Brussels to Beijing: Now is NATO’s China Moment, Part One

In today’s rapidly-changing geopolitical circumstances, courting rising powers is no longer a doctrine of choice for Allied powers. In his two-part analysis, Jozef Kosc studies the threat of a growing Chinese-Russian security dalliance as well as Chinese militarization of the South China Sea, while making the historic case for Allied strategic co-operation with the Middle Kingdom.

Part One: Alcidas’ Dilemma

I. Changing Perceptions

In Thucydides’ chronicle of the Peloponnesian war, the Spartan general Alcidas personifies a lesson for generations of strategists in how not to plan for escalating geopolitical tensions. Granted the rare opportunity of leveraging wealth and naval power to court allies against Athens, Alcidas rejects the wisdom of politics, focusing merely on brute territorial strength in the Peloponnese itself. (III, 30-31). 

As the Ukraine Crisis and ongoing Russian aggression shifts US and NATO strategy to re-focus on bolstering the European continent, the potential help or hindrance of rising powers has escaped all but the most astute policy planners. Yet with tumbling US and EU defense budgets, it is rising powers like China which will shape the major discourse of defense in years to come.

As China and Russia plan joint-naval exercises in the Mediterranean this year, Allied powers should radically reconsider their own approach to the rising Pacific power. Photo: Cheung/AP

II. The Eurasian Triple Entente: A New Dalliance?

While NATO military spending has flat-lined over the past decade, Chinese budgets rose by a combined total of 167 percent. In 2014 alone, China’s $216 billion budget accounted for nearly half of all defense spending by all Asian and Pacific powers. With newfound money has come the desire for new equipment. Russia’s Putin has been quick to jump at the opportunity of a fledgling Chinese-Russian military alliance, facilitating the rapid sale of aerospace and naval technologies to Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army, including new S-400 missile interceptors, and the famed Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets. Meanwhile, Putin’s Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, has used the opportunity of brute economic alliance to arrange for joint-naval exercises in the Pacific and Mediterranean early last year, as well as ground and air-force “peace mission” exercises on Chinese soil.

More recently, talks of a future “Eurasian Triple Entente” shook this year’s Moscow Conference on International Security, where Iranian Defense Minister Hussein Dehghan invited China and Russia to participate in as-of-yet undisclosed security talks on the topic of opposing NATO’s “eastward expansion.” Such alarming calls arose in the direct aftermath of the Lausanne nuclear talks between Washington and Tehran, which Putin has tried to derail through the unexpected shipment of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile system technologies to Iran.

Back in 2011, speculative reports in the Tehran Times suggested that then-Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin met with Chinese and Iranian officials to discuss the construction of an anti-NATO missile defense shield. It remains to be seen if Iran’s new toy—described variously as “mobile, accurate, and lethal,” by Council on Foreign Relations fellow Clint Hinote—is part of a broader geopolitical strategy to contain Allied powers, or else merely exists to disorient Putin’s foes at a time when Iranian-American discourse appears to be normalizing. Either way, the acceptance of Dehghan’s invitation by both Russian and Chinese delegations at the Moscow Conference should ring multiple bells.

Putin has fast-tracked the sale of S-400 and S-300 missile defense systems to China and Iran, prompting whispers of a new “Eurasian Triple Entente.” Photo: Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters.

At the very least, China is consistent in its recent co-operation with Russia. The Conference follows an earlier November meeting between Shoigu and Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, during which Shoigu called for the creation of a new “collective regional security system” with the “main goal of pooling our effort[s]” in light of Western sanctions against Russia, and set plans for a new series of joint-naval exercises in the Mediterranean later this year.

III. Everything that Moves on Water

Like the US, Britain and Japan at the dawn of the 20th century, China has come to understand the doctrine of naval strength projected in Captain A.T. Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History. “[E]verything that moves on water” possesses “the prerogative of offensive defense” (1890, p. 87) came to define nearly half a century of American acquisitions under Roosevelt and the Open Door Policy, and now marks China’s entry-into-force as a new Pacific superpower. Embroiled in small-scale naval and territorial disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, Chinese maritime patrol vessels regularly confront Japanese ships near the disputed Senkaku Islands, irritating the free passage of vessels in the South China Sea.

A landmark moment came with the unveiling of the Liaoning aircraft carrier in 2012 by then-President Hu Jintao. With two more in production, the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy plans to have three aircraft-carrier led battle groups by 2020. Since early 2000, Beijing has also produced 80 surface ships, and an average of three submarines per year. China’s now 80-strong nuclear and conventional submarine fleet is used to penetrate far beyond the 200 nautical mile “exclusive economic zone” accorded the People’s Republic under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), unnerving strategists aboard the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

According to defense analyst Li Mingjiang, regular submarine infiltration into international waters forms part of Beijing’s new “strategic hinterland” policy of expanding “blue national soil.” Far from speculative, the new Chinese push for a maritime presence is illustrated in the official government “nine dash line” map of the South China Sea, which shows national waters extending as far as the shores of the Philippines and Vietnam. According to the US State Department, the “nine dash line” map not only presents revisionist maritime boundaries, but also amounts to an illicit claim of sovereignty over disputed islands.

Even more distressing are new satellite images of the Spratly Islands archipelago, showcasing Chinese efforts to dredge sand from the ocean floor atop existing reefs, constructing artificial landmasses as military outposts.  Reports from Beijing and the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies indicate efforts to construct a military-grade airstrip on Subu Reef and Fiery Cross Reef, with additional plans for a fully-functional seaport on the second artificial island. Other images show construction on up to seven different islands, complete with troop garrisons, helipads, communications equipment and anti-ship coastal artillery rocket launchers. These islands are over 1000 miles from Chinese waters. According to Michael Auslin, director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, Chinese militarization of the region has locked Beijing and Tokyo into a “slowly spiraling competition reminiscent of the European powers in the late 19th century,” where “real confrontation” is not out of the question.

China’s new “strategic hinterland” policy in the Pacific theatre includes building military outposts more than 1000 miles from Chinese national waters. Photo: CSIS.

IV. The Chinese Zhilaohu

Although Allied fears of an impending Chinese-Japanese confrontation in the Pacific theatre—and by extension, a Chinese-US confrontation—have haunted analysts for years, it would nevertheless be an overstretch of the imagination to assume that China is currently picking sides with the likes of Russia and Iran in a broad new struggle against “the West.” On the contrary, with the exception of aggressive foreign policy in the near-abroad, China has opted for a relatively quiet approach to grand strategy on the world stage.

Russian and Iranian invitations for closer military co-operation with China are crucial to watch precisely because they are novel invitations, and not part of any long-standing defense agreements. Hitherto, China’s support for Iran and Syria in the realm of international customary law rests solely on the basis of sound economic relations. There are no formal ties between Assad and Jinping, beyond the unofficial exchange of billions in trade for disruptive policy at the United Nations. If there are any hints of anti-Western ideology in official Chinese Foreign Affairs pronouncements, they likely now serve as mere nods to China’s new Russian economic partner. Most importantly, as Vasilis Trigkas from the Pacific Forum CSIS writes in The Diplomat, China is not part of any “all for one and one for all” military partnership, similar to NATO’s Article 5 stipulation. Until any such binding agreements are signed, the prospect of a “Eurasian Triple Entente” remains but a Chinese zhilaohu (“paper tiger”).

In the coming years, the key to Allied defense policy may lie in preventing the growth and subsequent animation of the new-born zhilaohu. Understanding the history of Chinese strategic neutrality, and the current economics-driven worldview of its policy elite, lies at the heart of preparing Allied forces for the challenges—and opportunities—of tomorrow.

 Jozef Kosc is a Research Fellow at the NATO Council of Canada, specializing in Allied defense grand strategy and international law. He is pursuing a Masters in Global Governance & Diplomacy at the University of Oxford.

CIMSEC is and always will be free for everyone, but we would be grateful for those who wish to provide a modest regular donation to support our operations.

One thought on “Brussels to Beijing: Now is NATO’s China Moment, Part One”

  1. China is a rising power with aspiration of providing a counter-world order to the West’s dominated international system. China does not have the required resources to fuel growth and sustain itself as a regional hegemonic power. China will be driven by self-interests for the foreseeable future. This makes the consideration of a NATO-PRC relationship suspect.

    In addition, with Russia feeling threatened by NATO’s expansion east. A NATO-PRC relationship will feel like a vice and change Russia’s strategics responses, most likely in a negative manner.

    I don’t see tge benefit for NATO.

Leave a Reply