The recently held G7 summit in the UK and NATO summit in Brussels effectively demonstrate how the Western alliance under the US leadership is expanding its ideological horizon to counter China. While the alliance remains anti-Russia for reasons that are both historical and geo-politically relevant, the fact that NATO is now particularly focused on China shows how the alliance that was founded post-Second World War to counter Soviet Union is reinventing itself in the 21st century. Not only the alliance is creating its new ideological grounds, but the fact that Canada and Europe are apparently toing the US line vis-à-vis China attests to the continuity of US hegemony within the alliance and why Europe is finding it hard to de-couple itself from the US. While it remains to be seen whether new contradictions emerge in the alliance or not, or whether the Biden administration can discourage Europe from asserting its strategic autonomy in the long run, it remains that the new US administration is keen to revive the Western alliance to meet its overarching global objectives.
NATO meeting’s final communique issued on June 14 addressed the ‘China threat’ saying, “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security”, and that the alliance in is “concerned” over China’s “coercive policies”, its rapidly expanding nuclear capability, its growing military co-operation with Russia, and its “irresponsible” behaviour in the international arena.
While the communique shows a growing political convergence in the West around China’s global rise, what is striking is how NATO’s final communique has little to nothing to offer in terms of describing any military threat that China might be posing to the alliance, specifically to Europe. Unlike Soviet Union, which was next door to Europe, China does not pose a direct or indirect military threat to any European state, nor has it ever projected any military ambitions. While China does have economic ambitions, which it has operationalised through the BRI, it remains that the alliance’s ideological ground vis-à-vis China lack an immediate and credible direct military threat from China. In the absence of a credible military threat from China, NATO’s attempt to reinvent itself in the 21st century and justify its existence becomes a purely political exercise, which may not yield desired results for the US.
A contributing factor for NATO’s failure to re-build itself around a direct and credible military threat from China is the fact most European members of the alliance themselves do not see China as a military threat. Although they do have their concerns vis-à-vis China’s increasing economic influence, the absence of a direct military threat from China means that the US, which does believe China’s military rise poses a threat to US interests in Asia, will not be able to really channelise the military alliance against China for essentially non-military ‘threats’ it poses to the alliance. It is due precisely to Europe’s different (non-military) view of China that the communique emphasised “a constructive dialogue” with China and welcomes “opportunities to engage.”
As reports in the Western mainstream media outlined, the US officials confirmed that many in Europe, despite the apparent enthusiasm, do not share the US views with regards to the nature of threats that China poses. For instance, Italy and Germany were uneasy with potential communique language that China might view as provocative. Stressing “balance,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that “China is our rival in many questions but also our partner in many aspects.” Emmanuel Macron said the G7 wanted to work with Beijing on climate, trade, development and other issues despite disagreements. “I will be very clear: The G7 is not a club hostile to China,” the French President said.
However, the fact that the US continues to push for a reinvention of NATO and the overall Western alliance, the G7, in the 21st century shows that the US sees this alliance as extremely crucial for exercising its own hegemony in the world i.e., not only vis-à-vis China and Russia, but also vis-à-vis Europe. In other words, a continued existence of NATO is essential not only because it allows the US to expand its influence worldwide, but also because NATO is the umbilical cord that militarily connects the US with Europe, keeping the latter dependent on the former. By ensuing a continuing relevance of NATO in the present geo-political context, the US hopes to maintain its own relevance for Europe.
In other words, while channelising NATO against China would ultimately allow the US to build a global coalition it has, ever since the Trump days, been looking to build to “roll back” China’s growing economic and military influence, it will equally allow it to keep Europe under its radar and prevent it from developing its strategic autonomy and assert itself independently of the US in the global arena as a player which may or may not have common interests with the US. The Biden administration’s recent decision to un-sanction Nord Stream-2 company also illustrates its very conscious efforts to rein Germany/Europe back in the alliance that its wants to build against China primarily. The decision shows that the US is willing to allow Europe a certain leeway, even if it involves developing economic ties with Russia, or a latent hope that even Russia can be lured in the alliance against China.
However, as is evident, Europe — especially, the two major European powers Germany and France — does not see eye to eye as to whether to regard China as a partner, competitor, adversary or outright security threat. Besides it, despite the on-going diplomatic turf war between China and Europe and imposition of sanctions, the Europe-China investment deal remains alive. Charles Michel, president of European Council, only recently called the deal a “step in the right direction.” “For the first time we are making a step to facilitate investment by European companies and also, based on this proposed agreement, there are commitments expressed by the Chinese authorities on social rights”, Michel added.
While it is quite evident that Europe doesn’t share the US enthusiasm vis-à-vis China, it is also obvious that the mood swing in Europe will stall the US efforts to muster a comprehensive western response against China in and beyond Europe. What adds to this swing is the fact the US, despite its anti-China rhetoric, continues to retain its deep economic ties with China, and there is no real willingness to “de-couple” or cut the umbilical cord with China. If the US aims to keep this cord, why can’t Europe do the same is the question that Europeans have not refused to ask despite the arrival of a president in the White House who doesn’t share Trump’s anti-Europe vision.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.