Coming to a port near you? A Chinese aircraft carrier
In part, his words reflected an effort to make a clear break with his predecessor Donald Trump. Early in his administration Trump dismissed the idea of defending Europe, though he reaffirmed the duty later several times.
Formally, under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, all alliance members are obligated to defend each other in case of invasion.
Rather than focus on defining NATOs mission, Trump made repeated demands that increase military spending. He suggested that suggesting they were free-riders on US largesse.
But the funding concern made no appearance at this year’s summit. Biden used his debut in Brussels to turn NATO’s concerns toward two countries: Russia, NATO’s original big enemy, which was labeled a “threat;” and China, which was designated a “challenge.”
Not everyone was on board. If it is hard enough to get unanimity on what to do about Russia, it’s far harder to get it regarding China.
It is easier for NATO, and especially its eastern European members, to view Russia as a direct threat, in the way they once viewed the Soviet Union.
Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, invaded both Georgia and Ukraine, backed rebels in each and formally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region. Its military jets occasionally buzz NATO aircraft and overfly alliance territory. Last Friday, two Russian Su-30 jets violated Danish air space, flying over the island of Bornholm. The Danes have asked Moscow for an explanation. Putin delights in announcing the creation of new, scary weaponry.
Russia also stands directly accused of cyber-sabotage and of tolerating cyber-criminals operating on its territory.
Everyone’s able to sign on to labeling Russia a threat. Russia’s economic clout is small, even if the Europeans rely on Russia for fuel.
China’s perceived dangers, on the other hand, are mostly far from Europe, at least for now: it has carried out intimidating military maneuvers around Taiwan, which it claims as its own province, has established naval outposts on disputed shoals in the South China Sea, claimed an island that Japan considers its own; and clashed with Vietnamese boats near disputed reefs. Beijing, too, is under suspicion of waging cyber-warfare.
Its human rights record is abominable: China massively persecuted its Muslim Uighur minority and has stripped Hong Kong of its democratic autonomy. democracy activists, all of which offends the West’s self-declared values.
Using NATO as a tool to confront China seems not much on the minds of some. French President Emmanuel Macron downplayed even the elevation of China as a key concern of NATO. China, he said pointedly, “Must not divert us from the heart of NATO’s tasks. China is not in the North Atlantic.”
China is, “Much broader than a purely military topic,” he added. “It’s economic, strategic, about values, and technological.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, acknowledged that it is important to deal with China’s potential menace, advised against overdoing it. “If you look at the cyber threats and the hybrid threats, if you look at the cooperation between Russia and China, you cannot simply ignore China,” Merkel told reporters in Brussels. “But one must not overrate it, either — we need to find the right balance.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put Chinese threats on Europe’s doorstep, but downplayed what NATO should do about it now. “China is coming closer to us. We see them in cyberspace, we see China in Africa, but we also see China investing heavily in our own critical infrastructure,” he said, also cited allied concern about “China’s coercive policies” and growing nuclear arsenal. But the answer was the: “Need to engage.”
Michal Baranowski, who heads the German Marshall Fund think tank office in Poland, placed NATO hesitancies in the context of Europe’s wariness about expanding the alliance’s area of operations. “Even though European opinion is becoming more hawkish toward China, European countries are concerned about getting onboard with an overly confrontational U.S. approach,” he said.
Of all NATO allies only the United Kingdom and to a lesser extent The Netherlands have followed the US lead in confronting China with action. Britain dispatched an aircraft carrier group to the South China Sea to symbolically challenge China’s dominance of the area. The Netherland sent a frigate in tow.
There is a longer history which may also explain European reluctance. As far back as the administration of US President Bill Clinton, American foreign policy officials pressed NATO to act as a global military actor. “Out of area or out of business,” was a phrase used to press the unenthusiastic alliance to take a hand in ending Balkans wars. Now, the phrase is being applied to take on China.
Even before Trump came on the scene, a series of US-led military failures has made NATO cautious about following Washington’s lead: the long and inconclusive war in Afghanistan; the disastrous occupation of Iraq; the promiscuous use of air power and drones to bomb Yemen. A European-led NATO foray into Libya, which led to the overthrow of Muammar Ghaddafi, left chaos in its wake.
Even on the continent itself, the European public seems ambiguous, at best, about its own responsibilities. A Pew Research Center poll last year came up with what seemed to be a contradictory result, given the presence of an aggressive Russia close by.
Asked whether their countries should defend an ally against a potential attack from Russia, “A median of 50% across 16 NATO member states say their country should not defend an ally,” the Pew report said, “Compared with 38% who say their country should defend an ally against a Russian attack.”
Instead they shifted to a belief that the United States would uphold Article 5. “A median of 60% say the U.S. would defend an ally against Russia, while just 29% say the U.S. would not do so,” Pew reported.
Imagine what the European public might say if NATO was asked to defend Taiwan.
Biden will have to look elsewhere for allies to confront China. One embryonic possibilityin the works is exploiting the so-called Indo-Pacific strategy Biden inherited from Trump. It was developed from an idea that dates back to the George W. Bush Administration.
So far, the US has gathered India, Australia and Japan in the “Quad,” which is an informal association designed to counter China’s influence, economic clout and perhaps at some point, its military strength.
Members of the group have held occasional military maneuvers, moves that have infuriated China.
Washington would like to draw in other democracies—South Korea and Philippines, for instance—but they are wary. The rest of East Asia would have to balance antagonizing economically important and militarily powerful Beijing against the sometimes unreliable US.
A new NATO in the east? The Quad’s a long way from becoming that. Transferring NATO responsibilities over to policing Asia is a non-starter.
No sacred obligation yet there.