Seizing Opportunities with a Less Reserved Beijing
WASHINGTON — China wasn’t even close to making it on to either the agenda or the invite list for the NATO summit in Chicago. While China’s growing power is profoundly reshaping the global strategic environment, NATO has taken on very little role in responding. The reasons for this are understandable. As a strategic threat, China is simply too big a challenge for NATO to take on, and years of fraught relations between the two sides have made partnership appear a difficult prospect. But from Libya to Afghanistan, counter-piracy to energy security, the two sides are rubbing up against each other with greater frequency. And with Beijing lifting some of the last formal barriers to an expanded relationship, NATO could yet play a part in the crucial process of China’s integration as a global military actor.
The legacy to the NATO-China relationship is still toxic. When U.S. and Chinese officials met in the aftermath of last year’s border incident that saw 25 Pakistani soldiers killed, Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of China’s general staff, could not resist harking back to the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, jibing: “Were you using the wrong maps again?” NATO has long been seen by China through an ideological prism, and for many years serving Chinese military officers were barred from contact with NATO counterparts. Over the last decade, the attention paid to NATO in Beijing has corresponded largely to the degree of Chinese anxiety about the alliance’s presence in China’s periphery — Central Asia and Afghanistan — and the state of NATO’s relationships with its regional rivals, most notably Japan. Yet more recently, China has been showing increasing willingness to put aside its traditional antipathy. From the first baby steps, when Beijing sent its diplomats to occasional meetings at NATO headquarters, contacts have evolved into a regularized dialogue at the assistant secretary general level. More recently, military-to-military interactions have been stepped up. Early in 2012, the director general of the international military staff at NATO, Lt. Gen. Jürgen Bornemann, visited China, and the two sides agreed to hold annual military staff talks. Reciprocal visits have taken place in the Gulf of Aden between Chinese and NATO flagships. And at Beijing’s initiative, some non-sensitive courses at NATO School and NATO Defense College were opened up to Chinese officers. There are a number of reasons for the shift in China’s stance.
Even though Beijing still harbors residual suspicions about NATO, it has become less concerned that it is part of an encirclement or containment strategy. NATO operations in Afghanistan, Libya, and the Gulf of Aden have all been of substantial interest to China, yet its understanding of them has been limited by its self-imposed restrictions. China also sees value in establishing a regular military-military dialogue that has Chinese and U.S. participation but is less subject to political pressures than bilateral U.S.-China exchanges. And most importantly, as China’s military acquires a global presence, the opportunities for learning from the advanced militaries of NATO offer substantial benefits, without the level of sensitivity inherent in bilateral exchanges. For Europe and the United States, the change in Chinese attitudes provides an important opportunity. While it is roundly agreed that “integrating” China as a global security actor is a crucial task, finding a mechanism by which greater cooperation and trust-building can take place remains tricky. The efforts of individual countries, such as the U.K. or France, to upgrade military ties with China are liable to prompt misgivings from others that they are “going too far” or seeking to gain bilateral advantages.
Using NATO gets round many of these problems. At present, enthusiasm within the alliance for expending political energy on NATO-China relations is limited. Suggestions from Secretary General Rasmussen about exploring an enhanced dialogue with China have largely petered out, as first Libya and then defense budget cuts consumed attention. Yet an understandable focus on more pressing imperatives for the alliance should not obscure the long-term challenge of relations with the world’s most important rising military power.
Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington D.C.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.