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

In today’s rapidly-changing geopolitical circumstances, courting rising powers is no longer a doctrine of choice for Allied powers. In the second half of his two-part analysis on recent Chinese militarization, Jozef Kosc studies the unique conditions of Chinese defense neutrality and economic partnership with NATO powers, while making the historic case for Allied strategic co-operation with the Middle Kingdom. Read Part One: Alcidas’ Dilemma here

Part Two: Alcidas’ Gamble

V. The Roots of Strategic Solitude

China’s hitherto absent approach to the modern doctrine of grand military alliance, while seen as isolationist and dated by Western strategists, ironically finds common ground with traditional Western sources. The formation of alliances, explains Thucydides, has foreshadowed the dawn of strife since the era of Athens and Sparta. While often seen as a sign of strength, alliances are sometimes correctly interpreted by historians as a sign of geopolitical weakness against an unmeasured foe. “[T]o keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” as NATO’s first Secretary General once explained, is as much a projection of unity as a clear pronouncement of fear.

China’s historical hesitancy to enter into any “all for one and one for all” defense pact with other states, à la NATO’s Article 5 stipulation, stems from a centuries-long understanding and position of autonomy. In the days preceding contact with European traders, the Middle Kingdom pacified neighboring powers with a tributary system of exchanging gifts and proto-diplomats, but formal alliances with “barbarian kingdoms” were always unnecessary and usually out of the question. Self-sufficiency survived modernity as a political culture—even during the height of the Cold War, China remained entirely isolated from its natural ideological partner—the Soviet Union. As early as the 1950s, Maoists began separating themselves from the ideas of Nikita Khrushchev, and by 1961, the Communist Party of China formally denounced the USSR as a communion of traitors. Ironically, China’s orthodox Marxist worldview facilitated the Nixon-led Sino-American rapprochement of 1972, precipitating the fall of revisionist Russia.

China’s hesitancy to court military alliances stems from an ancient and modern history of autonomy. Photo: Creative Commons.

VI. Cujus economia, ejus regio

Contemporary Chinese foreign policy is perhaps best summarized in The Nomos of the Earth, an early 20th century German critique of American internationalism. “Cujus economia, ejus regio” (Schmitt, p. 308), or “he who rules the economy, rules the region,” might as well describe the foreign policy of today’s People’s Republic as that of 1950s post-War America. Proof of the primacy of capital within the Chinese political worldview lies precisely in China’s equally pragmatic and non-discriminatory approach towards despotic regimes and Western democracies alike. Thus, while Chinese and Russian vessels played games in the Mediterranean last March, Jinping and French President Francois Hollande signed over 18 billion euros’ worth of contracts in the sale and transfer of aerospace technologies. This was not a paradox nor a case of irony, but business as usual; atop China’s current list of economic partners stands not Russia or Syria, but the European Union and its various member states.

Last year, the German-Chinese commercial turnover rate surpassed that of Germany and the US. New financial reports predict the replacement of the historic German-French commercial relationship with the German-Chinese relationship within a decade. In the United Kingdom last September, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne met with Chinese Vice Premier Ma Kai to announce the UK government’s intention to become the world’s first Western power to issue a bond in China’s sovereign currency, the renminbi (RMB). According to recent market analysis, the UK is fast becoming the largest RMB market outside of China. Unsurprisingly, this announcement followed the more recent move of the UK government to apply for membership as the first Allied power in the new Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

In its quest to penetrate the markets of Eurasia, China has not even stopped to discriminate between wealthy and poor European markets. As US and EU investors have distanced themselves from Greece in the post-Eurozone crisis era, China continues to provide a steady source of foreign direct investment to Greek ports and infrastructure. Some have even called for a formal Greek-Chinese “strategic development partnership,” including Yannis Dragasakis, Greece’s new deputy prime minister. In 2008, the state-owned China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) paid 4.3 billion euros for the rights to operate parts of Greece’s largest port at Piraeus. The strategic acquisition forms a central part of China’s grand “New Silk Road” initiative, facilitating the trade of incoming goods from the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal, and leaving via rail to reach central and Eastern Europe. 

China’s “New Silk Road” imitative places EU markets on Beijing’s strategic map. Photo: Xinhua.
China’s “New Silk Road” imitative places EU markets on Beijing’s strategic map. Photo: Xinhua.

China’s desire for Maritime and Land-based “New Silk Road” trade routes crossing over three continents and more than a handful of countries to reach European markets reveals Beijing’s priority in maintaining an EU economic “all access pass” for decades to come. The European Commission, currently engaged in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) free-trade talks with the US, has shown its openness to Beijing’s proposal by stating clearly its goals of using the TTIP as a model for a future Chinese-EU Investment Agreement. All financial markers indicate a marriage meant to last.

Yet China is not a monogamous partner, having demonstrated time and time again its willingness to court any and every possible ally for the sake of any economic gain. This is why Allied powers must now act quickly. The unique conditions of EU-Chinese economic alliance, as well as the existing US-Chinese and US-Canadian economic partnership, offer a limited window of opportunity for Allied powers to push for greater co-operation with China on a geopolitical and strategic level. Provided with enough economic incentive, there is no reason why China couldn’t normalize its relations with US allies in the Pacific region, or else sit at a table with NATO in a few years’ time, poised against Putin’s Russia, just as Putin’s Russia stood together with Allied powers against the Taliban merely a few years ago.

VII. The Pivot to Beijing, and Vice Versa

According to Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at China’s influential Tsinghua University, the time is ripe for transformation of foreign policy norms within China’s political elite. Now a mature global power, Xuetong believes that strategic neutrality has overstayed its welcome in Beijing, where whispers of an “all-weather strategic cooperative partnership” have come to challenge orthodox views on the primacy of capital in international affairs. Proving Xuetong’s hypothesis, the “Eurasian Triple Entente” is one such sign of wading into deeper diplomatic waters. Yet there are other equally viable signs of a Chinese willingness to cooperate with the US and its allies.

With the souring of inter-personal relations between Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, China has turned aggressive towards its longstanding economic partner and otherwise global pariah—cozying up to US intelligence in the process. Earlier last month in a closed-door meeting, Chinese officials provided US nuclear specialists with new intelligence on the scale of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. The new reports suggest that Pyongyang might have as many as 20 nuclear warheads—double the amount estimated by the US defense establishment—as well as the uranium-enriching capacity to build 20 more warheads within a year.

Although Chinese hostility to North Korea’s nuclear pursuits is an old story, often running parallel to the agenda of the US at the UN Security Council, cooperation between both superpowers on strategy or even intelligence has remained scarce. “Will it be possible to merge the concerns and goals of the two sides over Korea?,” asks Henry Kissinger in his latest memoir. “Are China and the United States able to work out a collaborative strategy for a denuclearized, unified Korea that leaves all parties more secure and more free?” (World Order, p. 231). The move to brief US civil society experts represents a major shift towards a collaborative direction.  

Formal Chinese-NATO cooperation is also not out of the question. In fact, the first steps have already been taken. In 2012, NATO’s Director of International Military Staff (IMS), Lt. Gen Jürgen Bornemann traveled to China’s National Defense University on the invitation of Major General Qian Lihua, Chief of the Foreign Affairs Office within the Chinese Ministry of National Defense. After a successful discussion on the possibilities of formal co-operation in training and counter-piracy operations, both delegations agreed to hold joint military staff talks annually.

Chinese coordination with NATO makes sense from a strategic and technical perspective. Both share key interests in maintaining cybersecurity and combatting piracy. Both remain particularly concerned about the future stability of Afghanistan, a key location for China’s Land-based “New Silk Road,” trade route, and a source of heavy Chinese investment in energy resource extraction. According to Li Weiwei from the Chinese Institute for International Studies, Chinese energy companies have profited immensely from NATO security in the region.

Both Beijing and NATO remain concerned about the future stability of Afghanistan. Chinese investors have profited greatly from Allied security in the region. Photo: Xinhua.

Finally, Sino-NATO cooperation is rational from the perspective of international customary law. As NATO’s former Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen once observed, China is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council which does not formally collaborate with the Alliance. This is problematic because NATO ostensibly operates under the legal justification of UN mandates.

VIII. Risking Tomorrow

The prevailing doctrine of cujus economia, ejus regio will likely trump Xuetong’s nascent “all-weather strategic cooperative partnership” if China is not directly engaged in security planning and strategic discourse. In this case, the Middle Kingdom will continue to baffle foreign policy and defense experts for years to come—an enigma for all but the Chinese themselves. Worse, however, is the nightmare scenario of the Chinese acceptance of grand strategy, and further dalliance with the likes of Russia, Iran and Syria. Rising tensions in the South China Sea may precipitate such developments, if Western leaders—like the fabled Spartan general Alcidas—fail to leverage existing economic strength to build crucial alliances for the future.

In today’s rapidly-changing geopolitical circumstances, courting rising powers is no longer a doctrine of choice for NATO. Acceptance must come um schlimmeres zu vermeiden, and the time to act is now. For NATO’s China moment may leave as quickly as it’s arrived.

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.

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