China’s efforts to establish economic and even military influence far beyond its borders are pushing NATO to develop new plays for the Indo-Pacific, the security bloc’s civilian chief says.
“Investing heavily in critical infrastructure in Europe, increased presence in the Arctic, and also increased presence in Africa, and in cyberspace,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday in Australia, ratting off a list of recent Chinese activity.
“So all of this makes it important for NATO to address the rise of China, and we do that not least by working closely with our partners in this region: Australia, New Zealand, but also Japan and South Korea.”
China is outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s traditional area of responsibility, but European allies have a stake in the rivalry between Washington and a rising Beijing, and not just because they depend on American military support. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s multitrillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative stretches from Asia to Africa and Europe, and Chinese strategists have also identified the Arctic and Latin America as areas of strategic importance in that geopolitical competition.
“This is not about moving NATO into the Pacific, but this is about responding to the fact that China is coming closer to us,” Stoltenberg told Reuters Wednesday.
Stoltenberg marked the third day of a trip through the Indo-Pacific region by extending a defense cooperation agreement with Australia. That document builds on previous partnership agreements: Australians, for instance, fight alongside NATO member-state troops in Afghanistan, though the country joined the war in a separate treaty with the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“What we’re doing is saying not only what we have been doing today is important, but, in light of our discussions today and again tomorrow in Canberra, we are looking at new areas to work together in the Indo-Pacific,” Australian defense minister Linda Reynolds said during a joint press conference with the NATO chief.
The details of that expanded partnership remain unclear, but Stoltenberg pointed to cybersecurity and maritime cooperation to fight piracy and protect vital shipping lanes as potential areas of collaboration.
“The agreement we signed today is a framework, and then we fill it with activities and content as we move forward,” Stoltenberg said.
Threats from China have been under discussion since at least April, when the U.S. ambassador to NATO told the Washington Examiner that the transatlantic allies are “looking at the risk” posed by China “buying rights into seaports in Italy as well as in other parts of the world.”
Those worries could drive a major strategic shift inside NATO, a constellation of North American and European powers established to deter attacks by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Russian analysts assess that disagreements between U.S. and European allies will keep NATO “restricted geographically mainly to the areas adjacent to Europe, including the Middle East and North Africa.”
“Although China’s economic growth in recent years has increasingly worried Europe, American regional allies do not cherish comparable tensions with Beijing,” Russian strategists wrote in a report last year. “They are more committed to deriving benefits from cooperation with the rising economic giant than to deter China’s ambitions in a faraway Asia-Pacific.”
But that attitude might be changing as China seeks to claim sovereignty over vital international shipping lanes and establishes outposts around the world, including in the heart of Europe.
“The more unpredictable and challenging the security environment is, the more important is it that we stay together, work together, stand together, and protect a rules-based world order, and that’s the purpose of the partnership between Australia and NATO,” Stoltenberg added Wednesday.