Balancing China with NATO: Repeating the Mistakes of the 1990s

The NATO Summit on 3-4 December revealed that NATO is shifting its focus to China. NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, explained the historical focus on the Soviet Union and Russia is expanded to include China due to its growing economic and military prowess. Stoltenberg explained that security concerns derive from China buying political influence by investing in European infrastructure. Observers may be confused as China could hardly be further away from the North-Atlantic, and it is unclear why a military bloc is the best response to China’s rising economic power. Identifying China as a threat could be instrumental to establish a raison d’état for the seemingly aimless alliance in search of new monsters to slay. Although, conditioning political unity the West a militarised frontier repeats the mistake made with Russia in the 1990s.

Besides the folly of militarising an economic dispute, it is very reasonable to recognise that the economic rise of China is a key source of division within the West. China’s challenge to US global leadership has manifested itself as an economic war as each side are repatriating supply chains, and a military conflict lingers in the South China Sea. Due to mere geography, Europe does not view China’s rise with the same alarm as the US, and will continue to see great benefits in further economic connectivity. Diverging interests will drive a wedge in the trans-Atlantic relationship as the US grows more frustrated with the EU’s benign posture to China, and the EU grows weary of being pushed around by Washington. The US has already expressed frustration with the inability to convert its role as a security provider in Europe into geoeconomic loyalties. Against the backdrop of US fierce objections, the Europeans joined China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and cooperation with Huawei, Germany has pushed through the North Stream 2 pipeline, Turkey has purchased the S-400, and the EU remains reluctant to reinstate sanctions on Iran.

So why did the Europeans succumb to US pressure? Washington’s fledging commitments to NATO and Trump’s negotiation strategy of being willing to “walk away” from the table likely had some effect. Although, the Europeans are also growing concerned as they come to the realisation that Europe is part of the Greater Eurasian region that is taking shape. China is acquiring technologic leadership and strategic industries in Europe, the Belt and Road Initiative are redrawing the economic arteries of European commerce, and Chinese financial instruments are making Beijing a European banker. As economic interests shift to the East, political loyalties eventually follow. China is even developing European institutions through the 16+1 format with Central and Eastern European states. Simply put, China is emerging as a European power capable of challenging the authority of Brussels. Militarising relations could support European solidarity as geoeconomic regions have more porous borders than militarised geopolitical regions. Securitising economic connectivity with China will complicate Chinese economic projects in Europe.

Maintaining unity in the West as a source of stability is a commendable objective. However, the price for this unity in the 1990s was to alienate Russia and now to militarise an economic dispute with China. Rapproachment with Moscow and Beijing will become complicated, and NATO appears destined to be a security institution that exists to deal with the challenges caused by its own existence.

China's Rise and NATO
Wang Yiwei
Although Europeans succumbed to US pressure and at the NATO summit agreed to acknowledge the Chinese challenges to the alliance, it will not substantially affect Chinese economic projects in Europe. However, China and Russia, two countries once regarded as enemies by NATO, may cooperate to meet the challenges of all parties.
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