PREMIUM TAG BLOG – Think China: NATO’s Next Challenge

By Sten Rynning

The real difficulty will be to give strategic direction to NATO’s basic understanding of China. For now, NATO is “mainstreaming”—dealing with China without really naming it in the context of proxy issues such as resilience and partnership. 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will on June 14 address China for the second time at the level of heads of state and government. They did so for a first time in December 2019, taking note of “opportunities and challenges” associated with China’s rise but then punting the ball. Now, in June 2021, it is time for NATO to explain itself further.

This promises to be interesting.

What seems certain is that NATO will take new steps regarding resilience at home and partnerships abroad. Resilience concerns the protection of critical infrastructure and the functioning of government and society. In a day and age when, for instance, the EU imports a whopping 99% and the United States 80% of their rare earth minerals from China, it makes a lot of sense to address such a vulnerability head on. NATO has a resilience policy instigated by Russia’s hybrid war efforts, and now is the time to take it a step further.

Partnership equally seems a no-brainer. The United States is investing in the political resilience of the Indo-Pacific, most recently by bringing a new élan to the Quad of the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. Such US multilateral investment is what European allies have called for, and NATO already has “global partnerships” with countries in the Indo-Pacific. These were tailored to suit the stabilization effort in Afghanistan but should be adapted to suit a new era of great power competition.

All this will not be particularly easy. Resilience concerns the nooks and crannies of allied economies and societies and thus involves a great range of interests and sensibilities. Moreover, NATO only sets standards; each government delivers at its own pace. Enhanced partnerships require high-level meetings and commitment to common principles and actions, and this for the duration.

Still, the real difficulty will be to give strategic direction to NATO’s basic understanding of China. For now, NATO is “mainstreaming”—dealing with China without really naming it in the context of proxy issues such as resilience and partnership. But sooner rather than later NATO should tend to its political grasp of the overall situation.

The United States has for this reason proposed pulling all NATO-China initiatives under a common header: namely, China as a “systemic rival.” Yet, and though June 14 will tell, NATO does not seem politically ready for such a declaratory me. The question is how to advance underlying agreement.

“In view of the changes in the international situation … we need a better alliance system for consultation in crisis situations outside the Atlantic area,” and for this we need “political will” and “NATO machinery” adapted to the new tasks.

Such were the words of Constantijn L. Patijn who authored a report on “NATO in world affairs” attached to the 1967 Harmel Report. Back then, few were ready to entertain any such formalization of consultations on world affairs, but perhaps the time has come to invigorate some of the report’s ideas.

The need for NATO to devote more time, political resources and action to security challenges posed by China (and Russia) is well covered in the Reflection Group (NATO 2030) report issued in November 2020. Where Patijn’s decades-old report comes in is in terms of how to engender this change of mindset.

Patijn suggested the creation of “special groups” to carry forward active consultation (including on “the Chinese problem”) and then also strengthened NATO consultation between members’ missions to the United Nations. Both are worth contemplating today.

Special groups would, unlike policy mainstreaming, identify particularly sensitive issues in the NATO-China relationship and assign political responsibility to the most affected members to bring policy ideas to the collective attention. Closer coordination at the UN headquarters in New York would likewise pull Western political concerns with the solidity of the rules-based international order to the forefront of collective thinking and planning.

Perhaps such political advances are too much for NATO to handle in 2021, like in 1967. But the challenge of thinking China remains, and Patijn’s report at the very least stimulates thinking on what NATO can actually do to regain political initiative and direction.