By Justine Kante
We now live in a world where strategic competition has become a buzzword when explaining China’s actions worldwide. China elicits challenges where it hurts the most, starting from strategic infrastructure through its Belt and Road Initiative, ending with assaults on Western values, such as human rights, rule of law, and diplomatic dignity. NATO has indicated that such actions can destabilise the rules-based international order. The world is no longer unipolar; the United States and China are fighting over this transition of power through all possible areas. Therefore, NATO allies must act accordingly. It is important to remember that Article 5 indicates that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on the whole Euro-Atlantic bloc. However, what happens when someone attacks our allies on the other side of the world, for example, in the Indo-Pacific region?
For a long time, the main challenge to the NATO bloc has been the influence of and threats from Russia, namely attempts to preserve its neighbourhood or even enlarge it. Today, Moscow has forged a friendship with a much bigger force that could, if united, deter the United States and, consequently, NATO: Beijing. The year 2021 marked the 20th year of the Friendship and Cooperation Treaty, which was extended to represent Russia’s and China’s long-lasting bond.[i] Both parties present their long-lasting friendship as a symbol of stability and a constant in the ever-evolving international arena,[ii] insinuating that the West and its international model has not created stability and clarity when it comes to long-term decisions. Accordingly, they emphasize that democratic leadership, with four-year long presidential terms in the U.S. case, is not as successful as authoritarianism in terms of political stability. To mark the continuation of their friendship, Beijing and Moscow have recently undergone joint military trainings (described further in the article), making the West more and more cautious of what such cooperation actually means.
In addition to its bonds with Russia, China’s growing influence internationally could lead to problematic situations within NATO borders such as threats to intelligence services, no common stance on China-related issues, additional military threats related to Russia, and other security challenges. It is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the United States and its NATO allies are both guarding the high seas in the Euro-Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific. China could, for example, expand its naval presence near the Baltic Sea in order to guard the seas of its ally Russia, posing a threat to NATO member states. As more U.S. forces have been sent to the Indo-Pacific, China could attempt to challenge the United States near the Taiwan Strait, which could lead to U.S. military overreach. Consequently, this overreach could be used by other aggressors such as Moscow to expand their influence or military might within NATO borders.
As the Indo-Pacific region is becoming more and more predominant, the United States has directed its foreign policy towards a pivot to Asia. However, U.S. efforts to guard the high seas and ensure security within the region and the world could also lead to greater burden-sharing among other NATO member states in order not to overstretch U.S. military power. To cite F. Heisbourg, “Europe is a stress-taker rather than a stress-maker,”[iii] meaning that, in case of escalation in Asia, Europe will need to increase its military budget in order to confront the challenges near its borders. Moreover, due to changes in the U.S. military focus to Asia and the possibilities that an escalation could occur in the Asia-Pacific region, Russia could decide to challenge the Baltic states and, therefore, endanger NATO member states because of the U.S. change in orientation[iv]–although a total shift away from the Euro-Atlantic region seems far-fetched due to previously made U.S. commitments.
As mentioned above, China has recently carried out military exercises together with Russia, in which both parties used Chinese weaponry for the first time.[v] This has signalled their strong bond of friendship to the West—namely increased military cooperation. It is important to note that the drills happened simultaneously with the U.S. and NATO’s withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan—20 years after the first and only time that Article 5 was ever evoked. However, the China-Russia drills were not a surprise if one is taking into account the drills that Western powers carried out near China by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the QUAD), with the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India, plus France participating in early 2021.[vi] These drills, firstly, indicate that the security of the region is becoming more vital, as the last QUAD drills in the region took place 13 years ago. Secondly, the involvement of all of these powers indicates that the issue most probably will not remain regional. Therefore, there is a possibility that we could see a future collaboration between the members of the QUAD and NATO member states when it comes to military trainings.
It is essential to understand that the United States is not alone in the Indo-Pacific; several NATO members are also present in the region. During the first half of 2021, several NATO members entered the disputed waters, such as the German navy, or decided to participate in military trainings, such as France or Great Britain, to show their commitment to both the United States and the values that they hold: free navigation, human rights, and commitment to the rules-based order. Although military build-up has occurred in one of the most disputed waters, the South China and the East China Sea, the Taiwan question seems to have the most implications for the future of Indo-Pacific security and NATO’s role in the region.
During the first half of 2021, a bill in the US Congress was introduced aiming to include Taiwan in the ‘NATO plus’ framework, which while not including direct security commitments could provide security cooperation as well as certain privileges to Taiwan.[vii] As the U.S. policy regarding Taiwan has become less ambiguous in regard to what may occur if there is an attack from China, Washington might help Taipei to hold up its democratic state. In case of an attack, China might decide to eliminate U.S. bases within the region with the aim to eliminate U.S. military aid to Taiwan.[viii] Therefore, the Taiwan question has the potential to bring about questions surrounding Article 5. The question here then follows: would such an attack on the United States evoke Article 5? Hypothetically, the case could reach new frontiers for Article 5, and therefore, there should be guidelines in place in case such an escalation occurs. The issue has not been highly discussed; however, it should be.
Seeing China’s attempts to spread its influence worldwide, one must be cautious of other aspects such as the Belt and Road Initiative. Although Beijing’s aspirations to build 5G networks all over Europe, which would pose a threat to NATO intelligence services, were largely unsuccessful, China’s investments in purchasing strategic infrastructure could be a more serious problem. Currently, China owns approximately 10% of EU ports and has heavily invested in railway projects[ix] that are of a strategic importance for NATO security but thus are not usable for any sensitive transmissions from the NATO side. Such purchases and China’s influence within NATO member states threaten NATO interests as these member states may not be willing to pay the cost of angering China on important decisions and thus may cast a vote against joint consensus.[x] There have been other ways in which China has tried to influence Euro-Atlantic politics, namely its 17+1 format (cooperation between China plus 17 Central and Eastern Europe countries), with a task to divide the EU member states and, consequently, NATO and its members. As of now, it seems that these attempts have failed due to China’s wolf warrior diplomacy, at least in the Baltic States. Recently, Lithuania has put aside its wishes to participate in the 17+1 format as part of its values-based foreign policy,[xi] and it has decided to open a Taiwanese Representative Office that will include the name Taiwan[xii]—not Chinese Taipei or other forms that could be acceptable by Beijing. This has caused a huge backlash from China’s side, indicating the seriousness of the Taiwan issue. China called back its ambassadors from Vilnius and asked Vilnius to withdraw theirs—the first time that China has moved to extract its diplomatic presence from any EU country since the establishment of the EU.[xiii] The steps from Lithuania’s side show courage and alignment with the United States when it comes to Taiwan, bringing the issue closer to more members of the NATO alliance. Additionally, this has not been the first time that China has decided to contain smaller NATO member states through its wolf-warrior diplomacy when it comes to Taiwan. For example, the year 2020 was a year of tension between China and the Czech Republic. As the Czech government made plans to visit Taipei, China indicated that Czech products will not be welcome in China. During the visit, it was emphasized that Prague will pay a high price for its wrongdoing to the Chinese Nation.[xiv] Such situations suggest that China will bully anyone that will not stroke their feathers, especially when it comes defending common democratic (i.e., NATO) values in Taiwan.
It is important to emphasize that China typically responds to NATO member states through enacting traditional strategies of economic coercion such as embargoes, sanctions, or trade wars rather than military might. However, it is important to emphasize that such methods will not trigger Article 5—although cyber-attacks to crucial infrastructure could, as previously mentioned by J. Stoltenberg.[xv] That is one of the reasons why NATO member states were so reluctant to introduce 5G networks through China’s communications, thus minimizing the chance of attack to strategic infrastructure.
To conclude, China poses countless challenges to NATO’s security and its member states. Its friendship with Russia creates security threats due to new balancing opportunities. Although no clear stance on the Taiwan issue has been taken from the NATO side, it seems that the Taiwan issue is closer than ever, impacting geographies even as far as the Baltic states. The shift from Europe to Asia has taken its course, and NATO has to decide on its part in this shift. China’s threat can bring in different waves of change and conflict, and one of them might concern Article 5.
About the Author
Justine Kante is a recent graduate from Riga Stradins University with a master’s in International Relations and Diplomacy with a specialization in the Indo-Pacific region.
[i] Russia, China extend friendship and cooperation treaty-Kremlin, Reuters, 28 June 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/china/russia-china-extend-friendship-coope....
[iii] F. Heisbourg, “NATO 4.0: The Atlantic Alliance and the Rise of China,” Survival 62, no. 2 (2020): 83-102, DOI: 10.1080/00396338.2020.1739950, 92.
[iv] D.C. Gompert, A.S. Cevallos, and C.L. Garafola, “War With China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable,” The RAND Corporation, 2016, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1100/RR114..., 56.
[v] Russia, China hold large-scale joint military drills, Reuters, 10 August 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/russia-china-hold-large-scale-joint-milita....
[vi] R. Pandit, “Eye on China, Quad-plus-France exercise kicks off in Bay of Bengal,” The Times of India, 5 April 2021, indiatimes.com.
[vii] Global Taiwan Institute, “NATO’s Pivot Towards the Quad: Implications for Taiwan,” Ketagalan Media, 10 May 2021, https://ketagalanmedia.com/2021/05/10/natos-pivot-towards-the-quad-impli....
[ix] C. Nietshce, J. Townsend, and A. Kendall-Taylor, “Enlisting NATO to Address the China Challenge,” Center for a New American Security, 5 October 2020, https://www.cnas.org/publications/commentary/enlisting-nato-to-address-t....
[xi] S. Tiezzi, “Lithuania’s Outreach to Taiwan Is Another Blow to China’s Europe Diplomacy,” The Diplomat, 4 March 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/03/lithuanias-outreach-to-taiwan-is-another....
[xii] B. Hioe, “What’s Behind Lithuania’s Outreach to Taiwan?” The Diplomat, 13 August 2021, https://thediplomat.com/2021/08/whats-behind-lithuanias-outreach-to-taiwan/.
[xiv] T.J. Shattuck, “Czech-Book Diplomacy: The Global Implications of a Czech Visit to Taiwan,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, 2 September 2020, https://www.fpri.org/article/2020/09/czech-book-diplomacy-the-global-imp....
[xv] “NATO will defend itself,” NATO, 27 August 2019, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_168435.htm?selectedLocale=en.
This publication was co-sponsored by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.