NATO Setting Sights on East Asia

The western alliance is assuming a stronger posture in relationship to China. US experts call for NATO operations in the Pacific.

BERLIN/WASHINGTON (Own report) - NATO should systematically expand its military exercises and operations into the Asia-Pacific region, an expert of Washington's Atlantic Council think tank proposes in the intensifying debate on the posture the western war alliance should assume in relationship to the People's Republic of China. China's "presence in the Arctic, in Africa and in the Mediterranean" calls for a response, according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Think tanks suggest that NATO should more closely monitor Chinese investments in the European infrastructure, because "civilian roads, ports and rails" under construction with Chinese participation "are an integral part of NATO's plans for military mobilization." NATO is also strengthening its relations with "global partners" such as Japan, South Korea and Australia. For the first time, Australia's defense minister participated at the meeting of the NATO Ministers of Defense that ended yesterday. The Atlantic Council is also suggesting the establishment of a NATO military headquarters in the Asia-Pacific region.

Global Balance of Power

Recently demands have been multiplying that NATO should focus more on rivalry with China. Late last week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg expressed his "concern" about China.[1] "China's rise is fundamentally shifting the global balance of power," he noted. The People's Republic is expanding its "presence in the Arctic, Africa, and the Mediterranean," is investing heavily in Europe's critical infrastructure and is "a constant in cyberspace." Beijing is also investing heavily in nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that could reach Europe." "NATO allies must face this challenge together." Of course, Stoltenberg did not mention that China - according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) - with its 320 nuclear weapons, possesses only a fraction of the nuclear arsenal of the United States (5,800) and Russia (6,375) and less than the two NATO nuclear powers in Europe together (France: 290; Great Britain: 215).[2] He admitted, however, that no country is "directly threatened" by China.

The Military Function of Civilian Infrastructure

For some time now, foreign policy think tanks have been discussing what concrete posture NATO should assume in relationship to China. A current paper circulated by the German Marshall Fund (GMF) is also focusing on Chinese investments in the European infrastructure, for example in ports such as in the Greek city of Piraeus and in railway lines such as the one linking Belgrade to Budapest, the Hungarian section of which directly affects a NATO member. "Civilian roads, ports and rails are an integral part of NATO’s plans for military mobilization," the paper notes. Thus, these Chinese investments "have direct security implications for the Alliance."[3] Chinese companies have invested "in 12 ports in seven NATO countries that are essential for military mobility planning in NATO's east, south and southeast." NATO should contribute "to defining key criteria on foreign direct investments in domains with dual civilian-military applications." Moreover, "the protection and integrity of digital information" is also important for NATO. This statement clearly refers to the debate about the use of Huawei technology in the current development of 5G networks in Europe [4].

A NATO-China Council

The Atlantic Council recently proposed further considerations. According to Ian Brzezinski of the Washington think tank's Transatlantic Security Initiative, NATO has long since outgrown its transatlantic alliance territory: It has carried out missions for example in Afghanistan, at the Horn of Africa and in the Middle East; and has established "global partnerships" with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Mongolia. It has, therefore every reason to also deal with China. A first step could be the establishment of a NATO-China Council, patterned after the NATO-Russia Council. If Brzezinski's idea is followed, the project would be particularly aimed at integrating NATO's European partners firmly into the United States' policy toward China. The expert writes, that in a NATO-China Council, the Alliance members would be forced to address Beijing "in a coordinated manner," such an institution could therefore "underscore," that this dimension of great power competition is not between "China and the United States" but "between China and the transatlantic community."[5]

NATO Operations in the Pacific

But above all, Brzezinski proposes that NATO expand its military activities into the Asia-Pacific region. The consultative dimension of the regional "global partnerships" should be complemented with "more regular and more robust military exercises (especially air, maritime, and special forces exercises)."[6] This could be used to add a NATO component to US combat exercises in the Pacific that have long featured the participation of European allies. ( reported.[7]) Brzezinski also proposes that the war alliance should establish a "Center of Excellence" (COE) in the Indo-Pacific [8] and integrate officers and NCOs from selected partners into the Alliance’s Command Structure, and deepen these partners’ familiarization with NATO missions, structures, and protocols. And finally, the alliance should also establish a small military headquarters element in the Indo-Pacific region to help facilitate and coordinate NATO exercises and operations. Of course, NATO should not limit its activities solely to military measures. It must mobilize the full complement of "diplomatic, economic, technological, social, and military capabilities and dynamics" that "define geopolitical power."

"Much More on our Radar Screen"

Last year, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg began to intensify the war alliance's relationship with Australia.[9] That country has made a name for itself as Washington's most adamant ally in the power struggle against Beijing. At the beginning of last week, Stoltenberg reasserted that, in the future, the alliance must work "even more closely with like-minded countries, like Australia, Japan, New Zealand and [South] Korea."[10] For the first time, the Australian defense minister had full participation in NATO's Ministers of Defense meeting, which ended yesterday. Stoltenberg - out of consideration for those members of the alliance, who are still hesitant - does not yet speak in favor of NATO maneuvers and operations in the Asian-Pacific region: "The South China Sea is not a location for NATO missions. There is no reason to send alliance troops there."[11] But the debate is continuing. In the meantime China is "much more on our radar screen," explained US NATO Ambassador, Kay Bailey Hutchison on Tuesday: "NATO is now looking to the East."[12] This was not referring to Eastern Europe, or Russia, but to East Asia, or China.


Please watch also our video column "War against China".


[1] Christoph B. Schiltz: "China kommt immer näher vor die Haustür Europas". 13.06.2020.

[2] Weniger Atomwaffen. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 16.06.2020.

[3] Naďa Kovalčíková, Gabrielle Tarini: Stronger Together: NATO's Evolving Approach toward China. WIIS policybrief May 2020.

[4] See also The Costs of Economic Warfare.

[5], [6] Ian Brzezinski: NATO's role in a transatlantic strategy on China. 01.06.2020.

[7] See also Struggle for Influence in the Western Pacific (I).

[8] Zum Begriff "Indo-Pazifik" see also Asiens Schlüsselmeer.

[9] See also The Transpacific Cold War.

[10] Sebastian Sprenger: NATO chief seeks to forge deeper ties in China's neighborhood. 08.06.2020.

[11] Christoph B. Schiltz: "China kommt immer näher vor die Haustür Europas". 13.06.2020.

[12] Online Briefing with Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison on NATO Defense Ministerial. 16.06.2020.