NATO’s Indo-Pacific expansion to tackle China
by Salman Rafi Sheikh on 18 Dec 2021 1 Comment

The most recent US decision to do a ‘diplomatic boycott’ of winter Olympics in Beijing has caused a new low in the US-China bilateral relations. The decision to boycott has firmly established the drastic failure of the US-China summit that Biden had only recently called to sort out some of the outstanding issues facing their bilateral ties since the start of the US ‘trade war’ on China in 2016-17. Now that Washington is boycotting Beijing, there remains little gainsaying that the onwards trajectory of Washington-Beijing ties is tussle rather than cooperation or super-power co-existence.


As it stands, the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is equally preparing to play its own part to tackle China and prevent its fast global expansion, although questions about its actual capacity to mount an effective challenge remain in view of both the EU’s unwillingness to tackle China through a Cold War like framework and the fact that NATO has no territorial presence in the actual theatre of US-China tussle i.e., the Indo-Pacific region. Yet, NATO remains a key US ally to build global coalition against China.


Articulating NATO’s global vision and its outlook towards 2030 and beyond, its Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared on November 30 that China poses a ‘security threat’ to NATO all around the world, because China “will soon have the biggest economy in the world. They already have the second largest defence budget. They have the biggest navy. They are investing heavily in new, modern military capabilities, including hypersonic glide vehicles, expanding significantly their arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles. And of course, this is a global issue – it can reach all NATO territory.”


While China has never posed any direct military threat to NATO or the EU, NATO’s blatant expression of its own fears vis-à-vis China has a certain geo-politics attached to it. By over-projecting China as a ‘global security threat’, NATO, in alliance with the US, is seeking to redefine its relevance in a fast changing global environment from a unilateral order to a multilateral configuration. Within the changing world order, NATO is pro-actively seeking to expand its military capacity beyond its traditional European lands to establish a military footprint in the Indo-Pacific. This, according to NATO officials, is necessary to protect “western values”, which is nothing but a codeword for western hegemony. The US, as it stands, is actively seeking to pave the way for this.


In his recent speech at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum, the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that Washington, while not seeking to build a new NATO for Asia, was seeking ways to establish solid mechanisms of coordination between the US allies in Asia and Europe to block Chinese efforts to dominate Asia and Africa. Austin hinted at the expansion of NATO’s politics beyond Europe when he said that they were “strengthening our peerless network of allies and partners with a shared commitment to a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific - a region where all countries are free from coercion, and where the rules that buttress stability and expand liberty are upheld.”


The rationale for NATO’s political expansion to the Indo-Pacific was provided in a November-2020 report called “NATO-2030: United for a New Era.” It said that “Looking to 2030, NATO should leverage its strong partnerships not only in NATO’s neighbourhood but further afield in the Indo-Pacific in an era of intensifying geostrategic competition and global threats”, adding that “NATO must leverage and develop partnerships in a more deliberative and proactive manner to actively shape the security environment and promote NATO goals in support of its core tasks and missions.”


NATO, in other words, is not seeking to simply build ties with certain Indo-Pacific powers – in particular, with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand – but is also seeking to actively cultivate its own mindset of ‘forever Cold Wars’ to these states as a means to what Austin called “buttress” the Western mission.


Since, to quote Austin, China is an “increasingly assertive and autocratic”, its rise needs to be challenged by weaponizing a cohort of values that NATO apparently aspires. These values were given an institutional expression by the NATO secretary general in his most recent remarks on November 30 when he said that “NATO was created to defend democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. These values define who we are. They are not optional. And they must continue to guide us in a more complex world.”


Since China’s rise represents the rise of a political system that does not subscribe to ‘western values’, it automatically becomes a threat undermining NATO and the West. As Stoltenberg further mentioned, since “the Chinese Communist Party is using its economic and military might to coerce other countries and control its own people, [and] expanding its global footprint from Africa to the Arctic, in space and in cyber-space”, it is imperative for NATO to stand to ‘defend’ itself and the values it supposedly represents.


While NATO is yet to answer for the disaster its ‘values’ created in Afghanistan over a period of two decades, questions about its actual ability to project power beyond Europe also remain.


Enter the Divisions


Notwithstanding the new anti-China narrative, the question is: can NATO translate its narrative into a concrete set of action? NATO, as it stands today, has never been so internally divided as it is today. The tussle between the US and Turkey on the one hand, and between Turkey and France/Greece on the other hand, shows the treaty lacks enough internal homogeneity.


At the same time, since the UK’s exit from the EU, the space for establishing a Euro-centric defense organisation has opened up. As it stands, the UK was one of the most stubborn hurdles in the way for Europe to realise its long-standing dream of military and strategic autonomy from the US. Ever since Brexit, however, the drive to establish a European force has gathered momentum, throwing NATO into a state of disarray that will leave a major, negative impact on its ability to project power within Europe, let alone in the Indo-Pacific region.


Finally, while NATO believes it represents universal values, questions about the Indo-Pacific countries’ willingness to jump on the anti-China bandwagon, too, remain unclear even to the NATO officials themselves. While NATO may find many countries in the Indo-Pacific region who have issues with China, there is as yet no country willing to throw a military challenge to Beijing. Within an environment of complex interdependence in the Indo-Pacific, there is very little opening for NATO to exploit to make space for its ‘values’ and missions.


Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”. Courtesy 

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