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Why NATO’s China Focus May Endure

People wearing face masks walk across a crosswalk in the central business district in Beijing, June 24, 2022.
People wearing face masks walk across a crosswalk in the central business district in Beijing, June 24, 2022.

When the top leaders of NATO countries meet next week in Spain, the discussion will be dominated by the Ukraine war and how to deter further Russian aggression in Europe.

But in the latest sign the Western military alliance is trying to expand its focus eastward, the NATO summit will also deal with the challenges posed by China, perhaps in a more direct way than any of its previous meetings.

For the first time, the NATO summit will include the top leaders of four Asian countries: Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. None are NATO members, but each is wary of China’s growing influence and coercion.

Since 2020, NATO has stepped up cooperation with the four Asian democracies, which it refers to as “Asia-Pacific partners."

The engagement underscores a profound shift in the scope and priorities of NATO, which was meant to focus on the collective defense of its North American and European member states.

But China’s growing global presence, as well as its expanding military cooperation with Russia, has made it much harder for NATO to ignore.

While there is no talk of NATO accepting Asian countries as members, the alliance’s new Asia focus will likely endure, according to many observers.

“I do not expect that NATO will now expand into the Indo-Pacific and create a new Asian NATO kind of organization,” said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a former political adviser in the European Parliament.

“I do expect, though, that cooperation with [Asian] countries that face the growing threat of China's economic coercion and aggressive behavior … will converge more and more with European democracies as well as the United States,” said Ferenczy, assistant professor at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan.

Europe sours on China

NATO’s eastward shift reflects not only an intensified U.S.-China rivalry, but also changing European attitudes toward Beijing.

For decades, Europe prioritized stable ties with China, which in 2020 overtook the United States as the European Union’s biggest trading partner.

But European views of China have soured under the leadership of Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping, whose government has become more authoritarian at home and more aggressive abroad.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference after a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, June 16, 2022.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference after a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, June 16, 2022.

Under Xi, China has obliterated democratic opposition in Hong Kong, increased military threats against democratically ruled Taiwan, and been accused of genocide against Uighur Muslims.

Xi has also steadily expanded China’s military presence beyond its shores, most notably in the South China Sea, where it has created military outposts over the objections of its neighbors, which have overlapping territorial claims with China.

As part of its new “wolf warrior” approach to diplomacy, China has made clear it will retaliate against countries that criticize Beijing or enact policies that go against its wishes.

After Lithuania opened a de facto embassy in Taiwan, which Beijing views as its own territory, China downgraded diplomatic ties and imposed what some say amounts to a trade boycott. The unannounced embargo affected not only Lithuanian products, but also other European countries’ goods that incorporated Lithuanian components.

The pandemic has also helped worsen Europe-China relations. China has been accused of not cooperating sufficiently with a World Health Organization investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, which first appeared in central China. Instead, Chinese government-controlled media have suggested the virus originated elsewhere, such as the United States or Italy.

Changing NATO approach

Europe’s growing skepticism of China can also be observed in NATO’s recent history.

In 2019, China was included for the first time in a NATO statement – but only in a single sentence saying Beijing “presents both opportunities and challenges.”

By 2021, NATO’s tone had shifted. A joint communique issued in Brussels said China presents “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.”

The statement also slammed China’s “coercive” policies, “opaque” military modernization, use of “disinformation,” and military exercises with Russia in the Euro-Atlantic area.

A major reason for NATO’s more combative tone is the Ukraine war, which coincided with Beijing and Moscow declaring a “no limits” partnership.

Just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Beijing, where they announced a broad plan to counter Western influence around the world.

Since Russia’s invasion, China has attempted to portray itself as a neutral party. But many European observers are not convinced, noting China has consistently defended Russia from global criticism and instead blamed Washington for engaging in a "Cold War mindset" that provoked Moscow.

Pierre Morcos, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Ukraine conflict has “confirmed the growing strategic rapprochement between China and Russia.”

“The war in Ukraine has also demonstrated that the Euro-Atlantic area and the Indo-Pacific region are deeply inter-connected. A crisis in a region can have deep impacts on the other one,” he said.

That explains why like-minded Asian countries are eager to play an active role in supporting Ukraine and pushing back against Russia, Morcos said.

“I think that we will see growing coordination and consultations between NATO and these countries in the future notably to discuss the aftershocks of the war in Ukraine but also exchange about China’s capacities and activities,” he added.

Speaking at a forum earlier this week, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg insisted the alliance does not regard China as an adversary. However, he suggested the coming summit would result in a statement acknowledging “China poses some challenges to our values, to our interests, [and] to our security.”

China has responded angrily to NATO’s eastward focus. At a Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry briefing Thursday, spokesperson Wang Wenbin accused NATO of engaging in a “highly dangerous” effort to create hostile blocs in Asia.

“NATO has already disrupted stability in Europe,” he said. “It should not try to do the same to the Asia-Pacific and the whole world.”