NATO and the Asia Pacific

Lucas Blasco is a second year International Relations student from Spain, who is currently in an exchange year at the University of Hong Kong. During the past month he has developed a strong interest in the East Asia region, namely its economic development and the role of China in the XXIst century international order.

Last week, the Spanish capital city of Madrid hosted over 5000 people for the 2022 NATO summit, in which over 50 delegations attended as either members or guests. The Russian invasion of Ukraine stood at the forefront of the successive meetings, with NATO inviting president Volodymyr Zelensky to intervene and considering Russia as “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” (clause 8). Moreover, even before the summit had officially started, Turkey announced that it would not veto Sweden and Finland’s accession to the Alliance after a three-way joint memorandum in which Ankara’s concerns over the treatment of Kurdish groups in both Scandinavian countries were addressed.

Nevertheless, the Madrid summit also included less newsworthy but equally important implications for East Asia, NATO’s ally countries in the region, and the role of China in global affairs. In this sense, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan participated in the meeting, with South Korea taking part in the summit for the first time in history. Their participation and their joint meeting with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg highlighted that, despite President Putin’s war of aggression on Ukraine, the Alliance still has its eye fixed on the Indo-Pacific region and on possible regional instability stemming from an increased Chinese assertiveness. In fact, the eighth strategic concept approved by the 30 leaders in Madrid makes direct mention of China. Specifically, NATO countries accuse China of striving to “subvert the rules-based international order” (clause 13), and of using its economic leverage and power to “create strategic dependencies and enhance its influence” around the world (clause 13). Moreover, the strategic concept also highlights the lack of transparency in the PRC’s military and nuclear arsenal build-up (clause 18) and also criticises the enhanced partnership between the Russian Federation and the PRC (clause 13), which, NATO members believe poses a direct challenge to the international rules-based order (clause 14).

China has been quick to respond to the NATO summit and its strategic concept. The PRC’s Mission to the European Union had strong words for what it described as NATO’s “cold war thinking and ideological bias” in categorising China as a systemic threat to the liberal and rules-based international order. In this regard, the spokesperson of the Chinese Mission to the EU posited that China is “a force for world peace” and, most importantly, “a defender of the international order” “with the UN at its core”. The spokesperson justified China’s role as a peaceful nation through its non-intervention policy and its rise as “an opportunity for the world, not a challenge to anyone”, in opposition to what the Mission to the EU believes that NATO represents by constantly “creating enemies and engaging in bloc confrontation”. The spokesperson also openly criticised NATO’s focus on the Asia-Pacific region, believing that it should not be within the sphere of concern of a North Atlantic organisation, ignoring the concerns of regional NATO allies such as the Republic of Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, all of which attended the Madrid summit to ensure the securitisation of the East Asian region. 

All in all, the recent NATO summit in Madrid has done little to alleviate the worsening relations between China and NATO member states. China has vowed to “pay close attention and respond in a coordinated way” to any actions that may threaten the country. Even though the Russian invasion of Ukraine took centre stage in the summit, China and its rise and potential challenge to the international order was an important topic of debate conveying that Sino-Atlantic relations are likely to worsen over time. The Alliance has vowed to be a helping hand to its regional allies in their security, but China has also pledged to respond accordingly. We do not know what further steps the Alliance or the PRC will take, but it is very likely that none will help in the cooling of tensions between both.

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