A NATO war with China? Not as impossible as we think

By Dr. Harlan K. Ullman

[This article was first published by The Hill]

The forthcoming NATO summit to be held in Vilnius, Lithuania, next week will be consumed by the bizarre events that took place in Moscow and the faux mutiny or real miscalculation of Yevgeny Prigozhin, former caterer-in-chief to Russian President Vladimir Putin and, perhaps, still head of the Wagner Group. 

It is still relatively unclear what happened except in general terms. It is entirely unclear in the West why and how the principals acted the way they did in what could have been a Hollywood thriller or satire. 

Whether or not NATO will move more expeditiously to support Ukraine and invite it to join the alliance sooner than “when the time is right” remains to be seen. However, attention will center on that and on future policies and actions toward Russia. And because a more complete analysis of the Putin-Prigozhin love-hate relationship may be lacking, the alliance may be limited in the scope of actions it will take.

Lurking, however, is a matter that could dwarf this current fixation on Russia and Ukraine. NATO may have a ticking time bomb regarding Article 5, the foundation of the alliance. Article 5 states that the alliance will consider an attack on one as an attack on all. Obviously, the question would seem germane to Russia if the Ukraine war escalates. But it is broader than that.

Here is a bit of shock and awe. Could NATO find itself at war with China? Impossible and unimaginable? Perhaps not.

Consider a bit of history. In 1964, when North Vietnamese torpedo boats allegedly attacked U.S. Navy destroyers, and in 1982, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and was at war with the United Kingdom, Article 5 did not apply. Article 5 applies only when members of NATO are attacked within the NATO guideline areas of North America and Europe. On Sept. 12, 2001, following al Qaeda’s downing of New York’s Twin Towers, NATO invoked, for the first and only time, Article 5.

NATO was now at war in Afghanistan. If NATO’s founding fathers had emerged from a time capsule, imagine their reaction. Instead of repelling a Soviet assault across the inner-German border, NATO would be fighting a counterterror and counterinsurgency campaign against an enemy that lacked an organized army in Afghanistan.

How then might NATO be dragged into a war with China? Taiwan would be the possible cause célèbre. U.S. admirals and generals have publicly worried that within this decade, China could attempt a takeover of that island. Several war games held by Washington think tanks have used this scenario to examine likely outcomes. In each case, both the U.S. and China would suffer very heavy losses.

Suppose, however, that the scenario unfolded this way. In their thriller, “2034: A Novel of the Next World War,” Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s former supreme allied commander in Europe, and award-winning author Elliot Ackerman, use an incident in which the U.S. Navy captures a Chinese electronic surveillance ship that over time escalates into a nuclear exchange. Penultimately, China destroys two major U.S. cities.

What would NATO do?  

If this scenario seems over the top, here is one that might also trigger Article 5. China mounts a sea and air blockade around Taiwan and issues a no-fly or no-sail order within 50 miles of Taiwan.  The U.S. sends two destroyers in a freedom of navigation exercise.

China’s navy orders the U.S. destroyers to reverse course. They do not. Warning shots are exchanged. That leads to further escalation. A Chinese warship is hit. Chinese fighter aircraft attack the U.S. warships. Two are shot down. One of the U.S. destroyers is badly damaged.

With tensions high, China launches missiles against Guam and Hawaii as a warning. The missiles fall into the ocean but close to land. The U.S. responds. Finally, as in the novel, China launches (in this case) a conventional missile strike on the continental U.S. against a missile silo. The silo is destroyed.

In both cases what does NATO do? Article 5 clearly applies. While no declaration of war has been made by the U.S. or China, a state of hostilities exists. The U.S. has not responded yet. But the U.S. has set Defense Condition 1, put its strategic forces on full alert and deployed all its strategic as well as non-strategic submarines from port.

The Vilnius agenda may be too crowded to consider the likelihood of such a scenario and the horrific prospect of NATO going to war with China. But that is not quite as preposterous as it sounds.

Dr.  Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at Washington, DC’s Atlantic Council and the prime author of “shock and awe.”  His twelfth  book, The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD:  How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large, is available at Amazon.  He can be reached on Twitter @harlankullman.

Photo Credit: The attached photo belongs to NATO and is used under NATO’s newsroom content policy.