NATO’s China Problem: “Out-of-area” or “Not in My Area”?

NATO’s China Problem

NATO’s China Problem: “Out-of-area” or “Not in My Area”?

By Ricardo Borges de Castro and Iana Maisuradze

China is moving closer to the Euro-Atlantic region in many ways, and NATO needs to respond to this movement. The Alliance is set to adopt a new Strategic Concept at the 2022 Madrid Summit. This is an opportunity to present a clear vision of how to deal with China, consider the long-term threats that NATO might face and rethink the “out-of-area” concept. At the same time, the Alliance should be aware of the consequences that this reframing may have for its core mission of collective defence, especially at a time when Russia is challenging the basic tenets of Europe’s security landscape.


Dealing with China: “out-of-area” …

Traditional relationships and alliances are bound to be affected as the US consolidates its “pivot to Asia”. Indeed, Washington’s strategic realignment towards China – the country it perceives to be the US’s chief national security threat – is pushing NATO to include the Asian nation in its long-term strategic calculations. But forging a common allied approach to Beijing is far from straightforward.

China is not a classic fit for NATO’s “out-of-area” concept, which deals mostly with crisis management, and the country is also not seen as a direct military threat to the Alliance. Yet China’s projection of its growing and multifaceted power makes dealing with the Asian country different from previous non-Article 5 NATO operations, because of the nature, breadth and ambitions of this power projection and the combination of the conventional and unconventional threats it presents, including hybrid tactics.

Dealing with China therefore presents a new problem for NATO. However, the 2010 Lisbon Strategic Concept, “Active Engagement, Modern Defence”, while still valid in its overall core tasks of collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security, does not include the new threats and challenges that NATO has faced over the last decade.

Hybrid threats, climate change risks and cyber security, which are today predominant threats to the transatlantic Alliance, do not form part of the current Strategic Concept, while China is also not mentioned in it. In 2010 the assumption that Beijing would become more open and liberalise was still prevalent in the West. The Madrid Summit will need to address these issues.


… or “not in my area”

China is not in the North Atlantic area, and Article 6 of the Washington Treaty does not include its territory within NATO’s geographic responsibilities. However, China is projecting its economic power and political influence into South-eastern, Central and Eastern Europe through the Belt and Road initiative and arrangements such as the 16+1 Summit. Beijing’s high-stakes interests in numerous other ports in and around Europe and in the Euro-Atlantic area give it further influence on and access to maritime information. What is more, China holds joint military exercises with Russia, has deepened ties with Moscow through a friendship and cooperation treaty, and is not shy to impose economic costs on EU/NATO members such as Lithuania when it feels that Chinese interests are at stake.

Over the years, China has also boosted its ability to project military power abroad. Its defence expenditure has been growing steadily since the early 1990s and it now ranks second in total defence spending, although it is still far behind that of the US. China currently has the world’s largest navy and is using its Military-Civil Fusion (MCF) strategy to gain a technological and innovation edge in developing its armed forces. According to NATO, the country has expanded its “stockpile of missiles, some of which have the range to reach NATO countries”. Recent reports also indicate that China may be aiming to establish its first military base on the Atlantic coast in Equatorial Guinea. In the Arctic, China wants to become a “polar great power” together with some Arctic sovereign states that are NATO members.

Therefore, China may be “out-of-area”, but in many ways it is already acting within the European area and gradually extending its presence and influence into the Euro-Atlantic region. 

The current NATO approach is more about keeping China out of the NATO area and preparing for potential risks and threats that Beijing may pose to Euro-Atlantic security in the future. As the recent NATO 2030: United for a New Era report anticipates, “Chinese power projection will be global and will include the Euro-Atlantic area”. The message seems to be clear: China is coming, and NATO allies need to prepare for its growing presence by adopting a more “global approach”.

But while the rise of China may pose a challenge to NATO, addressing it may undermine the cohesion of the transatlantic Alliance.


In search of common ground

The year 2021 has been one of ups and downs for the transatlantic relationship. June 2021 was packed with meetings – ranging from the G7 and NATO Summit to the EU-US Summit – showing that allies on either side of the Atlantic were ready to re-engage. The meetings were reassuring in their joint commitment to common agendas to address shared challenges – from pandemic recovery to trade and high tech.

Yet there was a key sticking point: NATO allies were not able to agree on how to deal with China. French president Emmanuel Macron was quite vocal in stating that “China has little to do with the North Atlantic”. In the end there was a form of compromise, with the NATO Summit final communiqué making reference to Beijing’s “systemic challenges” to the global liberal order while simultaneously vowing to cooperate with China on issues of common concern such as climate change.

Irrespective of what Europeans want, the US will continue its strategic realignment to Asia, and expects the EU to increase economic and diplomatic pressure on Beijing. After the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan – which put the transatlantic allies at odds once again – Washington pressed ahead with establishing alliances to counter the Chinese threat.

The AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom and United States) defence pact is a case in point, even more so because it excluded the European country that would be a significant asset in such an arrangement: France. This exclusion was surprising because, instead of making the case to unite in face of a threat coming from Beijing, it further split allies.

Achieving allied unanimity on China will not be easy. However, if NATO’s new Strategic Concept is to be credible in addressing the long-term challenges that Beijing may pose whether in or out of the NATO area, the Alliance needs to at least find some common ground on shared threats originating from China’s rise and power projection.

NATO’s handling of China will also be more effective if it joins forces with other partners and defines a system for the division of labour on how to deal with the Asian giant, depending on the type of potential threats it poses. In this context, the forthcoming EU-NATO Joint Declaration is an opportunity for both organisations to launch a comprehensive dialogue on China and find common ground in their dealings with Beijing. This joint statement should also be thought of in the context of the EU Strategic Compass for security and defence policy, which is set to be approved in the spring of 2022, and NATO’s new Strategic Concept.


Towards a new Strategic Concept 

The new NATO Strategic Concept should show political will and lay out a futureproof vision of the security challenges ahead – ranging from climate change to China. Yet, adapting to a new international context should not come at the expense of the chief threat the Alliance faces: Russia. Any minor signal that NATO is being distracted by more distant threats may tempt Russia to further assert itself in the Eastern European neighbourhood.

Russia’s current military build-up near Ukraine’s borders and the open threat to invade that country and  Moscow’s  demands to re-write Europe’s security architecture,   including the exclusion of  Ukraine and Georgia from future membership of the transatlantic Alliance constitute a stark reminder that NATO’s original mission remains valid. Although NATO’s Article 5 cannot be invoked in the event of Russia reinvading Ukraine, the instability and insecurity that such a development would have on the Alliance’s doorstep should not be underestimated.

The real challenge for NATO and the new Strategic Concept will be to continue to respond to the more immediate and present threats and simultaneously prepare for whatever the future may bring, even if not all the allies share the same vision of that future.



Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.

Ricardo Borges de Castro is an Associate Fellow at GCSP and Associate Director at European Policy Centre

Iana Maisuradze is Programme Assistant at the European Policy Centre and MA candidate in Transatlantic Affairs at the College of Europe in Bruges and the Fletcher School at Tufts University