Wavell Room
Image default
International RelationsOpinionShort Read

NATO’s China Problem

NATO has been a major part of the United Kingdom’s defence strategy for over 70 years, but the Alliance is facing a major crossroads in the coming years regarding how it should address the challenge of China. Some members prefer a cordial relationship based on trade, while others chastise the resurgent power through trade wars and vicious rhetoric. The political divide is exacerbated by a gap emerging between the US and the rest of NATO in terms of military doctrine and procurement, which in turn generates further pressure on the pillars the Alliance is built upon.

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the existential Soviet threat was met with a united response from NATO in the shape of the Brussels Treaty. 70 years later, Europe is a different place and the world has changed. NATO’s most powerful member sees China as the pacing threat. It is only proper to question the future of NATO and how this may shape our security strategy, and potentially the shape and form of our own military.

Where Next? NATO Headquarters Brussels (WikiCommons)

For much of NATO’s life, justifying its existence was largely straightforward. The mere presence of a military alliance on the opposing side of the Cold War: the Warsaw Pact, both necessitated a Western equivalent and helped unify the West in common cause. Yet by 1991 the Warsaw pact was no more. Soon, the Soviet flag would be lowered from the Kremlin for the last time. The Cold War had been won, at least for now, and the need for NATO came into question with some even questioning if it should be dissolved like its ill-fated adversary. But NATO did not fall, it evolved. It found use as a convenient vehicle for the West both as a stepping stone into the EU for newly capitalist eastern Europe as well as a framework for interventions such as Kosovo and Afghanistan, where common C2 and logistical interchangeability eased the workings of the coalition forces.1

Frictions still exist, Turkey’s troubled role in the Joint Strike Fighter program a prime example, but the advantages of a collection of like-minded states making efforts to pool defence resources still makes sense, even in times of relative peace. After this long and successful history of unity and cooperation among member states, we now must look towards the future challenges of the Alliance and see how China’s rise as a superpower threatens to divide the will of NATO. The challenge presents both deep political questions as well as military doctrine hurdles which must be overcome in order to preserve the cohesion of the Alliance, lest it become divided and toothless.

For NATO’s beating heart to function properly, it needs its member states to have foreign policies that are in broad alignment. Without this, the North Atlantic Council cannot function as one. Enter, China. Intentionally or not, China is eroding the foundation of NATO by placing a foreign policy wedge between member states that they cannot agree on how to remove.

On one side, you have the US playing chicken in a war of trade and words, attempting to place a noose around a Chinese tech giant Huawei’s head and pushing their allies to ban the company from their 5G networks. Yet in Europe, not only did the UK permit Huawei to participate in the construction of a 5G network despite US pressure, but other European allies followed suit. The China connection goes deeper however, with trade ties deepening far further and far faster that the Soviet Union ever could. Italy, a founding member of both the EU and NATO, even going so far as to enter as part of the huge Chinese infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative. This divergence shows how the US seems willing to turn China into their new rival in international relations, but unlike the Soviet Union, Europe seems unwilling to rush into the political fray.

Where then does NATO fall into this? In the London Declaration published following a recent summit, the language used had the usual affirmation of commitment to the alliance. However, there is no unified voice on China, merely stating that it “presents opportunities and threats”. Kicking the can of deciding what to do about China only allows the split between the US and Europe to broaden. While the alliance has always had uneven political willingness to engage in NATO endeavours, particularly the failure of all NATO member states to commit combat troops to ISAF, relations with China present a question at the core of NATOs strategic position.

By the time NATO next meets in 2021, China will have had even more spats with the US, but will also have even deeper trade links with much of Europe. We should not hold out much hope of NATO standing closer together by 2021, rather we are more likely to see more political infighting than unity among the North Atlantic Council, which then translates into less integrated and cooperative militaries in the face of China. Here we can turn to Ken Booth, who makes the compelling argument that in the absence of an existential threat, strategists are prone to the creation or amplification of one in order to revert to a framework where fear of the enemy preserves the unity between like-minded states. “Just as some firefighters are sometimes tempted to become arsonists”, Booth argues, “some strategists are tempted to sound the alarm.”2 Applying this concept to China, it is possible that the US are sounding the alarm and willing other NATO allies to do the same, yet the potential economic gains prevent them aligning against China so readily.

The notion that China is the new major threat to the West, at least in the eyes of the US, seems to imply that Russia cannot fill the role in the way the Soviet Union did, an assertion that NATO’s easternmost members will likely find disagreeable, further undermining unity in purpose among NATO members. These arguments stem from political machinations, yet the military side of NATO also sees major challenges as a result of an Asian pivot on the part of the United States.

Using the example of the air domain and the RAF, though this is an issue in most aspects of defence, a shifting US Concept of Operations (CONOPS) sets a pace of change that European allies struggle will to keep up with and may not even wish to. While Europe eases its way into a mixed 4th/5th generation combat air mix over the next decade, the USAF are aggressively chasing the next innovation in fighter technology, risking future interoperability. Similar issues can be seen in the information domain, where the RAF has committed itself with the Wedgetail airframe as a traditional AWACS platform, whereas the USAF looks to shift to more distributed and modular arrangements with the Chinese threat firmly in mind.3

The RAF will receive its first E-7 Wedgetail in 2023 (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Battles – WikiCommons)

These are major issues for the RAF but two of many which face the British Armed Forces, not to mention the even greater issues facing other, less capable allies. Leaving aside the likelihood and logistics of conventional conflict with China in the Pacific, this differentiation of NATO members capabilities in military innovation and procurement strategy undermines one of the key pillars of NATO: the ability to work alongside each other seamlessly.

With the key political and military pillars of NATO set to crumble, big questions lie ahead for the leaders of NATO states. They must, and to an extent we the voters must, decide if we wish to take a side in this feud between the US and China. Does NATO rally to a new calling, or is it consigned to history like Warsaw Pact? For those of us serving, we must look at our future as without the certainty the NATO has provided the past 70 years and be prepared to be increasingly dependent on bilateral arrangements rather than operating under the blue compass’ umbrella.


Elliot is currently undertaking a MA in International Security.  


  1. Booth, Ken. Strategy and Ethnocentrism. London: Croom Helm, 1979.
  2. Bronk, Justin. “The Future of NATO Airpower.” Whitehall Paper Series 94.1 (2018): 1.
  3. Williams, Michael C, and Iver B Neumann. “From Alliance to Security Community: NATO, Russia, and the Power of Identity.” Millennium – Journal of International Studies 29.2 (2000): 357-87.

Related posts

Corona Virus: Britain Needs its ‘Mojo’ Back

Steve Maguire

Corona Virus: What Next?

Olivia Griffiths

More Horses than Tanks


Leave a Comment