It’s Time for a NATO-China Council

French President Emmanuel Macron, center, Chinese President Xi Jinping and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold a press conference at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris, Tuesday, March 26, 2019.

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French President Emmanuel Macron, center, Chinese President Xi Jinping and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold a press conference at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris, Tuesday, March 26, 2019.

Such a group would help to collectively engage Beijing, which prefers to deal with countries in isolation.

On a recent visit to Australia, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg said that China is a growing concern for NATO not because NATO wants to go to the Pacific but because China is coming to Europe. He is right. The Alliance should establish a “NATO-China Council,” a structural mechanism for dialogue with China to increase transparency and mutual understanding, raise concerns, avoid miscalculations and foster, where possible, cooperation. Here’s why.

The striking growth in Chinese activities in and around Europe over the last two years has propelled the Asian giant to the top of U.S. and European security officials’ agendas. Such activities include Huawei’s efforts to increase its share of European and North American digital infrastructure; predatory economic activity as part of its globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, which includes Europe and its environs; massive cyber espionage and theft of Western intellectual property; increasing activity in Arctic areas, including those adjacent to NATO borders; joint exercises with the Russian military, not just in the Pacific and Central Asia but also in the Nordic-Baltic region; increasing ownership of major European seaports (e.g., Trieste) and investment in maritime facilities critical to NATO and the U.S. Navy (e.g., Naples); and much more.

For these and other reasons, the European Commission named China a “systemic rival” in an important policy document earlier this year. In short, Europe and the United States have woken up to the growing, global, multi-dimensional Chinese political, economic, technological, and security challenge. Now they are working together to find the best way to manage it.

NATO needs to do its part to dissuade Beijing from undermining the security of Europe and North America and to shape a more cooperative and constructive relationship between China and the West. Seventeen years ago, the alliance established a NATO-Russia Council for similar purposes. It’s time to propose a NATO-China Council. The advantages would be many. 

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First, a Council would recognize and respond to the growing reality of Chinese influence and reach into and around Europe and beyond, and to the implications of these actions for Euro-Atlantic security interests, including the sustainment of a global rules-based international order.

The Council would spur the alliance to more seriously address China’s growing threats to NATO interests in Europe, in the Arctic, and, yes, in the Asia-Pacific. The most effective strategy by the West to engage China and to counter Chinese aggression will involve transatlantic collaboration, not just in the political and economic realms but also in the military domain. There is no better institution to promote the latter than NATO.

Further, the Council also would let China know that its actions risk the ire of the West as a whole. While Beijing prefers to deal with other countries one at a time, the NATO-China Council would align all 29 alliance members in a dialogue with China. It would make clear to China that the growing “great-power competition” is not a contest between the United States and China, but one that involves the U.S. and its NATO allies all aligned together, bound by common values, interests, and history.

The new council also would reinforce NATO’s deterrence of Russian coercion by making clear to Moscow that China’s growing global power will marginalize Russian interests and relevance.

A NATO-China Council need not be driven solely by a confrontational relationship between the Euro-Atlantic community and Beijing. It can be a step a toward a deeper and more cooperative relationship, just as the NATO-Ukraine and NATO-Georgia Commissions have fostered closer partnerships.

When NATO makes this proposal, China will initially demur. But over time, Beijing will increase its engagement, realizing that having open communications with the world’s most powerful military alliance will be an important means for avoiding conflict and crisis in the decades to come.

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