NATO’s First Determination that China Poses a “Systemic Challenge” Substantive Action Remains to be Seen

China poses a “systemic challenge” to the rules-based international order and areas related to NATO, the 30-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization said in a joint communiqué issued at the end of its summit on Monday (June 14). The military alliance also said it seeks to engage in constructive dialogue with Beijing in possible areas. Some analysts see this as a sign that NATO is willing to take a tougher stance on China, but it remains to be seen to what extent consensus can be reached on actions.

In a joint communiqué issued Monday, NATO said, “China’s clearly articulated ambitions and assertive behavior pose a systemic challenge to the rules-based international order and to areas related to the alliance’s security.”

This is the first time the NATO alliance, which was established in 1949 in response to the Soviet bloc threat, has publicly considered China a “systemic challenge” in its joint communiqué. In its 2019 joint communiqué, NATO mentioned only that China’s growing influence and international policies “present opportunities and challenges.”

Monday’s joint communiqué contains 79 paragraphs, in which the word “China” appears 10 times. In the joint statement, the 30 NATO members expressed concern about China’s coercive policies, military expansion, military cooperation with Russia and disinformation operations. They said, “We are concerned about coercive policies that run counter to the fundamental values of the Washington Convention. China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal, developing more nuclear warheads and a large number of advanced launch systems to create a nuclear trinity. China lacks transparency in implementing its military modernization and publicly stated civil-military integration strategy. China also engages in military cooperation with Russia, including participation in Russian military exercises in the Euro-Atlantic region. We remain concerned about China’s lack of transparency and use of disinformation.”

NATO allies urged China to abide by its international commitments and act responsibly in the international system, “including in the space, cyber and maritime domains.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a press conference after the summit that China’s growing military presence from the Balkans to Africa means that NATO must be prepared to respond. China is approaching us,” he said. We’re seeing them in cyberspace, we’re seeing them in Africa. We also see China investing heavily in our own critical infrastructure.”

The Chinese mission to the EU issued a statement Monday evening in response to the NATO communiqué, calling it a continuation of NATO’s Cold War mentality and bloc politics at work. The statement said China has consistently pursued a defensive national defense policy and that its promotion of military modernization is legitimate, reasonable and openly transparent. China also said, “We will always pay close attention to the adjustment of NATO’s policy towards China. We will not form a ‘systemic challenge’ to anyone, but if anyone wants to ‘systemically challenge’ us, we will not be indifferent.”

Gary Schmitt, a fellow in the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Strategic Studies Program, believes that NATO’s final statement identifying China as a security challenge will provide the basis for its future policy. He told Voice of America via email, “Some may suggest that this is just rhetoric, but in reality it provides the diplomatic underpinning to move forward with more substantive joint decision-making in the coming months and years on dealing with China, which is distorting the international system and rules in ways to fit its authoritarian interests and ambitions.”

The inclusion of strong language involving China in the joint statement was seen as a diplomatic victory for President Biden. This was Biden’s first appearance at a NATO summit since he became president. Biden viewed the rivalry with China as a battle between freedom and autocracy, but he emphasized uniting allies to counterbalance China’s growing global influence.

Biden told European allies that the United States is committed to NATO’s principle of mutual defense, which is a “sacred obligation” to the United States. He said, “I want all of Europe to know that America is there.”

Dr. Timothy Heath, an international defense expert at the RAND Corporation, said the NATO summit showed that NATO is willing to take a tougher stance on China and may increase its cooperation with the United States on related issues, but it remains to be seen to what extent it will take substantive action.

He told Voice of America in an email, “There are indeed considerable differences among member states on the China issue. The easiest part has been reached – issuing a statement criticizing China as posing a ‘systemic challenge.’ The far more difficult part is how to reach consensus on substantive actions. Because so many European countries are dependent on the Chinese market for growth, it may be particularly difficult to translate this into action. It remains to be seen whether NATO’s statement will lead to any substantive action that really irritates China.”

While noting the challenge posed by China, the NATO joint communiqué also stated that it would “engage with China from the perspective of defending the Alliance’s security interests” as well as “maintain a constructive dialogue with China where possible.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the NATO summit that it is important to see China as a potential threat, but that it should be treated appropriately. She said, “If you look at cyber threats and hybrid threats, if you look at cooperation between Russia and China, you can’t ignore China. But one cannot exaggerate it either – we need to find the right balance.”

Other member states, especially those bordering Russia, want to make sure that the increased focus on China does not distract NATO from traditional threats.

Pierre Morcos, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, and a former French diplomat, argued that the strategy NATO has adopted on China is similar to that of the European Union in that it sees China as both a competitor and a partner. He said that while the joint communiqué mentions China, it has not yet fundamentally changed NATO’s core mission and priorities as a military alliance between Europe and North America.

The important point, I think, is most of what is in the NATO joint communiqué,” he told Voice of America. The communiqué is 30 pages long, 79 paragraphs, and China takes up only two paragraphs. So in terms of the alliance’s priorities, China is not at the heart of NATO’s concerns. The most pressing topics for NATO are Russia, the role it plays in counterterrorism, including the topic of Afghanistan, and new challenges like climate change.”

But he noted that NATO countries, as well as the G7, agreed on China in the joint communiqué, reflecting the “cohesion and convergence” of European countries’ positions on China.

The day before the NATO summit, the G-7 summit, which President Biden attended, condemned Beijing for human rights abuses in a joint communiqué, commented for the first time on the Taiwan Strait issue, and called for a full and thorough traceability investigation into the New Crown virus.

In a briefing to reporters after the G-7 summit, a senior Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that G-7 leaders agree that an increasingly aggressive China is a real threat, but disagree on how aggressively they should respond. President Biden admitted that he himself would have liked a tougher G-7 joint communiqué on China, but he was satisfied with the final outcome.

According to Schmidt of the American Enterprise Institute, getting European countries to reverse their positions on strategic issues involving China is no easy task. He said the past two U.S. administrations have weakened relations with Europe and NATO, so it will take a rebuilding of trust before big changes can occur, but he noted that Europe has recently become more negative about China, “and I expect their administration will begin to reflect that change by making it easier for Europe to listen to the Biden administration’s initiatives.”