The Diplomat

NATO and the China Challenge

Liselotte Odgaard interviewed by Mercy A. Kuo

Senior Fellow (Nonresident)
NATO flag flying during the change of command ceremony for the supreme allied commander Europe at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Brussels on May 14, 2013. (DOD via DVIDS)

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Liselotte Odgaard  non-resident senior fellow at Hudson Institute and professor at the Norwegian Institute of Defense Studies in Oslo – is the 361st in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.” 

Identify the systemic challenges from China impacting Euro-Atlantic security. 

A convergence of views on China has taken place between the United States, Canada, and Europe, which is reflected in the North Atlantic Council’s 2021 summit statement. The Council states that China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security. China’s coercive policies, nuclear arsenal, military modernization, military cooperation with Russia, lack of transparency, and use of disinformation are main areas of concern for the alliance.

In NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept, China is not defined as a threat that can trigger Article Five collective defense obligation. Nevertheless, NATO member states agree that China challenges the alliance’s interests, security, and values. 

How does China view NATO and in what ways is Beijing challenging NATO? 

China views NATO as a security challenge for three main reasons. First, NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept points to Sino-Russian cooperation as a security challenge. The statement engenders concern in Beijing that China is seen as part and parcel of Russian efforts to recreate a buffer zone towards its border with NATO, if necessary, by using force and going to war. China signals that Russia’s use of force against sovereign states is not endorsed by China and that Beijing will continue to use non-military instruments to pursue its global interests. China sees itself as a peace broker on the grounds that, in contrast to NATO, it does not engage in value-based judgments of regimes. 

Second, the convergence of North American and European views on China as a challenge implies that the United States has resumed its leadership position vis-à-vis Europe on global security management and remains committed to the NATO alliance. China depicts NATO as an alliance that entraps U.S. allies in protracted conflicts and even warfare in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya without contributing to international stability and peace. 

Third, NATO is expanding its area of operation and is going global by taking on new domains such as cyber and space and by strengthening ties with Indo-Pacific allies. NATO’s expanding role is seen by Beijing to narrow its scope of action and room for navigating international relations. China portrays NATO’s globalization as a systemic challenge that threatens world security and stability. 

Analyze the impact of the Ukraine war on China’s perception of NATO. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave NATO a new lease on life and brought a recommitment of the U.S. to Europe’s defense. Beijing faces a two-front dilemma because the U.S. and Europe are strengthening coordination and cooperation with Indo-Pacific allies. To maintain a position of strength in the strategic competition with the U.S. and its allies, China is encouraged to mirror the behavior of the United States and its allies, creating a two-front dilemma for them. Looking ahead, this requires helping Russia maintain a threatening defense posture towards NATO from the Barents Sea down to the Mediterranean. Chinese financial and technological assistance to Russia’s ailing economy and defense forces that have difficulties keeping up with advanced U.S. and Chinese capabilities in areas such as the maritime and space domains will serve this end. 

Evaluate the effectiveness of China’s tactics in dividing the EU and weakening transatlantic relations. 

China argues that the U.S. is luring Europe into blindly pursuing eastward expansion at the expense of Russian security. The allied support for Ukraine in the war with Russia spearheaded by the United States has violated pan-European security arrangements and instead given rise to the current security crisis in Europe. Military alliances and group confrontations will only jeopardize world peace, according to Beijing. 

Beijing sees no prospects of reigniting cooperation as the baseline of U.S.-China relations. As a result, China has turned away from seeking engagement and cooperation with the United States. Instead, Beijing attempts to delegitimize Washington as the leader of global governance. China’s critique of NATO’s alleged failure to take into account Russian security concerns constitutes a warning to Europe that without course correction towards Moscow, the region may be grouped together with the United States as an illegitimate leader of global governance. 

Europe’s endorsement of the U.S. view that China’s international policies are not conducive to a rules-based international order, combined with China’s interest in maintaining Russia as a strategic partner to create two-front dilemmas for NATO, means that China’s charm offensive to remain plugged into Europe is not likely to succeed. Therefore, in the long run China will have a harder time than now maintaining extensive links with Europe, which provides it with access to Western technology, science, and investment opportunities. Such a development poses challenges to China’s growth prospects. 

How is NATO engaging Indo-Pacific partners in managing the China challenge?  

For most of its history, NATO was too distant from China to be a main determinant of its strategic choices and foreign policy decisions. The alliance’s strengthened dialogue and cooperation with new and existing partners in the Indo-Pacific to tackle cross-regional challenges and shared security interests change that calculation. Stronger NATO bonds to Indo-Pacific partners are intended as support for European allies in defending themselves against Chinese security challenges. 

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 and strengthen its defenses. Instead, they are cooperative security partners that signify NATO’s enlargement process of going global and countering challenges from competitors with like-minded partners outside of the Euro-Atlantic area. China is not overly concerned about NATO’s enhanced engagement with Indo-Pacific partners such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand seen in isolation. It is the coordinated response to China challenges between entities that are aligned with the United States, including the EU, NATO, and Indo-Pacific partners, across multiple military and non-military domains that are considered a formidable security challenge to China.   

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