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Why China is mad at NATO right now

The North Atlantic alliance now has the Pacific on its radar. China’s not happy about that.

Grid spoke with two experts — Mirna Galic, senior policy analyst for China and East Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Leah Scheunemann, a former Pentagon official who is now deputy director of the Transatlantic Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council — to discuss what we should make of NATO’s new China focus, how Beijing is likely to respond and what an alliance with “Atlantic” in its name is doing talking about the Asia Pacific at all.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Leah Scheunemann: It is not a surprise for those of us who have been watching NATO’s evolution toward China for the last several years, especially under the Trump administration. There was a lot of focus from Washington on getting them to focus more on the threat of China.

But the language on China is striking. It’s literally a list of all the ways the PRC [People’s Republic of China] is challenging the interests and security and values of NATO. I think it’s stronger language, or at least more explicit language, than we would have expected even two years ago. But the cyberattacks emanating from China, sponsored by the PRC, have been a persistent problem in Europe for years. So has Chinese investment in critical infrastructure and the supply chain — issues that the pandemic exacerbated. I think it’s really important that Europe has woken up to this threat, even if it’s not putting it at the same primacy that the United States is right now

Mirna Galic: If you look at that document, China is in there, for sure, and that’s a big deal for those of us who have been following NATO’s shift in this direction. But what this document is is a reflection of changes in the geopolitical environment since 2010 that NATO faces. So there are a lot of new things in there in addition to just China. For example, North Korea is mentioned in the context of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] threats. That’s a first. And so is Iran. Neither of those were in the 2010 Strategic Concept. Climate change is mentioned 10 times in the document, and it was only referenced once in the 2010 document.

So this is reflecting a lot of the changes to the geopolitical environment that NATO is facing. And one of those changes is a more assertive and more militarily capable China that has expanded its nuclear arsenal and has recently flexed its muscles against European allies, in addition to the challenges that it has posed in the region, and a China whose relationship with Russia has grown more prominent. So it would be very strange for NATO not to consider this development when looking at the strategic environment it faces in the next 10 years.

These partners sit in this region, and they have a very unique and informed perspective of what is happening in the region. They’ve been neighbors with China for a very long time, they’ve dealt with trying to balance economic and security priorities and imperatives with China, so they have a lot to share with NATO in terms of Europe’s ability to learn lessons from them.

I am in the camp that sees alignment between China and Russia as an alignment of convenience. They have some strategic interests that are the same in terms of undermining the rules-based international order and not being held accountable for breaches of sovereignty.

But I don’t think that the Chinese, when looking to play the long game, are expecting Russia to be a power player in the decades to come.

So, I don’t think that strategically Europe is going to be able to focus on the Taiwan situation, but there are obvious parallels between aggressive authoritarian regimes using military power to subvert a sovereign neighbor who is trying to be closer to the West.

It’s important to make sure these lessons are implemented, and so I do worry that with the Russian war against Ukraine, and attention shifting to collective defense and territorial defense, which is really important, that some of those lessons might not be learned in the correct way. So in the future, if NATO is proposing larger-scale out-of-area operations like Afghanistan, I do worry that there are not enough lessons being learned.

But there’s also an element of interconnectedness here. What the Ukraine War has shown us more than anything else, it’s that what’s happening in Europe can affect the security of the Indo-Pacific region and vice versa. China’s reaction to Russia, or lack of reaction, China’s continued support for Russia — that’s had an impact.

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