For an alliance that has 'North Atlantic' in its name, you'd think a strategy paper that fingers China about as often as it does a trouble-making Russia was confused about geography. NATO 2030: United for a New Era is the alliance's latest strategy paper. Written by advisors to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, the forward-looking paper's focus includes the alliance's normal political and military rival Russia but also has a surprisingly strong focus on China. By my count, and on the frequency of mentions alone, Russia barely wins the gold, with 96 mentions to China's 91. Terrorism - a tactic and the amorphous enemy of the past two decades - receives about half that attention. Afghanistan, where NATO still has troops in combat roles, receives scant mention. NATO's best guess on where its future focus should be is decidedly east of Brussels.
A few years back, a Chinese People's Liberation Army officer attending an academic conference on the changing character of warfare in Europe told me they were concerned about NATO becoming a part of an anti-China alliance. I dismissed the concern at the time, but NATO 2030 makes almost that same argument, urging NATO security collaboration with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (India, U.S., Australia, Japan) and also advocating to pursue a NATO-India partnership since India is '…a country that shares fundamental interests and values with the Alliance.' For China, a nation that has spent the past three years getting into high-altitude, low-tech, and sometimes fatal brawls with their Indian neighbors over Doklam Plateau and parts of Ladakh, it seems like the PLA officer's concerns were well-founded if not prescient.
But if you think NATO's brain trust is in search of a new mission-defining nemesis, you'd be wrong. If drafted a year ago, the strategy document might have been written very differently if not for Chinese political missteps and bullying. In the past few years- but particularly in the wake of the Coronavirus, Chinese economic and diplomatic coercion have proved what kind of bully might lurk behind China's so-called peaceful rise; hostage diplomacy in response to Canadian due process, diplomatic threats to U.K. plans to extend citizenship to Hong Kongers, and a combination of economic and political threats to Czech politicians for visiting Taiwan. In response to the Taipei-bound Czech delegation, Wang Yi, China's Foreign Minister, said the Chinese government 'will definitely make them pay a heavy price,' In Wang Yi's defense, he might not have been taught about the 1968 Prague Spring, or how the Czechs might interpret threats from Communist Party members, or about irony. And sure, some of this is just Beijing's petulance, without genuine security ramifications, but NATO's nations one-after-another have felt the intimidation and thin-skin behind Beijing's foreign policy organs. Most China issues NATO 2030 addresses seem to be problems manufactured by the Chinese leadership.
China certainly does not rise to the level of concern that Russia evokes, a nation that has invaded two non-NATO European nations in the last twelve years, but there is a growing awareness of how much leverage China can wield over individual NATO members. As a concession to an uncertain future, what the 2030 strategy document does not address, is how much of NATO's focus will be against China's military, economic, or political assets. But, whether its China's specious claims to be a stakeholder of territory in NATO's domain; the High North, the Arctic and its maritime approaches(China is definitely not an Arctic State), or routine Chinese cyber intrusions that have reportedly hit European hospitals and the Vatican, China's military to include its cyber forces are concerns on the horizon. And NATO has taken note.
Sale Lilly is a Senior Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation and former U.S. Naval Officer. He served in NATO maritime and ground roles from 2008-2012. His views do not represent that of RAND or the U.S. Government. You can follow him on twitter at @salelilly