Is China a threat to NATO?
By Alexa Dominique Pascual
NATO’s key role is to achieve unity among its member states. This role is a direct contradiction to China’s interests, which are better served by a divided Euro-Atlantic community. Further dividing NATO members would be of immense benefit to Chinese geopolitical goals. To create a divided NATO, China utilizes cyber operations and disinformation, among other tactics, to cause disruptions between NATO members. Unfortunately for China, NATO has noticed these disruptive measures employed by China and the Chinese Communist Party.
At the latest NATO Summit, the Alliance endorsed a new Strategic Concept, which for the first time recognized the challenges from China, including Beijing’s growing partnership with Russia. Natural partners in the current global geopolitical setting, China’s foreign policy is often a direct reflection of Russia’s foreign policy; they often share the same strategies on how to maintain power, manage trade deals, execute foreign policy, and conduct military strategy. Due to these close Sino-Russian ties, NATO has started paying closer attention to how China could intervene since Russia invaded Ukraine. Parallels were drawn between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s interest in invading Taiwan. These similarities and close relations have drastically increased the West’s awareness of the dangers that partnering with China brings.
When it comes to trade, business, security, and foreign policy, China is a major competitor for both the United States and the European Union. Further complicating the situation is that China is already a big player in the Indo-Pacific, arguably the world's most powerful region at the time being. This gives an immense advantage to China if looking at geopolitics through Henry Kissinger-tinted glasses, focusing on ‘taking’ the regions that have the most value. Beijing aims to constantly build power in the Indo-Pacific by assisting the West in mutually beneficial developments while damaging Western interests when it is likely to get away with it. In lock-step with this process, China has been highly focused on increasing its involvement with Western multinational megacorporations, using subversion to further increase its influence on Western culture, economics, and politics. Through these tactics, China has been a consistently growing challenge for the West, a dangerous cocktail of economic subversion garnished with Russian anti-Western tendencies.
With such a complex situation, the ongoing commitments that NATO has in Europe and the ever-increasing Chinese geopolitical power on the global stage, could it be possible for NATO to stop Chinese subversive disruption tactics before it’s too late? If so, how could NATO then push back to avoid a new Cold War and perhaps even bring the return of global stability?
China and Russia, Partners in Propaganda
Cooperation between the Russian and Chinese governments has increased since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, particularly in the areas of diplomacy, subversion, and propaganda, creating a significant threat to NATO and its allies.[i] NATO has only classified China as a ‘challenge’ on its own, but a full Sino-Russian military alliance, a situation seemingly on the horizon, would certainly be a significant threat.
NATO’s relationship with China is primarily seen as a challenge rather than a threat because of their ongoing partnership in trade agreements, which I will discuss in this article. However, the Sino-Russian military cooperation is growing, which will likely one day cause the Alliance to perceive China as a threat to member states’ economies and national security. Both Russia and China share common interests such as interfering with national elections, trade, and intelligence to gain more power in the international arena as well as gaining power over smaller states. For example, China’s interest in gaining power over Taiwan and Hong Kong mirrors Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Their competitiveness and their shared goals to manipulate other countries and conduct foreign interference campaigns indicates that the two states have a strong relationship, which means a possible military alliance could occur.[ii]
We can see movements towards such a situation in many ways. Chinese and Russian officials have been collaborating in online platforms that promote disinformation to their citizens, sharing their propaganda tactics. China censors the internet to hide the truth from its citizens about government actions and takes advantage of Chinese social media like WeChat to spy on their citizens, aiming to control their every move. Not only are these tactics directly out of the Russian playbook, but China then uses its state media to directly propagate Russia’s interests. Situations like this can at times make it difficult to tell who the ‘junior-partner’ is in the Sino-Russian relationship.
We also saw troubling Chinese and Russian propaganda policies when COVID struck the planet. By the end of 2020, a global survey was conducted by the unions of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The survey indicated that China took advantage of the pandemic to gain more attention in the international media, to boost their image. This showcased China’s ambitions for potential dominance.[iii] This paralleled the Russian government’s spread of disinformation via social media regarding the origins and spread of the coronavirus, as well as false claims on the effectiveness of rushed Russian ‘vaccines’.
Since 2021, there have been anti-BBC/CNN/NBC (among others) articles appearing regularly in Chinese media. These articles criticize Western reports on Chinese internal politics, saying that the West should not intervene in Chinese politics. The Chinese government knows that if the West intervenes, then Chinese citizens would know what democracy looks like, and what it means to have free will. Meanwhile, the Chinese media continues to praise their government for banning Western media, bringing more disinformation to their citizens. This has influenced Chinese citizens to think the same, causing them to praise their authoritarian government even more.
On top of all of this, China has been creating fake social media accounts representing the Chinese government and diplomats. One such account belonged to “Zhao Lujan” from the Chinese foreign ministry. This user mentioned in his social media profile that the coronavirus originated from the United States and was caused by the US military.[iv]
This controversy and similar strategies are a part of China’s “Wolf warrior” diplomacy, which has become a defining strategy of China’s foreign policy. China is using this strategy to spread disinformation on social media, indicating that Western power is the enemy of the people. These intense and offensive movements show that NATO allies may need to boost their communications efforts on the world stage to ensure that China does not win on the ‘battlefield’ of social media.
Thankfully, NATO has developed the Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, which contributes to improved strategic communications across the Alliance. This program works in part to battle Chinese disinformation by providing information on NATO’s actual policies, as opposed to the fake news China is pushing forward. NATO now recognizes that social media is a key battlefield of its own accord, and that it should be one of their main priorities to protect NATO’s interests.
A sign of good progress, there has now been an investigation into fake social media accounts which have promoted pro-China messages. These accounts largely promoted pro-China posts that support China’s claims that the pandemic was handled better in their country than how other countries handled it. These Chinese-state propaganda accounts also attacked users who disagreed with their claims. Facebook and Twitter must continue to delete such accounts and work diligently to keep them off their platforms.
EU–China Trade Relations
China has been a member of the WTO (World Trade Organization) since 2001. As part of the deal to join the WTO, China agreed to liberalize its economy. Flash-forward 20 years, and the EU is now China’s top trading partner. China’s development strategy that led it though this path includes strong state measures to move on hot market opportunities expected to benefit the Chinese economy.
Furthering trade relations, the EU has also agreed with China to collaborate on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. Although this deal has not yet been implemented, the agreement gives opportunities to the EU to have greater access to the Chinese market. By fostering these deeper trade relations, China and the EU are aiming to benefit one another economically. As part of the agreement, China agreed to treat European companies that are based in China in a fair manner by including the EU in the highly competitive Chinese market. Such moves make it seem as if China is a fair trading partner. However, trade between China and the EU is dominated by imports from China. This is a clear sign of successful ‘perception-management’ being employed by the Chinese state on the global stage.
Economic-diplomatic moves such as these allow China to increase development while generating a significantly positive impact on its economy as a whole. Further complicating the situation and spinning even deeper into a tangled web of Chinese economic ‘finger-traps’, the Chinese government and the EU have taken this opportunity to collect data from each other to the point where digital privacy is often taken as a joke when considering the Chinese state.
However, this is not to say that the EU has not received Chinese funding in return. A report by Merics and the Rhodium Group states that Chinese investments in the EU reached USD 36.5 billion in 2016, up 77% from USD 23 billion in 2015, 4% of total Foreign Direct Investment stock in the European Union.[v] Chinese investments include those in energy, automotive, agriculture, real estate, industrial equipment, and communication technology. China has also invested in mining companies to increase its economic development and competitive economy around the world.[vi]
It is considered by many that China may use its economic footing in Europe as yet another form of economic subversion, using ever-increasing Sino-European supply-chain dependencies to force the EU into certain diplomatic positions when it suits the Chinese state. China indeed pushes hard on the idea that without it, without Chinese manufacturing and growth, that the Western economy will be crippled. Without proper care being taken, and if NATO members fail to remember that their economies are integral to their national security, then China may use its economic subversive activities to interfere with international security, tipping the board in China’s favour, or perhaps indeed flipping the board if frustrations run too high.
How China Is a Challenge to NATO Members’ National Security
Cyberattacks emanating from China have been occurring in NATO member states, with one of China’s goals being to use these tactics to interfere in Western politics. There have been allegations that the Chinese government tried to interfere in the midterm elections in the United States in 2022, which has caused outrage and confusion within the American government. Yet, despite China’s bold initiatives, the Biden administration announced that they will end the Justice Department’s “China Initiative”. Since this happened, the Chinese government has been ordering spies to direct operations and to interfere in national security. These agents took this as an opportunity to hack into the American election system to gain information to harass and sabotage Taiwanese activist groups. The Chinese government even manipulated US law enforcement to give out information in exchange for money.[vii]
In the EU, however, states maintain a positive-diplomatic approach with China, mainly to maintain economic ties. As stated in the previous section, China and the EU have a strong diplomatic relationship because they depend on each other to increase development, something arguably needed for both sides to stay competitive against the United States. However, NATO as a collective entity has adopted a more cautious strategy as it sees China as a strategic competitor, not as a state with which to be blindly making economic and data-sharing deals. NATO is particularly cautious of infrastructure and technology deals with China as they pose a threat to NATO’s defensive posture as well as its critical infrastructure security.[viii] During the previous administration, President Donald Trump advised EU countries to prevent the usage of Huawei and other Chinese technology. However, this did not work out well for the United States, partly because the EU had already locked in deals with China, deals not so easy to just step out of. The present administration under President Joe Biden understands the relationship between China and the EU. However, Biden has pressed security concerns to his European allies, and has warned them of the dangers of trading with China. But, unlike the Trump administration, the Biden administration has not been so aggressively overt in stating such concerns. This softened approach has been an overall benefit to the relationship between the EU and the US at the loss of inter-governmental transparency of perception.
The German government is working on a new China strategy to address supply-chain dependencies. China has been a critical import and export market for Germany, while building a competitive market for e-mobility, directly damaging the future-growth potential of the German car industry. It is exactly situations such as these that showcase the double-edged nature of Chinese-EU trade relations.
In 2019, the NATO Military Committee, which consists of allies and defence officers, signed a new military strategy. It was the first signed document written by NATO since the 1960s. The military soon introduced the Deterrence and Defense of the Euro-Atlantic Area (DDA). The DDA covers the military strategy of NATO and how the Alliance will address threats against European interests. This determines the Alliance’s strength to defend the EU against Russia as well as the capability to address international terrorism across Europe. In regard to the DDA and the NATO Warfighting Capstone Concept (NWCC), Defense Chiefs provided recommendations to make sure NATO utilizes chances for innovative policies, including the use of e-commerce, online news sites, and GPS systems to strengthen its military advantage. The NWCC focuses on an ambitious vision for the Alliance’s military capabilities and characteristics. The DDA focuses on temporary threats, while the NWCC looks at long-term threats. The two strategies together help NATO to further align itself with existing tools, processes, and activities to give more assurance to stabilize the Alliance and the Euro-Atlantic region.
Today, in addition to China’s spreading of disinformation online and using fake social media accounts to threaten their enemies, China has also been becoming an ever-growing threat to the EU and their military. China has been stealing defence-related property that belongs to the EU, and they have been sharing it with their defence industry so that they can create their own weapons and update their military strategy.[ix] If the West is not careful to mind its economy as being integral to security, China can possibly use this weakness to gain intelligence from the West and interfere with international security for the benefit of the Chinese state. However, China still must be at the negotiating table, because without them economic developments all across the Alliance will face significant challenges. China could use a situation such as this to prevent ownership of infrastructure from the West, driven partly from a fear that the West will gain even more of a development advantage. Through China’s actions, they aim to limit the development and economic stability of NATO member states, particularly through ‘weak-links’ such as those found in the EU.
The EU must understand that Chinese officials are well-educated when it comes to the international system. In this case, the EU has to pay more attention to understanding China’s position in the international stage and to focus on a more unified approach with other European allies. United, the EU will be a stronger force against disinformation, Chinese propaganda, and foreign interference.[x]
Is China really a threat to NATO? With the EU economy struggling with inflation, and China heavily involved in the European economy, there is reason to be concerned. Advantages exist, of course, in the form of increased trade deals, yet those same deals give China the leverage to ‘pull the plug’ on the European economy in times of duress. With Germany’s economy in particular facing extreme challenges from Russian oil, China has been positioned as a friend that the EU may not want but does arguably need if it is to stay competitive. If China can exploit this position with the EU, it may be able to significantly impact unity among NATO members. Furthermore, China’s interference in counterintelligence and interference in defence can disrupt each state's relationship with each other if they have disagreements in terms of negotiations and strategy when China does interfere. Therefore, NATO needs to stay united to combat Chinese and Russian propaganda, as well as deadly economic subversion. NATO should stop Sino-Russian aggression before it is too late, though there are certainly many challenges that lay ahead. NATO’s key purpose is unity among its members, and we will need that unity if we are to succeed against China’s hostile economic manoeuvring.
[i] Elizabeth Dwoskin, “China is Russia’s most powerful weapon for information warfare,” The Washington Post, August 8, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/04/08/russia-china-disinformation.
[ii] Rainer Meyer zum Felde, “What a Military Alliance Between Russia and China Would mean for NATO,” In S. Kirchberger, S. Sinjen, and N. Wörmer, (eds) Russia-China Relations. Global Power Shift (Springer, Cham, 2022), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-97012-3_13.
[iii] Raksha Kumar, “How China uses the news media as a weapon in its propaganda war against the west,” Reuters Institute, November 2, 2021, https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/news/how-china-uses-news-media-weapon-its-propaganda-war-against-west.
[iv] Sarah Zheng, “Chinese foreign ministry spokesman tweets claim US military brought coronavirus to Wuhan,” South China Morning Post, March 13, 2020, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/3075051/chinese-foreign-ministry-spokesman-tweets-claim-us-military.
[v] Philippe Le Corre, “Chinese Investments in European Countries: Experiences and Lessons for the ‘Belt and Road,’” in Rethinking the Silk Road, edited by M. Mayer, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, 2018, https://carnegieendowment.org/files/RethinkingtheSilkRoad.pdf.
[vii] Sean Lyngaas, “Chinese hacking group with ties to operatives indicated by a US grand jury,” CNN, October 2, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/10/02/politics/china-hacking-espionage-us-agencies;
John Follain, Adela Lin, and Samson Ellis, “China Ramps Up Cyberattacks on Taiwan,” Bloomberg, September 19, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-09-19/chinese-cyber-spies-target-taiwan-s-leader-before-elections#xj4y7vzkg.
[viii] NATO, “Opening Speech by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the High-Level Dialogue on Climate and Security,” NATO Public Forum, July 28, 2022, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/197168.htm.
[ix] Jeff Jones, “Confronting China’s Efforts to Steal Defense Information,” Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center, May 2020, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/confronting-chinas-efforts-steal-defense-information.
[x] Jie Yu, “After Brexit: Risks and Opportunities to EU-China Relations,” Global Policy Volume 8, London School of Economics and Political Science, June 4, 2017, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1758-5899.12440.