Illustration: Craig Stephens
Patrizia Cogo Morales
Patrizia Cogo Morales

How Nato’s stance on China has changed, and why it matters

  • Throughout Nato’s history, China has been both adversary and ally, but never before has it been so high up on the organisation’s agenda
  • While the alliance’s focus remains on Europe, China’s relationship with Russia means that security in the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic are now far more closely intertwined

Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and growing global economic, social and geopolitical uncertainty, one particular item on Nato’s agenda has gained importance: how to respond to the security challenges posed by China.

In the Madrid Strategic Concept, Nato allies went further than previously in characterising China as a security threat and for the first time agreed on a common strategy to deal with it.
Founded within a particular political context, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created with the purpose of addressing direct military threats to Europe. China had remained out of the organisation’s mission but that didn’t mean it was not previously on its radar.

From a historical perspective, China has been viewed as an adversary, an ally and something in-between, depending on developments during the Cold War and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Times have changed. In the 1950s, China was described as a “junior partner in an axis” within the Soviet Bloc and, in the 1970s, as potentially “one of the most important Nato allies”. Now, Nato’s understanding of China has shifted significantly in its latest strategic concept, which provides a road map for the alliance for the coming decade.

This deviation was first signalled in the 2019 London Declaration, where China was described as a power that represented “both opportunities and challenges”. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg followed up the discussion by asking an expert group to prepare ideas on the alliance’s future priorities and concerns.

Last year, at the Nato Summit in Brussels, it was acknowledged that China presented “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security”.

However, the 2021 communique remained vague on the question of how Nato should respond. This question was given an answer at the Madrid summit, with a balanced though assertive approach to China in the alliance’s strategy.

Participants in the 2022 Nato summit pose for a group photo in Madrid on June 29. Photo: Xinhua

The strategic concept outlines three elements that are key for Nato-China relations. First, it identifies Russia as “the most significant and direct threat to allies’ security”, affirming that the priority for Nato is responding to the threat to collective security posed by Russia.

This implies that China does not represent the same kind of threat, certainly not in a traditional military sense. Indeed, Nato remains “open to constructive engagement” with Beijing. But it also highlights the challenges Beijing poses to Euro-Atlantic security.

In particular, the alliance looks at China through the lens of its “deepening strategic partnership” with Russia and their “mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order”.


‘We will not stand by’: Nato heads of state meet to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

‘We will not stand by’: Nato heads of state meet to address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Second, the strategic concept stresses that the European Union is an “essential partner” and calls for the strengthening of EU-Nato cooperation on issues of common interest, including the challenges posed by China.

This resonates with the EU’s Strategic Compass, the group’s version of a national defence strategy, which also emphasises the unity between the two organisations on European and global security.

Nato has embraced the multifaceted reality that Beijing represents and, in its own manner, the strategic concept emulates the 2019 EU-China Strategic Outlook. Among the myriad challenges posed by China, its technological capabilities and economic prowess are two of the most pressing on Nato’s agenda.

It is precisely in these fields where the EU’s know-how could make a difference in addressing Beijing’s cyber operations, investments in critical infrastructure, and disinformation campaigns. After all, Nato is a military alliance and the EU is better equipped to manage non-traditional military threats vis-à-vis China.

Third, the strategy acknowledges that developments in the Indo-Pacific can directly affect Euro-Atlantic security and therefore Nato will “strengthen dialogue and cooperation with new and existing partners” in the region “to tackle cross-regional challenges”.

The main threat derives from Russia but Nato is looking at security from a global viewpoint. This implies that exogenous factors are likely to have a growing impact in the Euro-Atlantic region and that Nato will have to adapt to unfamiliar dynamics.

The increasingly intertwined nature of security in both the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions is best exemplified by the unprecedented attendance of Nato’s Indo-Pacific partners, namely Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand, at the Madrid summit.
US President Joe Biden (centre), flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken (centre left) and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, sits with South Korea’s President Yoon Suk-yeol (left) and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (right) during a meeting on the sidelines of the Madrid Nato summit, on June 29. Photo: AFP

The transatlantic community gathered in Madrid to set the course for Nato’s future. The strategic concept was influenced by the reality in which we find ourselves regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

How the situation develops will greatly affect the future of the international rules-based order, and will also have repercussions for the Indo-Pacific region, whose actors are watching attentively. Regional stability is not a given when it comes to the South China Sea and East China Sea maritime disputes, and less so for the status quo that, at least for now, is maintained in the Taiwan Strait.

China is, for the first time, featured in Nato’s strategic concept. Certainly, Nato has been cautious by choosing to not raise China to Russia’s level on its threat assessment.

Nato’s sabre rattling over China will only increase tensions

Nevertheless, one of the key long-term issues on its “watch list” is going to be the Beijing-Moscow axis, as it represents a threat to Nato’s values and interests. These circumstances underscore the role of the organisation’s Indo-Pacific partners despite the prioritisation of collective defence for Europe.

The global balance of power is shifting to the Indo-Pacific, and the Euro-Atlantic is working to catch up with it. Where the two sides meet is yet to be seen, but China might give us some clues. In the meantime, the Madrid Strategic Concept is the reference for understanding the alliance’s adjustment to an era of great power competition.

Patrizia Cogo is a communications officer and research assistant at the EsadeGeo Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics, Barcelona, Spain