It’s time for NATO and the EU to have a serious conversation about China

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Stefanie Babst
Stefanie Babst

Senior Associate Fellow of the European Leadership Network and former deputy assistant secretary-general for public diplomacy and head of the strategic analysis team at NATO

There is not much good news coming out of international affairs these days. Perhaps one sign of hope is the growing NATO-EU strategic partnership. The two Brussels-based organisations have steadily broadened their scope of political dialogue and practical cooperation recently. While, thus far, not all of the 74 items that were originally agreed between the Alliance and EU have produced tangible results, collaboration in a number of critical domains such as cyber, hybrid threats, capability development and maritime security has increased.

But what about China? It seems as if NATO’s leadership has only recently developed an interest in the country. Yet the time seems more ripe than ever for NATO and the EU to close ranks on this. However, bilateral cooperation will be quite lopsided. While the EU sustains a strategic partnership with Beijing and updated its Strategic Outlook on China last year, NATO has yet to come to grips with a dedicated China strategy. At their Summit meeting in December last year, the NATO chiefs could only agree that China’s growing role in global affairs has created both “opportunities and risks”, and it seems highly unlikely that they will agree on a grand strategy by the end of the year. 

There are a lot of good arguments for NATO and the EU to complement their approaches on China. The most important is that Beijing’s increased footprint in Europe itself and its vicinity does not only require coordinated political and economic responses, but also comes with several security and military ramifications that should be considered. 

China’s trade with Middle Eastern countries has grown steadily, with Beijing selling $10 billion worth of weapons there

The situation in Europe’s South is a case in point.  Under the flag of the Belt and Road Initiative, China has created a broad network of strategic partnerships that extends from Algeria and Egypt, via Djibouti and Sudan across the Middle East and into the Gulf region. Beijing also consistently engages with regional organisations such as the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Union of the Arab Maghreb.

The Middle East and the Mediterranean region are important building blocks in the development of the various Silk Roads, which aim to promote China’s ambitious economic and energy objectives. To date, Beijing has used a combination of political non-interference and massive economic and financial investments, cleverly circumventing the region’s ethnic, secular and religious divisions. Chinese relations with Sunni Saudi Arabia have deepened in recent years as much as with Israel or Shiite Iran. Indeed, Beijing has already established a 25-year strategic partnership with the regime in Tehran, foreseeing heavy Chinese investment and increased military cooperation.

Over the past eight years, China’s trade with Middle Eastern countries has grown steadily, with Beijing selling $10 billion worth of weapons there, notably in reconnaissance and combat drones as well as missile technology. 

But it is not only about Chinese weapons. In less than 10 years Beijing has bought and built considerable critical infrastructure, including bridges, roads, seaports and container terminals across the Mediterranean and Middle East region. Examples can be found in Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, the UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria and perhaps soon in Iran. China’s intention to invest in the Iranian port of Jask, which lies at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, should be of particular interest to the transatlantic community since it is one of the critical maritime choke points and thus of vital importance for international sea trade. It is not insignificant that neighbouring Bahrain hosts the headquarters of the 5th US Fleet.

With the purchase of critical infrastructure in Europe’s South, China now has a powerful avenue to influence the political decision-making in the countries concerned

More worrying should be Beijing’s investments in critical infrastructure in several NATO and EU countries. Chinese state companies have already acquired a number of European seaports and container terminals, including Piraeus in Greece, Zeebrugge and Antwerp in Belgium, Valencia and Bilbao in Spain and six other ports in France, the Netherlands and Croatia. After Italy joined the Belt and Road Initiative last year, China began looking at the ports of Trieste and Genoa.

There are a number of strategic advantages for China that stem from this scaling presence in Europe, be it through improved information gathering, arms exports or the dual use of critical infrastructure. China’s upgrading of its naval forces certainly points to its resolve to protect the Belt and Road projects actively. After Beijing opened its first military base in Djibouti in 2017, the country now has its first military supply and logistics hub. More are likely to follow.

Above all, with the purchase of critical infrastructure in Europe’s South, China now has a powerful avenue to influence the political decision-making in the countries concerned. All this should be sufficient reason for NATO and the EU to have regular conversations about how to respond to this challenge. At a minimum, NATO should have a fresh look at its maritime strategy, which dates back to 2011, as well as discuss with the EU how to develop more targeted measures to help protect national critical infrastructure. Perhaps, NATO and the EU could even jointly reflect on whether they want to involve China in maritime operations in the Mediterranean region. Should they take Chinese leadership at its word when it presents itself as a responsible global actor?

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