Facing the dragon’s fire: Why China is NATO’s new ‘global villain’

    The West tries to portray the Asian giant as the root of all evil but the world’s second-largest economy holds many aces – from trade to politics to military.

    The recently-concluded NATO Summit in Vilnius had a jam-packed agenda of pressing matters – such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Sweden’s membership issue, forging closer ties with Ukraine, and the pursuit of defence-oriented collaborations with Asian allies. 

    Interestingly, the 90-point communique frequently mentioned the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Such mentions indicate that China is high on the agenda. 

    In an era increasingly tilting towards multipolarity, questions about NATO’s role are no longer relevant. While NATO remains central to keeping an aggressive Russia in check, the role of “global villain” appears to have been assigned to China. 

    However, a crucial question remains: will containing China be as effortless as presumed by NATO strategists? 

    As expected, Beijing interpreted the communique from the prism of the Cold War textbook. The Chinese side used this opportunity to reiterate its opposition to any eastward expansion into the Asia-Pacific region, declaring that “any action that jeopardises China’s legitimate rights and interests will be met with a resolute response”. 

    While China tries to portray itself as a friendly neighbour in the Asia-Pacific, its assertive foreign policy and belligerent actions are perceived as a threat by neighbouring nations, pushing them towards the NATO alliance. 

    However, some in the West are still burying their heads in the sand of realpolitik, interpreting events as “democracies” moving away from their non-democratic neighbours. 

    While such rhetoric was popular in the ’90s when the US reigned as the undisputed superpower, using it for the present conundrum in the East and South China Seas is odd. 

    Irrespective of these details, the clear message is that a blame game has started, with both sides pointing fingers at each other.

    The depiction of China as a burgeoning menace to the so-called rules-based international order has become a recurring mantra, frequently employed to preserve the dominance of the US and its pivot to Asia. 

    On the face of it, this approach may appear straightforward, but it would be erroneous to assume that confronting Beijing will be easy. 

    Big challenges

    As a security alliance, NATO must address significant challenges before embarking on this complicated task. It must deal with the complexities of collective action, where establishing trust and minimising friction are imperative to achieving the stated goals of the agenda. 

    Meanwhile, the member states do not share uniform perspectives or aspirations on this subject. 

    For instance, France – driven by lucrative investment opportunities from China – is reluctant to find itself at odds with Xi Jinping on the issue of Taiwan. This might be why Macron openly dismissed establishing a NATO liaison office in Japan. 

    Breaking free from China’s economic grip is no walk in the park for the EU. China’s strong trade ties with individual member countries and collectively via the EU make decoupling a near-impossible mission. 

    Past efforts to reduce reliance on Russian energy after the Ukraine crisis proved challenging. 

    Untangling a colossal $943 billion worth of trade between China and the EU will not only be a nightmare but also a lose-lose situation. 

    European investors and policymakers are not rushing towards decoupling either. 

    German Merck KGaA CEO Belen Garijo has gone on record that decoupling is not feasible and it could take 20 years to achieve. 

    Likewise, the President of the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce (DIHK) showed scepticism about renouncing trade with China, emphasising the need to address excessive dependency and related risks. 

    German business circles abhor such prospects, given Germany’s role as an economic powerhouse within the EU. 

    Given these concerns, vilifying China without a proper off-ramp strategy and de-escalation opportunities will be counterproductive for the US, as European allies are not eager to engage in conflicts. 

    Friends and enemies

    Meanwhile, the 90-point communique emphasised the commitment to constructive dialogue. 

    At this point, save for some rhetorical salvos such as US President Joe Biden labelling Xi Jinping as a ‘dictator’, both sides do not seem to seek escalation. 

    US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has frequently reiterated the adherence to the one-China policy and emphasised that there is no intention to support Taiwan’s independence. 

    However, NATO will likely expand its alliance network in Asia in the coming period without necessarily extending its membership umbrella. This approach hinges on the satisfaction of US allies in the Indo-Pacific region in expanding areas of cooperation without full NATO membership. 

    Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the White House gave an indication of such a strategy. 

    Other neighbours of China are closely following the newly-incepted containment strategy. The official communique of Modi’s visit – which expressed minimal concern over his Hindu nationalistic government’s heavy-handed policies against minorities – illustrates the dilution of democratic rhetoric in favour of realpolitik. 

    Similar examples will follow to entice other Asian countries to enhance strategic collaboration in favour of the US and against China.

    For China, the clock is ticking. Every passing minute provides Beijing with the opportunity to flex its financial muscles and transform its economic might into military power. 

    While the likelihood of a direct war with China over Taiwan is relatively low, Beijing also benefits from any delays surrounding Washington’s pivot to Asia. 

    Although an expansion of NATO into Asia may be a distant possibility, increased military and intelligence collaborations will undoubtedly remain a concern for the Chinese leadership. 

    As such, the People’s Liberation Army will continue to show off its might in the Taiwan Straits.

    This article originally appeared in the opinion section of TRT World website.

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