Don't Make NATO into an Instrument of Containing China | Opinion

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the rise of China makes the transatlantic military alliance even more relevant to the United States. "It's good to have friends," he said––the more the merrier. But transforming NATO into an instrument of containing China is a quick way for the United States to turn its European allies into a liability.

The NATO chief's recent statements are only the latest in his two-pronged campaign to bring the transatlantic military alliance on the same page on the question of China. In one respect, he is attempting to convince Washington its NATO allies can still be an asset to the United States far away from the European continent. Simultaneously, Stoltenberg has the unenviable task of convincing all 27 European Union NATO members, with divergent geopolitical environments and security priorities, that they should view China as a "systemic challenge."

Europeans have come a long way in adopting a more confrontational stance against China in step with the United States, stopping short of labeling China an "adversary" at the NATO Summit in June. France, the United Kingdom and Germany have all sent warships to the South China Sea this year, effectively contesting China's territorial claim to the world's busiest waterway without explicitly challenging it. As the United States increasingly sees its biggest security challenge in China, European allies seem to be taking note and aligning themselves even more closely with the United States.

However, this growing European willingness to confront China on its doorstep rather than from the seat of the European Parliament in Brussels has less to do with a perceived military threat China poses to Europe and more with the concern about losing the United States' security guarantee.

To be sure, China poses a set of challenges to European countries, including its unfair trade practices and acquisitions of vital infrastructure in Europe from telecommunications to national ports. But unlike the threat of conventional conflict with Russia or even the Kremlin's weaponization of natural gas for political blackmail, China poses no direct security threats to the continent, military or otherwise. Russia's proximity to NATO countries, coupled with its record of coercing weaker neighbors, have prodded military spending increases in NATO in much the same way that Chinese aggression has provoked balancing behavior among regional powers such as Japan and South Korea.

Despite Stoltenberg's claims that "China is coming closer to us" and the two isolated incidents of the Chinese navy wading into the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas in 2015 and 2017, respectively, China does not have designs for continental Europe nor the power projection capabilities to enforce them. Accordingly, neither European leaders nor the public think that China is a critical issue for the transatlantic alliance.

A NATO flag is pictured
A NATO flag is pictured. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

On the other hand, how the United States reacts to the rise of China has unambiguous security consequences for the European continent. All the evidence from the last three administrations in Washington has European leaders worried––correctly––about the future of the United States' commitment to their defense. The "pivot to Asia" first announced under the Obama administration was perhaps the only point of continuity in transatlantic relations during the bumptious years of the Trump administration. Former President Donald Trump even went so far as to threaten suspending intelligence cooperation with United Kingdom over the presence of Chinese telecoms equipment in the country's 5G network and to formally announce the redeployment of 10,000 troops from Germany to the Indo-Pacific to contain China.

President Joe Biden remains laser focused on China, proclaiming at the high-level Munich security conference that the geopolitical competition in the Pacific will be "among the most consequential efforts" that the United States and its European allies will jointly undertake. Even after cutting France out of its submarine deal with Australia and thus undermining a key pillar of the French position in the Indo-Pacific, President Biden met with French President Emmanuel Macron in Rome and in a statement congratulated France on upholding the "rules-based international order" with its growing naval presence in the region.

As the European commitment to containing China is not driven by hard security interests—other than keeping the United States anchored in Europe—it is unlikely to change China's calculus, let alone the outcome of a kinetic confrontation over Taiwan. But it can still do real damage to the transatlantic alliance.

Rotating a few frigates through the Indo-Pacific is a low-cost, token contribution that Europeans can make to propitiate the United States while postponing the necessary sacrifices to provide more fully for their own defense.

Whether it remains committed to a position of global military supremacy or not, some form of security competition with China is bound to dominate the United States' agenda in the foreseeable future. Instead of passively waiting for a crisis in the Pacific to draw in the United States and leave Europe defenseless against an act of opportunistic aggression from its Russian neighbor, NATO should move toward a geopolitical division of labor where the European powers develop autonomous military capabilities. Of course, Europeans have themselves to blame for courting the United States' security guarantee instead of making difficult adjustments to the changing security architecture. The United States should be careful not to lull its European allies into taking symbolic action against China while mistakenly trusting that Washington will always be there to deliver them from danger.

Jan Gerber is a research associate at Defense Priorities.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.