A New NATO-China Modus Vivendi Towards Renewed and Sustainable Relations

August 04, 2022

About the author:

Brian Wong Yueshun, Ph.D. candidate, Oxford University; TI Youth Observer


At the recently concluded summit in Madrid, Spain, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg unveiled the alliance’s new blueprint - a Strategic Concept - that outlines its vision and priorities for the upcoming decade. The blueprint made a reasonable attempt at differentiating between Russia and China - whilst the former it condemned as a “significant and direct threat” to NATO, China was instead portrayed as an actor that would give rise to “systemic challenges.” 

Predictably, the statement was met with fierce opposition from Beijing. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China declared that the new Strategic Concept “disregarded facts, confused black and white, and smeared China’s foreign policy.” The bifurcation in attitudes and reception towards the document was both indicative of the state of mutual mistrust between Brussels (NATO HQ) and Beijing, as well as foreshadowing the difficulties ahead in navigating bilateral relations between the two entities. The following sets out a pathway for a practicable, mutually beneficial modus vivendi that can be established between NATO member states and China - one that, broadly speaking, would assist in the construction of a pathway that mitigates the potential for a future World War Three.


A Few Points of Reality Check

Any discussion of a world where NATO and China coexist with some modicum of peace must acknowledge the truculent nature of circumstances on the ground. As such, a reality check must also include the fact that bilateral relations have reached new nadirs over recent years and should be factored into consideration as both sides continue to bind the relationship. 

Another key fact is that America, the dominant actor within the NATO alliance, is increasingly unnerved by what it perceives to be China’s growing military, economic, and political capacities. The past decade saw drastic overhauls and reforms to the PLA (People’s Liberation Army), with a substantial reduction in the number of actively enlisted personnel – from 3.9 million in 1985 to 2.3 million in 2018, a sizeable shrinkage especially given the population increase since then – leading to significant boosts to the volume of capital per capita in the army. 

China is the second largest military spender in the world and has progressed by leaps and bounds in its maritime capacities. China’s growing influence in international and multilateral institutions, paired with it successfully making inroads in regions ranging from Latin America to Southeast Asia, has fundamentally unsettled America as the prospect of being outcompeted by China in “Great Power Rivalry” solidifies. Whilst Western allegations concerning Chinese intentions to thwart American hegemony, just as Chinese ruminations over American tendencies to promulgate imperialism, are often exaggerated at the expense of the facts, it suffices to say that there are plentiful grounds on which Washington has subjective reasons to be apprehensive towards China’s rise. Much of this paranoia has been channeled through the more institutionalist foreign policy approach of Biden, which seeks to rally its allies around Sino-anxiety as a shared ideological stance. 

The historically dynamic relationship between China and Europe (many European countries count among NATO members) has been severely impaired by the ongoing war in Ukraine. Whilst Beijing views itself as having adopted a neutral, non-aligned position over Ukraine, such perceptions are not necessarily shared by many European states who view Russia as a revanchist and revisionist threat to their national security. Whilst Beijing views NATO as a warmongering entity that is chiefly responsible for the crisis unfolding in Ukraine, European leaders and citizens are more likely to attribute the ongoing atrocities in the conflict to the decisions undertaken by President Vladimir Putin. The division in attitudes towards Russian-Ukrainian relations has in turn spill-over implications for how NATO members perceive China at present. 

NATO and China possess divergent values in their approaches to domestic governance, economic growth and development, and social management. It would be erroneous to conclude that Europe, America, and China do not see eye to eye simpliciter: there is much in common between them, especially amongst Nordic and Central European states, and China, in their emphasis upon social welfare, communitarian ethic, and robust industrial policies. Yet, such commonalities do not obscure the fact that China is governed very differently from NATO members and that certain values and norms cherished in one may not be shared by the other. As values-driven diplomacy becomes increasingly potent – with such ideals coming to engender and constrain state leaders’ actions on the international stage – it is clear that NATO-China relations have more than one spanner in the works. To ignore the three points outlined above would be not only imprudent but unequivocally dangerous. 




Towards a More Sustainable Modus Vivendi 

To navigate a more sustainable modus vivendi between the two forces, this article draws upon Kevin Rudd’s model of managed strategic competition outlined in The Avoidable War (2022) as well as Professor Wang Jisi’s Hot Peace paradigm, published in China-US Focus (2022). Given that the proposed pathway for NATO-China relations is predominantly centered around how NATO and China ought to engage one another, Sino-U.S. relations are both a pivotal subset of and parallel discussion to the relational pathway.  

First, there needs to be clear baselines concerning non-negotiable interests and “reserved domains.” These baselines must be mutually agreed-upon and respected. Regarding non-negotiable interests, it is clear that both sides must be tactfully selective in identifying what exactly it is that they cannot give up. For China, matters of territorial integrity concerning disputed territories, the economic stability and vitality of its population, and the elimination of foreign interference within domestic political affairs are of prime concern. For NATO, a favorable resolution to the Ukrainian crisis and China’s adherence to international norms governing nuclear non-proliferation and arms build-up remain crucial. All other matters, beyond such baselines, are and should be open for debate and negotiation, perhaps behind closed doors. Attempts to “test” each other’s baselines would not only be futile, but also disruptive to bilateral relations. 

This is where “reserved domains” hold special importance – NATO and China should selectively disengage and put healthy distances between one another on potential flashpoints where altercations and thus escalation are likely. Whether it be Eastern Europe, the South China Sea, or the Middle East, the world does not need another round of proxy conflict between great powers. Only when NATO and China keep each other at arm’s length in these cases can peace result.

Second, NATO and China should continue to compete vigorously and intensely, but also constructively. The first step is the maintenance of open communication channels between Beijing and Brussels with multi-party talks undergirding the management of security risks. The recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore was a testament to the centrality of high-level contact – the discussion between Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe and American General Lloyd Austin proved to be fruitful in clearing up bad air and allowing both sides to articulate their reasons for disagreements. 

Moreover, constructive competition must be a positive-sum exercise – instead of forcing countries to unduly choose between NATO and China, the imperative should be on convincing member states and/or favorable allies that both models hold positive potentialities. The focus should be on proving the relative desirability of the alliance’s governing system and model, as opposed to preparing the world for increased great power rivalry. This can be done through more inclusive, consultative decision-making mechanisms within NATO that shift the alliance away from the U.S.-led hegemony. In the case of China, this looks like renewing organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to ensure that China plays a more sizeable role in steering and managing internal dynamics. 

Finally, NATO and China must continually cooperate on matters ranging from peacekeeping in international waters, to supporting under-resourced governments struggling to contain domestic security risks and threats - there is much that can be done together. A tribalistic, Balkanized world with parallel, separate spheres of security may not seem like a bad idea at first glance, but as the world trends toward that reality, it may well end up going down the well-trodden path that our predecessors did in the run-up to the two devastating world wars that shook the world in the first half of the 20th century. Preventing war is of utmost importance. 


Why Both NATO and China Can Benefit 

The final question then remains – what’s in it for both sides? Why should they agree to this distancing/non-negotiation-competition-cooperation tricolon? For NATO, the answer is clear – they could ill afford to fight, and seek to win, two wars at the same time. It makes no rational sense for NATO to antagonize both Russia and China in ways that would only push the two substantial powers ever closer together. Additionally, NATO member states seek to preserve the intactness of the alliance against rising costs of living. In this view, China could help through its role as a primary exporter and key market player, and pivotal trading partner to European countries over the past few decades.

Similarly, China would not seek unnecessary conflicts, especially in relation to NATO. NATO is here to stay as a political and security entity, and in a truly multipolar world order, there should also be a place for NATO, in addition to the U.S., on the global stage. China is right in thinking that it is entitled to its own geopolitical and security concerns being taken seriously. The operative question is could this be accomplished without the upsetting or challenging to status quo norms and institutional arrangements? I am of the view that it can – China is not a systemic challenger to the global order, even if it does indeed present an alternative vision for world.

Finally, managing NATO-China relations is also central to resolving the tensions between Beijing and Washington. NATO member states are not the U.S. – both China and America would benefit from recognizing that fact. They possess their own agency, intentions, and value systems that ought to be addressed constructively, as opposed to manipulatively or unduly antagonistically. In the final analysis, there remains a realistic and pragmatic path forward for all involved parties.


Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.


This article is from the July issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the July issue, please click here:





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