For many years, it has been buffeted by questions of identity and role in the post-Cold War era and vacillations between expansion, partnerships, and building new missions such as counterterrorism and counter-extremism. Now, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is once again at the center of world affairs in the Ukraine crisis. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s recent Asia trip to South Korea and Japan raises important questions about the alliance’s role and its potential strategic expansion in Asia.
The Asia trip does not come as a surprise to observers, since NATO’s new strategy, the so-called Strategic Concept, released at the 2022 Madrid Summit, describes China as a security challenge for the first time.
It is a clear expression of the evolution in the conflict between the US-led allies on one side and China and Russia on the other. The strategy paper describes China as a “systemic challenge” to Euro-Atlantic security, representing a significant paradigm shift in the alliance’s perception of China, which in the past was not perceived as a threat.
Although NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg interpreted NATO’s vision as a challenge rather than an adversary or enemy, he described China through the prism of US domination of the alliance, with European partners echoing this vision, especially after the Ukraine crisis, which demonstrated Europe’s weak ability to counter threats on its own.
During his recent visit to Japan, NATO was put in a new quandary by its Secretary General when Stoltenberg accused it of trying to control the South China Sea, not one of NATO’s interests. China’s growing tilt and cooperation with Russia pose a threat not only to Asia but also to Europe, and greater cooperation with friends in the Indo-Pacific region should be sought, the Atlantic official said. These statements clearly imply NATO’s entry into the Asian security equation.
When NATO explains the Chinese challenge, it no longer talks about cyberattacks, fifth-generation technologies, economic interests and values, and so on. Instead, it talks about Chinese nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, and accuses Beijing of using military force against neighboring countries and threatening Taiwan.
For its part, China reacted rather calmly to the NATO secretary-general’s remarks. Beijing urged the alliance to “not make noise” about the Chinese “threat” and said the Asia-Pacific region is not a venue for geopolitical rivalries. The Cold War mentality is not welcome in the region, China warned, advising NATO to reflect on what role it should play in ensuring security in Europe. To be sure, NATO’s relations with East Asian countries are not new, but there are already strategic partnerships for the alliance in the Asia-Pacific region, in Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
What is also certain is that China has entered the Alliance’s circle of interest since 2019, then in subsequent NATO declarations in 2021 and 2022, and finally in the latest strategy paper, a working methodology for the Alliance for the next ten years.
Stoltenberg’s recent visit to Japan also reflected NATO’s interests today. At a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, he said China is closely watching Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine and drawing lessons from it. Now is the crucial time for Asia-Europe relations, he added, pointing out that Russia and China are making an “authoritarian pushback” against the rules-based international order and the war in Ukraine is not just a European crisis but a challenge to the world order. These remarks reflect Atlantic concerns that Russia will emerge victorious from the war in Ukraine and that this would lead to a similar Chinese attempt to retake Taiwan.
NATO has also begun to look with interest and concern at the North Korean threat. All in all, this means being at the forefront of threats and helping to shape a new world based on values, not ideologies. It means dividing the world into a free world led by the United States, as opposed to what the West sees as authoritarian states that do not share common values. A vision in which NATO joins forces with its East Asian allies, such as Japan and South Korea, worries other Asian powers, especially China, which see NATO’s advances as nothing more than an expansion or strategic extension of the alliance’s reach into Northeast Asia.
Beijing believes that this ratchets up the complexity of the security situation in the region. The alliance’s biggest concern, therefore, is China’s relations with Russia. NATO is reckoning with the possibility of Russia achieving its goals in the Ukraine war and China taking a similar military step to retake Taiwan, and the potential to form a multipolar alliance with China that reshapes the existing world order according to the outcome of that war.
NATO’s engagement with China will now depend on the end of the Ukraine crisis. Its response to the Chinese challenge will determine that end. It could be limited to the trade and economic framework, cyber defense strategies, and information warfare, unless the United States decides to hasten the pace of confrontation with China.
Salem AlKetbiis a UAE political analyst.