NATO sets its sights on China
EVEN AS IT grapples with short-term troubles, among them another spat between America and Germany, NATO is starting to plan for the next ten years: how to adapt to the rising power of China? Finding an answer may be vital if the alliance is to retain a sense of purpose in 2030.
The source of the latest turbulence, as so often in recent years, is President Donald Trump. On June 5th the Wall Street Journal reported that Mr Trump had decided to reduce the number of American forces in Germany by 9,500 by September, more than a quarter of the 34,500 currently stationed there. A memorandum said to have been signed by the president’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, would cap the number of American troops who could be in Germany at any time (swelling through exercises or rotations) at 25,000, compared with the present limit of 52,500. Mr Trump has long complained about Germany’s failure to come close to honouring its promise to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence. Some of the troops could be relocated to Poland, which does achieve that target, though whether Poland ends up with more American forces than envisaged under an agreement reached with America last autumn remains unclear.
There is as yet no official confirmation of the move. Some doubt whether it will really happen—on June 9th the Journal reported that 22 Republican members of Congress had written to the White House urging it to reconsider. But the reports have already caused dismay in Germany, not least because “nobody in Washington thought about informing its NATO ally Germany in advance,” as Peter Beyer, who serves as co-ordinator for transatlantic co-operation at the foreign ministry, put it. NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, who spoke with Mr Trump on June 8th, refused to comment, pointing instead to America’s increased military presence in Europe in recent years. “The US presence in Europe is good for Europe, but it’s also good for the United States,” Mr Stoltenberg stressed, noting that America’s operations in Germany, such as the air base at Ramstein and military hospital at Landstuhl, are used to project force beyond Europe, into the Middle East and Africa.
More turbulence currently comes from covid-19. NATO is working on preparedness for a possible second wave of the pandemic. Although the alliance has had to cancel some exercises, Mr Stoltenberg insists that it has maintained operational readiness. NATO’s headquarters, indeed, had updated its plans for a pandemic in December.
Beyond these immediate concerns, NATO is starting to look ahead to its priorities for the longer term. At their London summit last December NATO leaders gave Mr Stoltenberg the task of considering how the alliance should prepare for the next decade. His conclusions will feed into a summit next year. As a start, on June 8th he launched his “reflection on NATO 2030”.
He outlined three ways in which the alliance must adapt. One is to ensure that it stays strong militarily, investing in new technologies. Second, it needs to become more united politically (something that may become easier beyond Mr Trump’s time in office), bringing a broader range of policies together to strengthen NATO’s 30 members. The experience of covid-19, for example, suggests there needs to be a wariness of over-reliance on Chinese supplies, something NATO will no doubt consider as it updates its “baseline requirements” for national resilience, to ensure members have the necessary robustness in telecoms and other infrastructure, as well as the ability to deal with mass casualties. Third, and most strikingly, Mr Stoltenberg envisages the alliance taking a more global approach—in particular, adjusting to China’s rise.
Founded to stand up to the Soviet Union in Europe, NATO has suffered repeated bouts of angst about its relevance. It was increasingly drawn into “out-of-area operations” after the cold war, initially in the Balkans and ultimately as far away as Afghanistan. More recently it has focused again on the threat of a more aggressive Russia. Forming a coherent response to the challenge of China is thus new.
In reality, China has become hard for the alliance to ignore. Mr Stoltenberg sees “China coming closer to us” in all sorts of ways, from the Arctic to Africa, and from cyberspace to 5G networks and other infrastructure investment in Europe, not to mention intensified joint exercises with Russia. China is the world’s second-largest military spender, Mr Stoltenberg points out, and is deploying cruise missiles that can reach the whole of NATO. Just as important, if unstated, is that NATO needs to shape up on China if it is to continue to matter to America, which is ever more concentrated on its great-power challenger and, under Mr Trump, worryingly ambivalent about the alliance.
What might NATO’s stance on China look like in practice? Ian Brzezinski of the Atlantic Council, a think-tank based in Washington, DC, suggests the alliance could establish a NATO-China Council, along the lines of the talking-shop it has with Russia. He urges deeper consultation and more robust military exercises with partners in the Pacific. Mr Brzezinski would also like to see NATO establish one of its “centres of excellence” in the region, and a small military headquarters there to co-ordinate exercises and contribute to regional awareness. (Already, Japan has joined NATO’s cyber centre of excellence, based in Tallinn in Estonia.)
Mr Stoltenberg is not yet ready for such details. He cautions that the new focus on China is “not about moving NATO into the South China Sea”. But he sees closer collaboration with like-minded countries in the region, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. As an early sign of this, Australia’s defence minister will attend the meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels next week—the first participation in a general meeting of this type, unrelated to discussion of a specific mission, such as the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.
It is still early days for NATO’s thinking on the challenge of China’s growing power. But one idea will guide its emerging strategy: that the alliance itself offers a key advantage. Even though China’s GDP may before long outweigh America’s, the alliance has nearly a billion people and half the world’s military and economic might. One of Joe Biden’s main foreign-policy advisers, Tony Blinken, last month stressed the importance of working with other democracies in Asia and Europe. On its own, he said, America is about 25% of the world economy; “when China is engaged in practices that are unfair, and we want them to change, it’s a lot harder for them to ignore 60% of the world’s GDP than it is to ignore a quarter of it.” Mr Trump may be unimpressed by that argument, but his potential successor clearly sets a lot of store by it.■