Springer/Palgrave MacMillan

China Views NATO: Beijing’s Concerns about Transatlantic Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

Senior Fellow (Nonresident)
NATO Indo-Pacific
HMS Queen Elizabeth launches a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B, Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, and JS Kaga in the background as part of Maritime Partnership Exercise in Bay of Bengal, on October 17, 2021. (Russell Lindsey via DVIDS)

For most of the post-Cold War era, China did not show much concern with NATO. A few crises in the relationship occurred, such as NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, in May 1999 and NATO’s launch of a military strike against Libya in 2011, which according to China constituted abuse of the authorization of the UN Security Council to intervene. Nevertheless, mostly the relationship was limited but constructive. Beijing and Brussels focused on dialogue and coordination on military operations other than war, such as anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, with a view toward avoiding enmity through mutual understanding. As relations between China and the West deteriorated under Trump’s presidency from 2017 onwards, relations between China and NATO also suffered, and regular dialogue came to a halt. However, Beijing largely maintained an indifferent attitude towards NATO, as indicated by the scant interest in producing Chinese analyses of NATO despite the alliance’s emerging focus on the Indo- Pacific. From 2022, the relationship has changed decidedly. The emphasis is now on the issues that set China and NATO apart as the challenges they pose to each other rather than the mutual benefits from maintaining dialogue and coordination are at the top of their security agendas.

What has caused this change in perspective? NATO has refrained from identifying China as a country that produces threats that may trigger the collective defense obligations of the NATO Treaty’s Article 5. Nevertheless, NATO’s 2022 strategic concept defines the alliance as an integral part of transatlantic efforts to counter Chinese military, economic and industrial challenges. Seen from a Chinese perspective, this is a point of no return that consolidates NATO as an adversary.

The US sees China as threat number one, whereas for most of Europe, Russia is the main threat. After the Cold War, China had hoped that this difference in outlook would lead to a division of labor between Europe and the US that might result in the gradual disintegration of the transatlantic alliance. This development would simplify China’s security and defense challenges because Beijing would be able to focus its defense posture on countering US power projection in Asia. However, instead a rapprochement has taken place between the US and Europe on adopting a more critical stance against China and pushing back against unsolicited Chinese practices.

The problem with a coordinated transatlantic response is that it enables Europe and the US to produce strategic dilemmas for China by challenging China and Chinese partners such as Russia across two fronts in the Indo-Pacific and the Euro-Atlantic area. In geographical terms, China is situated far from Europe. China’s security concerns about the transatlantic alliance do not arise from NATO’s enlargement process with additional member states. Instead, Beijing’s misgivings arise from NATO’s expansion of its activities into areas such as humanitarian interventions and cyber and space and from NATO’s decision in 2022 to go global and expand its partner countries beyond its geographical North Atlantic home territory in the Indo-Pacific. This functional and conceptual enlargement of NATO  has gradually turned the alliance into a security issue for China. The alliance’s functional enlargement means that China will have a harder time penetrating Western economies with investments that allow it access to technology helping China outcompete Western industries and provide Beijing with control of strategic assets in the West such as harbors and runways. To make matters worse, NATO is establishing links with Indo- Pacific partners to make sure that pushback against China’s full spectrum military, economic and industrial challenges also comes from major US Asian allies with strategic defense, technological and industrial assets such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. In and of itself, NATO is not a major security concern for China. It is the coordinated response to China’s challenges between entities that are aligned with the US, including the EU, NATO, and key Indo-Pacific and European allies, that is considered a formidable security challenge to China.

This chapter first outlines the history of China-NATO relations. Second, it investigates how the Chinese government perceives NATO plans to participate in a global US-led coalition to counter Chinese security challenges. Third, the chapter discusses which actions China is taking to counter NATO plans for taking on China’s challenges.

Post-Cold War Relations Between China and NATO

Between the 1990s and 2017, relations between China and NATO were fundamentally cooperative, even if the interaction was scant and not institutionalized. Conciliatory relations were born out of the engagement policy of the US and its allies and the belief in the possibility of China’s peaceful rise. This was based on China’s interest in integration into inter- national economic, financial, and institutional structures which allowed it to benefit from investment opportunities, access to technology, and influence on global definitions of proper international conduct. As NATO engaged in functional enlargement after the Cold War while China looked to benefit from engagement with the West, dialogue and coordination developed between Brussels and Beijing.

China and NATO had a common interest in maintaining global security in four key areas: counterterrorism, counter-piracy operations, crisis management, and stabilization operations. Despite China’s insistence on seeking peaceful development and eschew alliances, limited benevolent interaction developed between Beijing and NATO in these areas. Following the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, China provided support to US and NATO counterterrorism initiatives. From 2008, the Chinese navy interacted with NATO fleets to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, though China acted in its national capacity when conducting anti-piracy patrols and there were no joint operations. Moreover, coordination with NATO worked reasonably well despite cultural and technical challenges. In the area of crisis management, NATO agreed to China’s request for participating in NATO courses at the alliance’s school in Oberammergau. China also shared NATO’s objective to stabilize Afghanistan. During US and NATO operations in the first two decades of the millennium, China was not willing to provide financial aid or to get involved militarily. However, by pursuing economic interests, infrastructure projects, and investments, China contributed indirectly to NATO’s reconstruction efforts by diversifying Afghanistan’s economy. China also made limited contributions to training Afghan security forces.

NATO’s eastward enlargement was never popular with China. Chinese analysts tended to characterize NATO as a relic of the Cold War that had lost its purpose, and during the whole period China was looking for clues of the alliance’s disintegration. NATO was described as an unequal and unstandardized alliance in which the US wants burden sharing and Europe wants power sharing, while in practice working to build its own independent defense. The generally pro-US orientation of the Central and Eastern European member states that became part of the alliance with the expansion was seen to deepen disagreements between the US and Europe over security perceptions and threat management. The development emphasized that China’s Western engagement could be used to drive wedges between the US and Europe. China considered Europe more benevolent than the US because of Europe’s limited and civilian-oriented engagement in Asia.

NATO’s bombing of the PRC’s embassy in Belgrade in Serbia in 1999 was a defining moment in sowing mistrust between NATO and China and consolidating the Chinese view that NATO is a US-dominated alliance in which Europe does not have much of a say over its own security. China did not believe the US claim that the bombing was a mistake. The incident gave rise to many negative feelings among the Chinese political establishment and in the public at large towards the US and NATO. It did not stop China from interacting with NATO, presumably because the interaction was a unique opportunity to learn about the capabilities and doctrines of US and European forces. However, it may have encouraged China not to seek deepened institutionalized connections with NATO, resolving that it was best to keep NATO at arm’s length to protect Chinese security interests. Beijing assessed that the alliance’s functional enlargement might have negative future consequences for China. The bombing incident caused nationalist sentiment to spiral out of control, ensuring that NATO is connected to the bombing in the minds of many Chinese. At the time of the bombing, the Chinese government tolerated and encouraged demonstrations that it was not able to contain, threatening damage to Sino-US relations and provoking criticism that the regime was unwilling to confront the US.

NATO’s intervention in Libya was another key moment in China’s outlook on the alliance which strengthened Beijing’s concern about the alliance’s functional enlargement. In March 2011, China abstained from voting on UN Security Council resolution 1973 which, acting under Chapter VII, approved a no-fly zone over Libya and authorized all necessary measures to protect civilians. China argued that NATO abused the UN Security Council mandate for purposes of regime change instead of limiting the intervention to putting a halt to violence that threatened to derail peace and stability in the Arab world. The Chinese government outlet People’s Daily commented on NATO’s Libya operation by predicting that the unceasing terrorist attacks and bombings after regime change would be regarded as humanitarian disasters. NATO’s willingness to reinterpret the UN principles of intervention to allow for intervention in the domestic affairs of other states in the event of human rights atrocities was a wake-up call for China and a call for them to take a more proactive stance in influencing the global rules of proper conduct. The intervention also demonstrated that NATO was able to act to defend liberal values by force, fueling Chinese concerns that if such authorizations became an accepted principle, China could, in future, become the target of UN-authorized use of force.

US President Trump’s calls for gradually withdrawing the US from NATO obligations, designating the alliance as obsolete, was grist for the mill of China, even if it never translated into actual US policies. In January 2017, when Trump took office, People’s Daily tweeted that “‘NATO is truly a relic of the past’: Moscow agrees with US President-elect Donald Trump that NATO is obsolete, the Kremlin said Monday”. However, the Trump administration’s fierce efforts to convince European NATO members that China was a threat to transatlantic security due to its unsolicited market economic practices, human rights violations, and military build-up was also a determining factor in convincing the Europeans to extend more support for US efforts to protect liberal economic and political values from Chinese efforts to replace these principles with a Sino-centric world order. This development turned out to be the more significant long-term trend in transatlantic relations that paved the way for designating China “a systemic challenge for global security”.

With Russia’s 2022 war in Ukraine, NATO has been given a new lease on life, as indicated by Finland and Sweden’s membership applications. In addition, NATO builds on European and US Indo-Pacific engagement to establish an Indo-Pacific platform with Asian partners that are equally concerned about Chinese international policies. For China, the main concern is that this signals that the US is succeeding in its efforts to persuade Europe to engage in full-spectrum deterrence of China with partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific. In the following section, the chapter addresses how China sees NATO’s 2022 strategic concept and why this development has put NATO high on China’s security agenda.

NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept: China’s Concerns About the Globalization of the US Alliance System

For the first time, the 2022 version of NATO’s decade-long strategy document, its strategic concept, takes on China as an actor that poses systemic challenges to Euro-Atlantic security. China is not defined as a threat that can trigger Article Five collective defense obligations. In contrast to the US, key NATO member states in Europe such as France and Germany are not yet prepared to put China on par with Russia. Nevertheless, NATO members agree that the PRC’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 the alliance’s values and interests. At the same time, NATO emphasizes that it is open to constructive engagement with China, including to build reciprocal transparency, with a view to safeguarding NATO’s security interests. However, NATO is also determined to boost the member states’ shared awareness, enhance the alliance’s resilience and preparedness, and protect against the PRC’s coercive tactics and efforts to divide the alliance. This involves standing up for shared values and the rules-based international order, including freedom of navigation.

In meeting these challenges, the EU is defined as a unique and essential partner of NATO which shares the values of the alliance. NATO also recognizes the value of a stronger and more capable European defense that contributes positively to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to, and interoperable with, NATO. The Indo-Pacific is considered important for NATO, given that developments in that region can directly affect Euro-Atlantic security. As a result, the alliance will strengthen dialogue and cooperation with new and existing partners in the Indo-Pacific to tackle cross-regional challenges and shared security interests. NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners differ from those that the alliance assists with modernizing their defense and doctrines, such as Georgia, and those that are institutional partners heavily integrated into NATO’s deterrence and planning efforts, such as the prospective alliance members Finland and Sweden. NATO’s Indo-Pacific partners are a function of decade-long relations of the US, the EU, the UK, and EU member states with 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 and strengthen its defenses. Instead, they are cooperative security partners that signify NATO’s conceptual enlargement process of going global. This effort is new and forms part of the alliance’s 2022 strategic concept. The purpose of NATO’s conceptual enlargement is to strengthen US commitment to the alliance and to support European allies in defending themselves against Chinese security challenges. This attempt to reduce the vulnerability of NATO member states vis-à-vis China is based on existing comprehensive bilateral partnerships of its members and partners.

The Indo-Pacific partner countries of NATO welcome this development. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea are emphasized as key partners, as indicated by their attendance at the 2022 NATO summit in Madrid. Together with Canada, the UK, and the US, Australia and New Zealand form part of The Five Eyes intelligence cooperation. In addition, Australia is a member of the AUKUS security pact with the UK and the US which focuses on building military capabilities.

Japan and South Korea are long-standing US allies with strategic importance vis-à-vis China and North Korea. Moreover, they have the economic and technological muscles to offer alternatives to states in the Indo-Pacific which are partners of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative of economic development and security. Together with China and the US, Japan and South Korea are also strategic partners of the EU. Japan has increased its political support for Taiwan, and security in the Taiwan Strait now forms part of the US-Japan security dialogue. In addition, Japan has been the driving force in forging and implementing economic and security assistance programs to Indo-Pacific countries that are reluctant to fully commit to the US alliance system. Since 2021, South Korea has been actively engaged in increasing its integration and coordination with US allies in the Indo-Pacific and Europe to strengthen its ability to counter Chinese security challenges. At the bilateral meeting between Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and South Korean foreign minister Park Jin in July 2022, Seoul affirmed that South Korea intended to participate in international cooperation aimed at protecting freedom, peace, human rights, and the rule of law. Park expressed his hope that relations between Seoul and Beijing would mutually develop based on universal values and rules. The remarks are in line with President Yoon Suk-yeol’s comments at the 2022 NATO summit, at which he expressed hope that a cooperative relationship between NATO and the Indo-Pacific will become a cornerstone of a coalition defending universal values. The statements signify that South Korea is taking a much more assertive stance towards Chinese encroachments on the liberal values of the post-World War II system following the election of a conservative president in 2022.

The newfound alignment between Japan and South Korea’s position and policies in the US alliance system and towards China constitutes a significant improvement in cooperation and coordination in the US alliance system. Both countries have close relations with Europe and with Indo-Pacific partner countries such as India, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The development indicates that their mutual concern about China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific, helped by the assumption of office of a conservative president in South Korea in 2022, has encouraged Tokyo and Seoul to prevent conflicts over historical issues dating back to Japan’s occupation of South Korea in the first half of the twentieth century from jeopardizing cooperation on Indo-Pacific security. Expanding relations with US allies in Europe sharing similar concerns about China’s growing global influence will significantly strengthen the ability of the US and its allies to constrain China’s global expansion of its version of global order.

NATO’s turn towards the Indo-Pacific and its links with US regional allies is a concern to China for two reasons. First, transatlantic unity on countering China’s challenges makes it more difficult for China to stay on benevolent terms with Europe. Second, NATO’s focus on China’s cooperation with Russia as a key element in their ability to create security challenges for NATO allies puts pressure on Beijing to choose between loyalty towards its Russian partner and maintaining cooperation with Western countries.

Firstly, China worries that the US has resumed its leadership position vis-à-vis Europe on global security management after a period during the Trump administration when transatlantic security cooperation seemed to suffer irreparable damage. Agreement between NATO allies to take on the China challenge across a wide array of issue areas and in cooperation with US allies in China’s home region underscores that Europe endorses the US view that the Chinese foreign and security outlook is not conducive to the liberal post-World War II order which remains the basis of US and European international politics. As a result, looking ahead China will have a much harder time maintaining extensive economic, financial, academic, scientific, institutional, and political links with Europe. Europe interprets the Chinese presence as serving Chinese interests in increasing its global influence and leadership at the expense of fundamental international liberal market economic and democratic political principles. This more critical stance towards China may limit China’s access to Western technology, knowledge, and investment opportunities, posing challenges to China’s growth prospects. Since China’s global power is based on its ability to profit from global international economic and financial structures, this development constitutes an important concern for China’s future international position.

China’s response to NATO’s willingness to take on Chinese challenges in cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners has been answered with sharp public warnings against ganging up on China. A China Daily editorial stated that “[i]f you are a hammer, all you see are nails. NATO must stop its confrontational approach against China for the benefit of world peace and security…China is thousands of miles away from Europe and has never in history posed any security challenge to the organization. Rather, the security challenge comes the other way round, with NATO in recent years flexing its muscles in the Asia-Pacific region by sending warships and military aircraft to the South China Sea”. The nationalist newspaper the Global Times 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”. According to the newspaper, the alliance will force Asia-Pacific countries to take sides between China and the US based on its logic of great power geopolitical competition. This is likely to lead to increasingly intense regional crises and conflicts and severely interrupt the process of regional economic integration. NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept is not just a threat to China, according to Beijing, but a threat to Asian and global security.

Despite Beijing’s harsh NATO rhetoric, China continues to emphasize that Beijing distinguishes between Europe and the US. According to China, the US has not forsaken what China sees as a confrontational mindset of the Cold War. At the bilateral meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in July 2022, Beijing criticized the US for failing to lift US–China ties out of the predicament created by the previous US administration as the US is suffering from Chinaphobia that will lead its China policy to a dead end. Wang urged the US not to seek a new Cold War and to refrain from targeting its alliances with China and pursuing the independence of Taiwan.

The US tendency to read China’s behavior in terms of military confrontation is the most tangible direct threat to China in Beijing’s view. In particular, the US designation of China’s model of global economic growth and development, the Belt and Road Initiative, as a military, economic, and political threat, and US efforts to establish alternatives to Chinese infrastructure projects, is perceived as a resumption of the containment policy of the Cold War with the purpose of maintaining US hegemony in the post-Cold War international system. In Beijing’s view, one indication that the US approach to China influences NATO’s China policies is the emphasis on deterrence in NATO’s 2022 strategic concept. According to Chinese military analysts, deterrence does not form part of Chinese strategies and doctrines. China is against the globalization of NATO that characterizes the alliance’s conceptual enlargement because it is a military alliance and as such, China argues that it contributes to conflict and growing militarization. If enhanced militarization of the Indo-Pacific results in the use of force to influence the situation in Taiwan and in the South China Sea to the advantage of the US, China states that it will take corresponding measures to defend its interests.

In regions far from China’s shores and near Europe, such as the Arctic, China says that it will continue to contribute to maintaining stability and security, for example, by using its scientific engagement in the Arctic island Svalbard to expand civilian cooperation on issues such as environmental change and global governance of the Arctic. In addition, the development of the Northern Sea Route running along Russia’s coastline into an Arctic shipping route between China and Europe is hoped to contribute to improved Chinese-European relations. China would like to see NATO and Russia strengthen dialogue and cooperation in the Arctic. However, China is of the view that NATO is departing from this policy with its plans to accept Finland and Sweden as full members of the alliance. According to China, NATO’s enlargement plans risk escalating confrontation with Russia in the Arctic region, thereby jeopardizing the prospects of resuming dialogue between Moscow and Brussels.

Despite China’s concern about the direction NATO is taking, Beijing still hopes to be able to drive wedges between the US and Europe and prevent Europe from stepping up its military engagement in the Indo-Pacific. To this end, Beijing points out that the Ukraine conflict has not changed its view of Europe as a strategic partner. Indeed, China emphasizes that it shares some of Europe’s security concerns that result from this conflict, such as the challenge to procure energy resources at rising prices. China argues that Europe and the US have different interests in the Ukraine conflict, since the US has gained from this conflict, for example, through increased energy exports to Europe. By contrast, Europe is the principal loser in the conflict. As a result, China hopes to be able to cooperate with Europe on peaceful measures to put an end to the Ukraine conflict. In the longer term, China remains open to resuming prior avenues of cooperation with Europe, for example, on humanitarian disaster relief and counterterrorist measures. Cooperation is seen as possible in areas where compatible security concerns exist, and gradually cooperation can be expanded from non-controversial areas to areas with more pronounced differences of interest.

According to China, Europe and China have compatible approaches to world politics in that they both rely on expanding their economic power through integration into international economic structures. This reliance on economic incentives is considered the main driver of continued Chinese-European cooperation. Moreover, China argues that Europe’s position as a global economic power makes it much less inclined than the US to engage in the use of force on China’s doorstep in conflicts over areas such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. In turn, China will not emulate the US tendency to impose its opinion on other countries. Instead, China intends to engage in dialogue and communication with Europe to enhance mutual understanding of the security concerns of the other party to see if common policies can be established in areas with compatible security outlooks between China and Europe. China builds its hope for continued Chinese-European cooperation in the spirit of business as usual on the likelihood that NATO’s new lease on life is a transitory phenomenon resulting from the 2022 Russian-Ukraine war and the Biden administration’s concern to forge close security cooperation with Europe. Biden’s low support in opinion polls gives credibility to the view that the Republicans will come out as winners in the 2024 presidential election. If the Republican candidate wins the presidency, the policies of the Trump administration to decrease US engagement in European security and defense issues and deemphasize the importance of NATO for US security may gain more traction. If Europe is left to manage regional security issues without a proper region-wide defense force capable of operating independently from the US, Europe will be forced to adopt more accommodating policies towards China to manage the larger threat from Russia. This appears to be the assessment in Beijing that gives China hope that economic and security cooperation between China and Europe can be restored.

Secondly, China is worried that it will be seen as part and parcel of Russia’s determination to recreate a buffer zone towards its border with NATO, if necessary by using force and going to war. Since Russia’s military intervention in Georgia in 2008, China has emphasized its commitment to absolute sovereignty, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and the non-use of force to solve conflicts in international affairs. 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 interests overseas. The Ukraine war has required China to walk a tightrope between its commitment 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 as recognized by the one-China policy to justify its military, economic and political encroachments on Taiwan. Nevertheless, in the joint statement from the summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2022 Beijing supported Moscow in blaming the Russia-Ukraine conflict fundamentally on NATO expansion. Furthermore, China’s unwillingness to designate Russia’s use of force in Ukraine as an invasion, and its reassurance to Moscow that there are no limits to their strategic partnership, demonstrate to the US and Europe that China is more concerned to reassure Moscow of its commitment to continue expanding bilateral cooperation across a wide array of economic, technological, security, scientific, and financial issue areas than to show commitment to the post-World War II interpretation of the global principles of international conduct.

Although Beijing has stated that it opposes using sanctions against Russia as an instrument of conflict resolution, China has refrained from engaging in military and economic cooperation with Russia that could be seen as breaches of US and European sanctions. Beijing’s low profile on interaction with Russia during the war in Ukraine is meant to discourage Washington from adopting secondary sanctions against Chinese actors with a record of economic and financial dealings with Russia. Nevertheless, China has left the impression that it is pursuing a policy on the Ukraine conflict that resembles that pursued during the nuclear standoff between the US and North Korea under Trump’s presidency. This implies that China is waiting it out and will resume full-scale cooperation with Russia when the attention of the US and Europe has turned to other issues.

Irrespective of Beijing’s commitment to sovereignty and non-interference in words, in practice the commitment has for long been undermined by Chinese willingness to translate economic engagement into political influence, preferably behind the scenes. Chinese threats to cancel a trade deal with Faroe Islands if the country refrained from using Huawei technology for the 5G telecommunications network is but one of many examples that China’s commitment to non-interference is far from rock solid. Beijing is most likely to prioritize Russia as a necessary partner in building a Sino-centric international order overseen by authoritarian regimes. Russia’s great power status in China’s northern neighborhood, its natural resources, and its industrial output indicate that cooperation is likely to continue as Russian and Chinese economic and security interests diverge from those of the transatlantic allies.

China’s preference for keeping a low profile in the Ukraine conflict while reassuring Russia that the strategic partnership remains intact is reflected in the statement that Sino-Russian cooperation has no limits, but nevertheless China will not compromise on its principle not to support countries’ use of force to solve problems. This stance signals that China does not support Russia’s use of force in Europe. Moreover, in line with its post-Cold war interpretation of proper international conduct, Beijing insists that the United Nations should continue to be at the center of global security management. China also objects to being lumped together with Russia’s nuclear posture on the grounds that it is the US and Russia rather than China which possess capabilities for first use of nuclear weapons. China continues to stick to its policy of no first use. Consequently, Chinese participation in a resumption of the third round of Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations would require the involvement of other nuclear powers such as the UK, France, and India. According to Beijing, they have nuclear weapons on the same scale. China claims to only have nuclear weapons to defend itself against attack.

In response to NATO’s 2022 strategic concept, China argues that the European security outlook is different from that of the US. Likewise, the security outlook of China differs from that of Russia in fundamental ways. On important issues, China and Europe are like-minded international actors with legitimate security concerns about their strategic partners. Beijing and Brussels should cooperate to ameliorate and remedy these concerns. Chinese reservations about the US and European ability to maintain sufficient unity on a coordinated NATO response to Chinese challenges with Indo-Pacific partners encourage China to continue to pursue non-military cooperation with Europe across a wide spectrum of issue areas. At the same time, recent Chinese security initiatives indicate that Beijing takes steps to strengthen cooperation with Russia and the global South to decrease its dependency on European cooperation for its continued economic growth.

Edging Away from the West: China’s Global Security Initiative

NATO’s decision to take on China in cooperation with Indo-Pacific partners constitutes the latest thorn in the side of Chinese plans to expand its global development vision the Belt and Road Initiative to Europe and to drive wedges between the US and European resolve to cooperate on countering what they see as illegitimate global Chinese economic, industrial, and security practices. European decisions to push back at Chinese inroads into the region’s economic, industrial, financial, and academic institutions, and to create defensive mechanisms against the security aspects of China’s non-military overseas presence, indicate that China needs to develop plans for diminishing its interdependence with Western countries. The German government’s decision to only allow China’s COSCO a 24.9% stake in one of the main terminals at the port of Hamburg and prohibiting the company from acquiring more to prevent it from obtaining minority blocking rights is one indication that the tide in Europe is slowly turning against uncritical acceptance of Chinese investments and joint ventures in the region. In addition, the 17+1 initiative made up of Eastern, Southern, and Central European EU member states to allow China a greater voice in Brussels appears to be falling apart. Only Serbia, Hungary, and Greece agreed to take part at the June 2020 Belt and Road International Cooperation conference; 11 of 17 member states have signed the UN joint statement criticizing China for human rights violations; and Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia have with- drawn from the initiative. China needs to establish insurance policies that decrease its vulnerability in the event that Europe’s willingness to limit China’s regional engagement takes off. In China’s view, NATO’s encroachment on Russian security in Europe is replicated in the alliance’s approach to China in the Indo-Pacific. This calls for a response.

Chinese President Xi’s 2022 Global Security Initiative can be seen as such a response. 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; build 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 uphold the indivisibility of security.

Most of the principles 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 the Russian principle of indivisible security. It is a direct response to NATO’s behavior towards Russia. According to China, in the Ukraine crisis NATO, led by the US, ignored the principle of indivisible security, and blindly pursued eastward expansion. This violated the pan-European security arrangement and instead gave rise to the current security crisis in Europe. Military alliances and group confrontations will only jeopardize world peace according to Beijing. 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.

The principle of indivisible security reflects the sharp turn in Chinese foreign policy that occurred during Trump’s presidency in 2019 and 2020 from seeking engagement and cooperation with the US, to attempting to delegitimize the US as the leader of global governance. China’s decision to make it a fundamental principle of its external security policy indicates that China sees no prospects of reigniting cooperation as the main characteristic of US–China relations. Moreover, Beijing’s focus on NATO in explaining the meaning of the principle constitutes a warning to Europe that without course correction towards Russia, the region may be grouped together with the US as illegitimate leaders of global governance. Indivisible security sees NATO’s behavior towards Russia as a reflection of US behavior towards China in the Indo-Pacific. This is a different way of thinking compared to the conciliatory win–win approach of earlier periods that might be setting new standards for how to approach the US and Europe in other countries that see themselves as wronged by the Western hemisphere. The principle is intended to appeal to the global South, a grouping which China will have to establish closer economic and security links with if Sino-European relations continue to deteriorate. In addition, adopting Russian security principles suggest that China plans to increase cooperation in non-military security areas with Russia. This indicates that we are likely to see more Chinese-Russian cooperation in contexts such as the United Nations and on developing the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic. The principle of indivisible security with its judgmental attitude towards the security policies of other countries and its delegitimization of the West is at odds with the traditional principles of global coexistence and absolute sovereignty. The Global Security Initiative constitutes a flexible foundation for addressing different audiences that allows China to keep its options open and remain hopeful that a more cooperative attitude returns to European policies towards China.


The history of post-Cold War NATO-China relations shows that the relationship was never put on a sufficiently strong institutional footing to ensure a long-term constructive security dialogue and continued cooperation on limited issue areas of common interest. Indeed, arguably this state of affairs reflects China’s post-Cold War relations with the US and Europe in general. The lack of institutional commitment between China and the West has allowed relations to deteriorate once differences in security interests increased as China’s approach to global economic, political, and security governance was implemented across the world. China’s view on NATO reflects disappointment in the ability of the West to make allowances for China’s demands that its interests and world outlook should be incorporated into existing institutional structures for global governance. At the same time, Chinese capabilities, especially in the technological and military field, remain below the advanced level of the West, preventing China from decoupling from its significant economic, industrial, financial, and academic engagement with the West.

NATO’s attempt at functional and conceptual enlargement that encompasses strengthened coordination and cooperation with Indo- Pacific partners at a time of growing convergence between the US and Europe on how to manage challenges from China is a serious security concern for Beijing because it already sees the threats to its global position as stronger than its capabilities. The Global Security Initiative is a platform for China to take into account the deterioration in its relations with the West since it allows China to work out policies that enhance cooperation with Russia and the global South while keeping the door open to resuming cooperation with Europe. It remains to be seen how the principles of the initiative will be translated into concrete policies.

Read in Springer.