinese and foreign military forces are not on the cards. Such agreements would come at the cost of flexible partnerships and Beijing's freedom of action.

1. Introduction

Why has China’s rise to global great power status not been accompanied by an attempt to build alliances with other states? China’s “Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty” with North Korea dates from 1961 and remains the country’s only formal alliance. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) now has the power and influence to produce an alternative to the Western liberal model of world order. Nevertheless, and despite competing for influence with Washington, Beijing has refrained from seeking military alliances and political clients abroad.1 Instead, China has chosen to manage the influence that its global economic power engenders by means of flexible “strategic partnerships”. They institutionalize cooperation without engaging China in collective defence responsibilities. Chinese strategic partnerships have an open-ended character and provide a broad platform for facilitating gradually expanding interest-based cooperation across a wide range of economic, political and security sectors. The partnerships mix elements of hierarchy and difference in the sense that the benefits are asymmetric in China’s favour but they also offer a high degree of political and economic autonomy, a pattern that has been termed a Sino-centric network of development.2

This article examines how the “negative example” of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has influenced China’s outlook on alliances. NATO is too distant from China to be a main determinant of its strategic choices and foreign policy decisions. Other drivers such as international security dynamics, long-standing cooperation, and economic development interests have played a larger role. Nevertheless, lessons from the post-Cold War transformations of the transatlantic alliance have influenced Chinese assessments of the relative importance of concerns about entrapment versus abandonment and hence contributed to shaping the design of Chinese international partnerships as China emerged as a great power in its own right.3 In particular, China’s observations of how the United States navigates the challenges of mutual defence commitments with European allies has influenced China’s approach to both Russia and the Global South. This article argues that the history of NATO’s internal dynamics fuel Chinese concerns about entrapment, encouraging Beijing to focus on the advantages of more open-ended and flexible strategic partnerships that can swiftly be strengthened or weakened in response to changing international dynamics.

International relations scholars have previously addressed the question of China’s alliance policies, focusing on the continuity of its approach. In 2017, Liu Ruonan and Liu Feng pointed to shifts in the balance of power and external threats to Chinese security as significant explanations. They argued that China is likely to maintain a non-alliance stance if Indo-Pacific regional dynamics continue to be enablers of rising Chinese power and influence.4 In 2019, Alexander Korolev argued that the institutionalized strategic military partnership between China and Russia constitutes a “quasi-alliance”, but one that can be scaled back because it remains tacit. It is thus not an “alliance” in the traditional sense.5 Indeed, Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine demonstrated how quickly China is able to scale back military cooperation, for example by not overtly selling military equipment to Russia, even if such a downturn is merely temporary.

In 2022, Kristen Hopewell argued that China has actually been forming alliances for some time. However, these “alliances” are responses to economic threats. US-led pressures to liberalize markets facilitated the emergence of a highly effective partnership between Brazil, India and China (BIC) in the World Trade Organization (WTO). The triumvirate worked for special and differential treatment for developing countries in the 2000s and 2010s. The BIC group transformed the structure of power, enabling emerging countries to increase their influence in multilateral trade negotiations.6 Taomo Zhou has argued that the PRC formed a “quasi-alliance” with Indonesia in the first half of the 1960s. By means of political-strategic, cultural, educational and economic cooperation, the alliance was meant to replace the bipolar, US-Soviet-dominated, world order with a more equitable framework. This effort was not very successful, however, due to anti-Chinese sentiments in Indonesia and China’s links to the Indonesian communist party that were at odds with their common agenda to enhance the influence of third world countries.7

This article uses a traditional definition of “alliance” because the key question it addresses is China’s defiance of “arrangements between sovereign states on the basis of a written treaty that serves to coordinate military policy toward at least one common goal.”8 Firstly, it argues that the PRC’s preference for more flexible security cooperation with loose commitments that can swiftly be adjusted to changing international developments can be explained by a perception of a long history of concerns about entrapment. Secondly, I investigate China’s engagement with NATO and Russia in the liberal internationalist era from 1991 to 2017 to show how NATO’s eastward expansion encouraged China to overcome entrapment concerns with Russia and instead prioritize coordinating the two countries’ interests for mutual benefit. Thirdly, I examine Chinese entrapment concerns in the era of strategic competition from 2017 onwards. I argue that Chinese concerns about a two-front dilemma, fuelled by strengthened NATO coordination with US Indo-Pacific allies, have encouraged China to collaborate with Russia to create their own “two-front” dilemma for US allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Fourth, I address China’s enhanced security cooperation with the Global South. I argue that China seeks to diversify its security partnerships in order to minimize entrapment concerns with Russia, but that this engagement with the “Global South” fuels entrapment concerns of its own. Fifth, I conclude by summarizing how Chinese entrapment concerns have influenced its foreign relations and discuss the implications for future Chinese security policies.

2. Entrapment concerns about alliances in modern Chinese history

Entrapment is a key concept in the work of scholars of alliance politics. Entrapment describes a state’s anxiety about being dragged into a conflict because of the unilateral actions of an ally.9 The PRC’s emergence in 1949 as part of the communist bloc in the wake of two decades of civil war did not allow much room for designing strategies that avoided entrapment. Its first decade was marked by its short-lived 1950 alliance with the Soviet Union (USSR) and its dependency on Soviet economic and technological assistance. The political geography of this arrangement generated concerns about entrapment within the leadership in Beijing. The PRC was bordered by the USSR to its north and west and by Moscow-friendly India to the south. Moscow had no interest in the emergence of a peer competitor and a potential threat to Soviet dominance of the international communist movement. China’s entrapment dilemma was quickly demonstrated by Moscow’s support for North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in 1950. The Soviet Union supported the invasion because it expected a peace agreement to involve a four-power trusteeship over Korea divided between the Soviet Union, China, the United States, and Japan.10 Such an outcome would allow Moscow direct control of warm-water ports in the Far East and access to the Pacific Ocean. The PRC’s dependence on the Soviet Union forced China to acquiesce. Moscow’s ongoing support for Beijing was made conditional upon Chinese acceptance of responsibility for the defence of North Korea if the United States intervened in the conflict. (The USSR was not willing to risk defeat in a war with the United States). In addition, Moscow assumed that the Korean War would prevent China from attacking Taiwan, fearing that a Chinese victory there would create a potential rival for Soviet influence in the Far East. China remained hopeful that it could complete a Taiwan campaign before North Korea invaded the south, but these hopes were shattered.11 Instead, as Washington and its allies supported South Korea, Chinese participation in the war became necessary to restore the status quo ante of a Korea divided at the 38th parallel, thereby recreating a buffer against the US alliance system.

Beijing’s entrapment in a war that did not serve Chinese interests confirmed its leadership in the belief that alliances constitute a straitjacket that the PRC could ill afford in its endeavour to become a communist power in its own right. Instead, China’s leader Mao Zedong initiated a more flexible, interest-based approach, transformed into a global strategy. The creation of the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s created an opportunity to breach US containment of the PRC and align with Afro-Asian countries without interference from the “imperialist powers”: the United States and the Soviet Union. Mao believed the struggle between the socialist and imperialist camps would begin in an intermediate zone of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and he attempted to add them into the balance against Washington and Moscow.12

At the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, the first post-World War II international summit to be held without Western participation, China succeeded in establishing solidarity with 29 African and Asian countries on the basis of anti-colonialism and aspirations to world peace. From 1954 to 1957, Beijing carried out intense diplomacy in Asia, Africa and Latin America, following the rationale that if friendly relations could be established in these regions, hostility towards the PRC would decrease in Europe, America and Oceania.13 China’s foothold in the Global South became a platform for China to try to carve out an independent international position as a developing state aiming for peaceful coexistence, a new economic world order, and the defiance of alliances. Then, from 1958, following its “Great Leap Forward”, China began to release itself from dependency on the Soviet Union.14 Mao’s pragmatic view on strategic cooperation were demonstrated in 1971 when the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Beijing to agree a joint position against the Soviet Union. China’s skilful manoeuvring between the United States and the Soviet Union without choosing sides allowed China to avoid entrapment. The Soviet response, developing ties with China’s southern neighbours Vietnam and Laos and the Vietnamese invasion of (pro-PRC) Cambodia in 1978, confirmed Chinese suspicions. China continued to pursue this approach throughout the remainder of the Cold War era.

3. Chinese engagement with NATO and Russia in the liberal internationalist era

After the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, China accepted NATO’s invitation to explore avenues of cooperation.15 Conciliatory relations were born out of the engagement policy of the United States and its allies that allowed China benefits, such as access to technology and influence on global definitions of proper international conduct. However, NATO’s later eastward expansion was never popular with China. Beijing’s assessment was that enlargement might, in future, have negative consequences for it. The generally pro-US orientation of the Central and Eastern European member states that were invited to join the alliance from 1997 indicated to Beijing that the United States would continue to dominate NATO’s agenda.16 The American bombing of the PRC embassy in Belgrade during the NATO operation against Serbia in 1999 was a defining moment in sowing mistrust: the Chinese leadership refused to believe the US claim that the bombing was a mistake. It consolidated the Chinese view that NATO is a US-dominated alliance in which Europe does not have much of a say.17 Nonetheless, China maintained interaction with NATO because it was a unique opportunity to learn about the capabilities and doctrines of US and European forces. However, the incident probably confirmed to Beijing that pursuing institutionalized connections with NATO was not safe: to protect Chinese security interests, it was best to keep the alliance at arm’s length.

Actual interactions between China and NATO remained scant and the relationship was not formally institutionalized. China’s approach appeared to be limited to engagement with a view to learning from NATO’s successes and failures. After the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, however, China supported UN Security Council Resolution 1368 which sanctioned NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.18 In this instance, China shared NATO’s objective of stabilizing the country. China did make some, limited, contributions to the training of Afghan security forces. Overall, however, China was unwilling to provide financial aid or to get militarily involved in NATO-led operations. Instead, China pursued economic objectives, such as investments in infrastructure. This approach protected Chinese interests while indirectly contributing to NATO’s reconstruction efforts by helping to develop Afghanistan’s economy. However, China’s contribution was minimal because its economic investments were limited due to the security risks involved. Similar motivations led to the Chinese navy interacting with the NATO-led operation to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, from 2008. Chinese vessels operated in a national capacity, however, and no joint operations took place. Nevertheless, coordination with NATO worked fairly seemlessly despite cultural and technical challenges. In the area of crisis management, NATO agreed to China’s request to participate in courses at the NATO School in Oberammergau.19

NATO’s intervention in Libya was, however, a key moment in reinforcing China’s negative outlook on the alliance. In March 2011, China abstained from voting on UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which, acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, approved a no-fly zone over Libya and authorized all necessary measures to protect civilians.20 China argued that NATO then abused this mandate for the purposes of regime change instead of limiting the intervention to halting the violence. The official Chinese news outlet People’s Daily commented on the Libya operation by predicting that the unceasing terrorist attacks and bombings that would follow regime change would be regarded as humanitarian disasters.21 The intervention demonstrated to Beijing that NATO was willing to act to defend liberal values by force, fuelling Chinese concerns that, if such authorizations became an accepted principle, China might become a target of UN-authorized use of force in future.22

The entrapment of US allies in protracted warfare in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya without achieving stability and peace demonstrated to China that formal alliance commitments were rigid arrangements that incurred costs on great and small powers out of proportion to the benefits. Fighting wars to honour commitments to allies without having a major stake in the war itself is so costly that the ability of allies to counter future threats becomes weakened. The difficulties that European allies are currently facing in recasting their armed forces from expeditionary forces to meet territorial defence requirements to counter Russia’s threat to regional security further illustrate the cost of having participated in the early 21st century “wars on terror”. It confirms to China that warfighting must be motivated primarily by individual security concerns rather than to demonstrate commitment to allies. Moreover, the rigid and long-winded decision-making processes within NATO bespeaks an institution designed for a Cold War pattern of frozen alliances which contrasts with the proliferation of the more vaguely defined strategic partnerships in the post-Cold War era.

NATO’s eastward expansion, the bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade, and NATO’s intervention in Libya were defining moments for China’s decision to build an alternative vision of world order based on non-Western countries with Chinese interests at the centre. This vision appears to be a continuation of Beijing’s 1950s appeal to socioeconomic solidarity among countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, combining its traditional emphasis on coexistence strategies to international conflicts, with its post-World War II commitment to the sanctity of national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, all of which can be viewed as an attempt to construct a protective shield against other great powers’ hegemonic ambitions. China’s vision emphasizes co-management and coordination between sovereign entities, all moving along different historical trajectories, in contrast to the tight-knit integration and cooperation upon which the Western liberal world order depends – mainly because it is based on liberal principles of domestic state-society relations.23 In this sense, this “Chinese world order” is designed to prevent entrapment and, instead, to facilitate the right of countries to design their own development and security strategies. Chinese diplomats say that China would only ever use force in areas outside of its sovereign jurisdiction (as defined by Beijing) under a UN umbrella and only for defensive purposes.24 China recognizes the importance of supporting partners in adversarial circumstances. However, Beijing stops short of mutual defence commitments because of the significant potential costs involved.

Two developments in particular have created the conditions for implementing a new Chinese vision of world order: China’s emergence as a global great power, and its strategic partnership with post-Soviet Russia. China has played a significant role in the establishment of several non-Western multilateral institutions such as the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Group of 20 (G-20). Russia has taken the lead in pushing back against US-led efforts to intervene in Middle Eastern states such as Iraq and Syria and to halt Iran’s nuclear programme. It has also cooperated with China as an important source of trade and investment that has allowed Russia to reorient its economy eastward and benefit from Chinese economic growth. Moreover, Russia offers an authoritarian model for economic development as an important alternative to the Western liberal model.25 The Sino-Russian partnership helps to protect the Chinese leadership’s “dream” of “national rejuvenation” and the country’s re-emergence as a great power not subject to foreign intervention. However, Russia and China hold different views on alliances. Russia’s greater willingness to use hard power to promote its security interests, and its ambitions to recreate an alliance system in the post-Soviet sphere, have caused renewed entrapment concerns in China. Since 2003, Russia has sponsored the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which encompasses Armenia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, as a mutual defence arrangement with military forces of its own. However, the CSTO’s independent military capability exists only on paper and the only example of a CSTO intervention, to quell political unrest in Kazakhstan in January 2022, was conducted by Russian forces. By contrast, and much to their dissatisfaction, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan have received no assistance in deadly border conflicts with Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, respectively.

China remains uninterested in building an alliance system, fearing that in-built security guarantees would tie China to security commitments and thereby jeopardize its claim to build foreign relations by economic and political-diplomatic means and respect for the sovereignty of other states. China has, however, struggled to defend this image while simultaneously maintaining its strategic partnership with Russia. After Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008, China attempted to position itself as a neutral bystander encouraging conflict resolution by peaceful means. China publicly defied Moscow’s request for recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, for example.26 China responded to Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014 by confirming its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty. However, Beijing argued that Western support for democratic “colour revolutions’ in former Soviet republics produced a high-threat environment that undermined absolute sovereignty and left Moscow with little choice but to take action.27 Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 did not pose a dilemma for China’s policy on sovereignty because it occurred at the request of Assad’s government.

The Chinese intervention in Central Asian regional politics, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), has been comparatively successful as a flexible platform for policy coordination. Under the SCO’s auspices, policy coordination is not used as an instrument for enhanced multilateral cooperation, but it facilitates bilateral agreements and helps to keep a lid on potential interstate conflicts. This design suits China’s preference for pragmatic and flexible multilateral structures which do not carry the risks of entrapping China in conflicts that run contrary to its interests.28 China and Russia have regularized their interaction in Central Asia in this more institutionalized setting and the SCO has expanded from its original Central Asian core, the so-called Shanghai Five states (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan), to encompass twenty-five member and observer states and dialogue partners in South, Southeast, East and Western Asia, Eastern Europe, and North Africa. With an expanding membership, the security role of SCO is also growing and the organization is branded as a protector of wider regional and global security.

Successful co-management of Russian and Chinese Central Asian interests has helped facilitate trust between Beijing and Moscow such that China exercises considerable self-restraint and flexibility on issues such as border settlements and military interventions to allay Russian fears of Chinese dominance. China has consistently demonstrated support for Russia’s continued status as a power of first rank with its own security agenda. Although Beijing sometimes takes different positions on international security issues to Moscow, the flexibility inherent in their relationship allows Russia room for manoeuvre to pursue national interests that are not aligned with those of China. NATO’s eastward expansion engendered dynamics that encouraged China to overcome its concerns about entrapment with Russia and, instead, prioritize stable interest coordination in Eurasia.

4. NATO’s globalization and China’s Eurasian ambitions in the era of strategic competition

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has given NATO a new lease of life, as demonstrated by Finland and Sweden's decisions to join the alliance with its collective defence obligations. Meanwhile, the robustness of the Sino-Russian partnership, despite significant shifts in the relative power and influence of the two neighbours to China’s advantage, has triggered transAtlantic concerns that the Eurasian landmass might be dominated by adversaries posing a threat to Europe’s alignment with the United States. At its 2022 summit in Madrid, NATO approved a new ten-year “strategic concept” that, for the first time, described China as an actor that poses systemic challenges to Euro-Atlantic security. Beijing’s cooperation with Moscow is listed as a key determinant of NATO’s decision to identify China as a challenge.29 China is not, however, defined as a “threat” by NATO that could trigger its “Article Five” collective defence obligations. Key European members, such as Germany and France, are not prepared to conflate China with Russia. Nevertheless, NATO members agree that China’s stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge the alliance’s interests, security, and values. The alliance also defines the deepening Sino-Russian partnership and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order as efforts that run counter to NATO’s values and interests.30

NATO’s focus on Sino-Russian cooperation in its 2022 Strategic Concept appears to have rekindled Beijing’s longstanding concerns about entrapment. Chinese officials say they do not wish to be seen as part of Russian efforts to recreate a buffer zone along its border with NATO that involves using force and war.31 The country’s leadership has repeatedly signalled that it does not endorse Russia’s use of force against sovereign states, and that it will continue to use non-military instruments to pursue its interests overseas. Although Beijing has stated that it opposes the use of sanctions against Russia as an instrument of conflict resolution, it has refrained from overtly engaging in military and economic cooperation with Russia that could be seen as breaches of US and European sanctions.32 Beijing’s attempt to adopt a neutral position towards the Russian-Ukrainian war appears to be intended to discourage Washington from adopting secondary sanctions against Chinese actors with a record of economic and financial dealings with Russia. Arguably, China’s behaviour resembles its approach to the 2017–18 North Korean nuclear crisis. On that occasion, China adopted a low profile in its support for Pyongyang, while planning to resume business as usual once the dust had settled and US attention had turned elsewhere.

In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, Chinese analysts were already of the opinion that, while Ukraine is important for Europe, it is vital for Russia and that the annexation would only be the beginning of Russia’s riposte to the eastward expansion of NATO and the EU over the previous two decades.33 China took the view that, rather than imposing sanctions on Russia, European states should build a security framework with Russia as an equal partner. Furthermore, they saw that the Crimea crisis had produced a risk that the United States would choose a harder line towards Russia and thereby change the dynamics between transatlantic allies and Russia to one of entrenched rivalry. Although China did not approve of the referendum that Russia used to annex Crimea – because the principle of self-determination might damage China’s own position on sovereignty in Tibet and Xinjiang – Chinese analysts warned that if Sino-US relations deteriorated further, China would strengthen its partnership with Russia.34 Since then, Moscow has done much to encourage this process by ameliorating Chinese concerns about potential entrapment. Russia has endorsed China’s Belt and Road Initiative “(BRI)”, Beijing's economic vision for global economic development, and accepted trade using the Chinese currency, the Renminbi.35 Russia’s accommodating attitude towards Chinese core interests in its strategic competition with the United States seems to have convinced Beijing that possible entrapment is a risk worth taking if Europe fails to satisfy Russian security demands regarding Ukraine.

China’s behaviour in the Russia-Ukraine conflict appears to confirm the view that China has strengthened its partnership with Russia because, in its analysis, NATO failed to negotiate viable security arrangements with Russia. The 2022/2023 Ukraine war has required China to walk a tightrope between its commitments to sovereignty and territorial integrity and its support for Russia. This balancing act is made more difficult by growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Here, China emphasizes its sovereignty over Taiwan (endorsed by most states’ public support for its “one-China” stance), to justify its military, economic and political encroachments on Taiwan. China also objects to threats to use nuclear weapons and has distanced itself from Moscow’s nuclear posture. According to Beijing, it is the United States and Russia rather than China that possess capabilities for first use of nuclear weapons. China continues to stick to its policy of no first use.36 Nevertheless, throughout the Russia-Ukraine war, Beijing has maintained its February 2022 position, fundamentally blaming the conflict on NATO expansion.37 In the view of the United States and European governments, Beijing’s unwillingness to designate Russia’s use of force in Ukraine as an invasion demonstrates that it is more concerned about reassuring Russia of its commitment to continue expanding bilateral cooperation across a wide array of economic, technological, security, scientific, and financial issue areas than in showing unwavering commitment to sovereignty and territorial integrity as global principles of international conduct.

China has watched with concern NATO’s efforts at “going global”. One element of these efforts is to take on the cyber and space domains, where the capabilities to counter threats are generic rather than country-specific. Another is to strengthen dialogue and cooperation with new and existing partners in the Indo-Pacific to tackle cross-regional challenges and shared security interests.38 NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners differ from those that the alliance assists with modernizing their defence and doctrines, such as Georgia. NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners are the result of decades-long relations between the US, the UK, the EU and its member states and Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea. NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners are not strategic in the sense that they are expected to contribute to the alliance’s military strategic concepts and plans or strengthen its defences. Instead, they are cooperative security partners that signify NATO’s conceptual enlargement process. The purpose is to strengthen US commitment to the alliance at a time when China is at the top of Washington’s security agenda. Moreover, stronger bonds to Indo-Pacific partners are intended as support for European allies in defending themselves against Chinese security challenges in areas such as cyberwarfare and disinformation.39

China’s response to this emerging two-front dilemma is to mirror it by helping Russia to maintain a threatening posture towards NATO from the Barents Sea in the “high north” to the Mediterranean.40 China publicly accuses NATO of assuming “a posture of ‘going wherever I need to go’ and ‘going wherever I want to go,’ and has increasingly become a ‘systemic challenge' that threatens world security and stability”.41 Here, Beijing’s concerns about transatlantic challenges appear to trump its concerns about entrapment with Russia. However, to avoid becoming too dependent on strategic cooperation with Russia and minimize the risk of entrapment, China is looking to “de-risk” its options by enhancing its security footprint in the Global South.

5. China’s security relations with the Global South: strategic diversification

China is not overly concerned about NATO going global in itself. It is the coordinated response to China’s advances that it considers a formidable security challenge.42 These are efforts between entities that are aligned with the US, including the EU, NATO, and its Indo-Pacific partners, to develop new capabilities across multiple military and non-military domains. China’s response has been to emulate NATO’s globalization process, but in a different geographical setting: the “Global South”. China is seeking to strengthen its security position in regions such as Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and the South Pacific, with Russia as a key partner in strategically important countries such as Iran and South Africa. These countries are not at the technological and industrial level of Europe. Nevertheless, Beijing sees its growing foothold in the Global South as the best way to reduce its vulnerability to the consequences of Europe’s increasingly critical stance towards China. True to China’s rejection of alliances, such cooperation takes the form of training commitments, joint exercises, and a military presence in strategic locations such as Djibouti and Afghanistan. However, closer integrated military cooperation is not likely because it would stifle China’s freedom of action.

China has positioned itself as a champion of the Global South since the Bandung Conference and then as a key part of the coalition that formed the “Group of 77” in 1964 and worked for a new international economic order. Since then, China has identified itself as a developing country that can take the lead in organizing the collective struggle for reform of the international economic and financial system.43 Under President Xi Jinping, this approach has been expanded and coupled to China’s strategic agenda of circumscribing attempts by the US and its allies to encroach on China’s power and influence. To this end, China’s economic platform in the Global South is supplemented with a growing security engagement.44 The Chinese-Russian-South African naval drills that took place in February 2023, during the first anniversary of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, may be a harbinger of this new approach. Similarly, joint Chinese-Russian-Iranian exercises in the Indian Ocean in the autumn of 2022 signalled that those three authoritarian regimes are strengthening security cooperation in response to enhanced security cooperation between US allies in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. These exercises do not indicate that China intends to define security cooperation in great detail. Instead, they attest to Chinese efforts to strengthen its flexible network of strategic partners and expand the security component of these partnerships. Reflecting Chinese entrapment concerns, the partnerships can be adjusted to international developments and allow China to keep its options open with regard to which partners to prioritize in coming decades.

China’s Global Security Initiative (GSI), launched by President Xi in 2022 embodies China’s ambitions by constituting a flexible foundation for addressing different audiences in the Global South. It lists six sets of principles as guidelines of Chinese security: common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security; the peaceful coexistence principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, and respect for the development paths and social systems independently chosen by the people of each country; building a community with a shared future for humankind based on the aims and principles of the UN Charter; peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and negotiation; coordinating the maintenance of security in traditional and non-traditional fields; and upholding the indivisibility of security.45

Most of the principles of the GSI are a repackaging of existing principles of international order based on the idea of peaceful coexistence. The one principle that is new in the Chinese context is that of indivisible security, borrowed from Russian thinking.46 It can be interpreted as a direct reaction to NATO’s behaviour towards Russia. In China’s view, NATO’s response to the Russia-Ukraine crisis, led by the United States, has ignored the principle of indivisible security, and blindly pursued eastward expansion. This violated the pan-European security arrangement and gave rise to the current conflict. According to Beijing, military alliances and group confrontations will jeopardize world peace. Only by taking seriously each other’s reasonable security concerns by building a balanced, effective, and sustainable security architecture can universal security and common security be achieved, and the path found to a long-term solution to global security challenges.47 The principle of indivisible security reflects the sharp turn in Chinese foreign policy that occurred during Donald Trump’s presidency, away from seeking engagement and cooperation with the United States and towards attempting to delegitimize Washington as the leader of global governance. China’s decision to make indivisible security a fundamental principle of its external policy indicates that China sees no prospects of reigniting cooperation as the baseline of US–China relations. Furthermore, Beijing’s frequent contrasting of the principle with NATO’s failure to construct a security relationship with Moscow constitutes a warning to Europe that, without course correction towards Russia, the region may be grouped together with the United States as an illegitimate leader of global governance.48

The principle is intended to appeal to the Global South, a grouping with which China feels it will have to establish closer economic and security links in the event that Sino-European relations continue to deteriorate. China’s adoption of the principle of indivisible security indicates that its leadership regards NATO’s behaviour towards Russia as comparable to US behaviour towards China in the Indo-Pacific. This way of thinking differs from the conciliatory win-win approach of earlier periods and might now offer a new way to approach the United States and Europe for other countries that see themselves as wronged by the Western hemisphere.49 In addition, adopting Russian security principles suggest that Beijing plans to increase security cooperation with Moscow. China seeks to counter strengthened cooperation between the United States and its allies by strategic positioning in the Global South which encompasses, but is by no means limited to, cooperation with Russia.

The principle of indivisible security appears to be at odds with traditional Chinese principles of global coexistence and absolute sovereignty.50 The Global Security Initiative, however, constitutes a flexible foundation for addressing different audiences in the Global South at a time when China seeks to counter NATO’s enhanced security cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners by intensifying its security cooperation with Russia and the Global South, but without risking entrapment in conflicts that are at odds with Chinese interests. Initiatives such as China’s successful brokering of a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia that restored diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Teheran in April 2023 and its announcement of plans for a mediation centre in Hong Kong to bolster China’s conflict mediation efforts in the Global South are examples of Chinese attempts to build an image of a benevolent security actor that actively contributes to stability and security.51

The Chinese leadership’s concerns about entrapment have led to a preference for flexible alignment patterns that allow Beijing to swiftly emphasize or de-emphasize some partnerships over others, according to changes in the international context. They encourage China to continue to pursue partnerships that can swiftly be adjusted to international developments and allow it to keep its options open regarding which partners to prioritize in coming decades. There are, however, entrapment risks inherent in China’s greater involvement in the affairs of the Global South due to growing political instability and military conflicts in regions such as Africa, the Middle East, Oceania, Central Asia, and Central America. For example, Beijing’s strengthened partnership with Pakistan comes with Chinese concerns about being drawn into conflicts arising from Islamabad’s support for terrorist groups and its differences of opinion with Afghanistan and India, which are contrary to Beijing’s interest in regional stability and economic development.52

6. Conclusion: China’s entrapment concerns — between commitment and non-alignment

China has been watching NATO closely for more than two decades, observing its political and operational transformations during a post-Cold War era characterized first by liberal internationalism and now by great power competition. While NATO has not been a driver of China’s strategic choices and foreign policy decisions, it has contributed to Beijing’s assessment that formal alliances might entrap China in conflicts instigated by allies without promoting Chinese interests. At the same time, Beijing recognizes that it needs to avoid the isolation that might result from sustaining a non-aligned position. The post-Cold War period brought China into contact with NATO through their common interests in fighting terrorism and piracy. However, institutionalized cooperation was never on the table because of limited mutual trust, different views over the usefulness of hard power and the alliance’s North Atlantic orientation. However, coordination and dialogue helped China to understand NATO’s operational strengths and shortcomings without any need for integration beyond the level of dialogue. At the same time, China built a strategic partnership with Russia that has proved a successful instrument for pursuing overlapping interests focused on pushing back against perceived threats from the US and its European and Indo-Pacific allies. This Sino-Russian partnership takes into account entrapment concerns on both sides. It has an inherent flexibility that allows each government to pursue separate security agendas with different instruments in each one’s geographic home region while enabling them to pursue coordinated responses to Western challenges. China’s strategic partnership with Russia has become its principal tool to protect its rising power and influence – but without buying into Russia’s strategic priority of establishing a buffer zone towards NATO.

NATO’s unified response to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and its growing coordination with allies of the United States in the Indo-Pacific, have triggered Chinese concerns that Eurasia is being encircled by an alliance structure that emphasizes rivalry and competition rather than cooperation with China. One of its responses has been to strengthen the security aspect of its long-standing engagement with the Global South in order to create another platform for circumscribing encroachments on its power and influence. This avenue for Chinese influence comes with its own entrapment concerns, however, encouraging the Beijing leadership to continue to pursue flexible partnerships, ones with inbuilt protection against involvement in conflicts that do not serve Chinese interests. China’s balancing act between strengthened security commitments to strategic partners while preserving its non-aligned status is likely to remain the dominant pattern throughout the era of strategic competition. This “in-between” strategy is a long-standing pattern in China’s interaction with foreigners: designing flexible and pragmatic platforms for pursuing overlapping interests.

China’s main take-away from NATO is that alliance relations are a rigid construct with potential for tying powers to commitments that do not serve their interests. China’s self-image remains that of a secondary great power struggling to remain competitive with the United States. In many ways, China remains a power that responds to the initiatives of others rather than one that takes the lead. Its responses are designed, above all, to protect Chinese interests. NATO’s experiences fighting terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction with expeditionary forces far from the Euro-Atlantic region demonstrated that entrapment in wars with the purpose of honouring mutual defence commitments had considerable costs that China would not be prepared to pay. Staying clear of mutual defence commitments has protected China from involvement in armed conflicts such as Russia’s war in Ukraine which would have closed the door on maintaining cordial relations with Europe and jeopardized China’s status as global great power.

By contrast, the unity of purpose demonstrated by NATO in fighting security challenges in the post-Cold War era has highlighted the value of long-standing partnerships and the need for security partnerships that span the globe to maintain great power status. The strength of transatlantic solidarity in the 2022/2023 Russian-Ukraine war surprised Beijing and confirmed that loyal partners are necessary to stay on top of strategic competition with the United States. Save for its refusal to endorse Moscow’s use of force in Ukraine, China has emulated transatlantic coherence by continuing economic, political, and security cooperation with Russia during the war. Cooperation includes working in tandem on expanding security partnerships in the Global South in response to the global security network the United States is establishing with NATO and Indo-Pacific partners at the centre.

China understands the value of maintaining long-term relations with strategic partners that will help China gain the upper hand under strategic competition. Russia is the only power with the determination and military capabilities to pose a significant and enduring threat to the United States and its European allies. NATO allies have demonstrated the strength of unity of purpose in supporting Ukraine against Russia. China is likely to adopt a similar approach to Russia. Beijing faces long-term strategic competition with the United States and its allies. To maintain a position of strength, it is to China’s advantage to create a two-front dilemma. That requires helping Russia maintain a threating defence posture towards NATO from the Barents Sea down to the Mediterranean.53 Chinese financial and technological assistance to Russia’s ailing economy and defence forces, facing difficulties keeping up with advanced US and Chinese capabilities in areas such as the maritime and space domains, serves this end. China’s balancing act between strengthening security commitments to strategic partners while preserving its non-aligned status is likely to remain the dominant pattern throughout the era of strategic competition. This in-between strategy of incorporating lessons from Western countries and adapting them to Chinese interests and preferences is a long-standing pattern in China’s interaction with Europe and North America. It reflects a preference for learning from other powers without copying their approach to managing rising power and influence, but instead relying on long-standing successful Chinese strategies of self-reliance.

Read in Taylor and Francis Online.