China and NATO: Grappling with Beijing’s Hopes and Fears

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 13

NATO Secretary General in His Recent Xinhua Interview

On July 4, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he hoped to expand the alliance’s dialogue with China, because “NATO needs to better understand China and define areas where [the two] can work together to guarantee peace and stability” as part of the transformation of NATO into “an alliance that is globally aware, globally connected and globally capable” (Xinhua, July 5). The speech followed a reassuring interview with Xinhua where Rasmussen told the Chinese press NATO had no intentions of establishing a military presence in the Asia-Pacific and that he appreciated China’s willingness to expand military-to-military and political contacts (Xinhua, June 30). Although the absence of Chinese representatives from the NATO Summit in Chicago show the relationship is under-developed, Beijing has evinced a growing comfort in meeting with NATO as long as ties proceed deliberately.

Chinese analysts have viewed NATO’s expanding global role with a mixture of hopes and fears. Their immediate desire is that NATO will help manage a peaceful transition in Afghanistan that ensures the safety of China’s investments in that country as well as prevents Afghan territory from again becoming a safe haven for anti-Beijing Islamic miltitants. China’s longer-term aspirations are for NATO’s other members to limit the use of U.S. military power in East Asia and elsewhere. Conversely, Chinese fears reside in concerns that Washington will use NATO as yet another partner to contain Beijing’s growing global influence.

Yet, NATO interest in engaging China derives precisely from Beijing’s rising potential to shape the international security environment in both benign as well as adverse ways from Brussels’ perspective. NATO officials see opportunities to cooperate with China in promoting security in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, countering maritime piracy in the Gulf of Aden and curtailing nuclear weapons proliferation in Iran and North Korea. But they also complain about cyber espionage and cyber attacks on NATO countries believed to come from China as well as Beijing’s limited support for NATO logistical efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan (The Guardian, March 10).


China and NATO had little interaction during the six decades following the Alliance’s creation. The first direct contact between NATO and China occurred in 1999, when U.S. bombers struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during Operation Allied Force, NATO’s air campaign over Kosovo and Serbia. NATO said the incident, which killed three Chinese citizens, was an accident due to an outdated map, but Chinese officials suspected that it was deliberate. The incident kept Sino-NATO relations frozen and still grates on Beijing, as evident by the cutting remark of Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of China’s general staff, to U.S. officials after NATO killed 25 Pakistani frontier soldiers in an incident last November: “Were you using the wrong maps again?” (German Marshall Fund, May 23).

This act triggered sharp Chinese denunciations about NATO’s perceived illegitimate interference in the domestic affairs of non-member countries without the approval of the UN Security Council [1]. Chinese commentators since have expressed the opinion that NATO was an unnecessary Cold War relic that is used to pursue “egoistic interests under dignified disguises” (Xinhua, May 20).

Informal political discussions between Beijing and Brussels began in 2002, after NATO developed a military presence in Afghanistan, which borders China and has served as a source of anti-Beijing Islamist terrorism in the past. The Chinese Ambassador to Belgium initiated consultations with the NATO Secretary General at NATO’s political headquarters about the alliance’s operations in Afghanistan as well as the alliance’s general organization and activities (, November 10, 2009). The Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs later visited NATO Headquarters in 2007, launching a sustained political dialogue between senior staff members of both institutions [2].

It was not until recently, however, that the political dialogue has become more institutionalized. In 2009, NATO Deputy Secretary General Claudio Bisogniero visited Beijing for the highest level talks in Beijing to date (, November 10, 2009). Senior PRC and NATO representatives—including the Chinese ambassador to Belgium, the NATO Secretary General and the NATO Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy—now meet regularly twice a year to exchange views and information. Chinese representatives also participate in several NATO seminars and conferences, such as NATO’s annual conferences on WMD Arms Control, Disarmament, and Non-Proliferation [3].

Military-to-military interactions, though still unstructured, are also increasing. In June 2010, a group of senior PLA officers visited NATO headquarters. Since then, Chinese and NATO commanders have conducted reciprocal visits of each other’s flagships on anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. In February, a NATO delegation led by Lieutenant General Jürgen Bornemann, the NATO International Military Staff Director, conducted the first official visit by a NATO military delegation to China. The parties discussed military cooperation, defense reforms, NATO operations in general and the Asia-Pacific security environment. The Chinese and NATO delegations agreed to deepen counter-piracy training and education as well as to hold annual staff talks between NATO and the PLA (, February 15, February 12, January 19).

Global Partners

Secretary General Rasmussen has tried to establish the alliance as a leading global actor, contributing to peace and security beyond its traditional North Atlantic area of operations through a network of “partners across the globe” (, March 19). In a speech at the February 2010 Munich Security Conference, Rasmussen said NATO should become “a forum for consultation on worldwide security issues.”In April 2011, NATO foreign ministers in Berlin adopted a new partnership policy to help the alliance make better use of partnerships while offering greater incentives for countries to cooperate with NATO.

Rasmussen has cited China’s global power and influence as reasons why NATO needs to engage more directly with that country. He and other NATO representatives have argued that China and NATO have common security concerns regarding transnational terrorism, nuclear proliferation, cyber threats, regional stability, energy security and maritime piracy (Xinhua, September 17, 2011; November 23, 2010). Facing major budgetary and economic problems, NATO governments are eager to share international security burdens in the face of major budgetary problems, but  China’s ability to harm NATO countries through its cyber activities, support for rogue states, or other actions also drives Brussels to engage with Beijing.

Chinese officials have reciprocated cautiously NATO’s interest in dialogue and possible collaboration on international terrorism and maritime security. PRC representatives have expressed a desire to work with NATO on the basis of “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination” (China Daily, May 21).

Chinese and NATO representatives both see Afghanistan as an obvious area where NATO and China share security interests and can work jointly. Most obviously, NATO can provide the benign security environment needed to attract Chinese investment into Afghanistan, helping develop the country’s natural resources. A stronger Afghan economy can in turn help generate the revenue the Afghan government needs to support the large security forces NATO is training. It also can provide alternative employment for Afghans who might otherwise turn to the drug trade or the insurgency.

Countering Somali-based piracy in the Gulf of Aden has become another important area of cooperation. Chinese and NATO warships have both been operating in the area in independent but proximate operations. NATO’s anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa began in December 2008, disrupting pirate attacks through direct actions and building the capacity of local countries to fight piracy independently (, January 19). The Chinese decision in late 2008 to send a naval task force to join the multinational mission in the Gulf of Aden meant that Chinese naval vessels would be operating regularly in the same area as NATO warships. Chinese and NATO coordinate their operations in this mission under the Shared Awareness and De-confliction (SHADE) forum for maritime security.

In September 2011, China joined some other NATO partners—Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Japan—at a meeting in Brussels to discuss countering piracy in the Indian Ocean. Chinese and NATO representatives have been discussing expanding this cooperation because they share a large stake in maintaining freedom of global sea lanes (Xinhua, September 17, 2011).

Global Rivals

China is the only UN Security Council permanent member without institutional contacts with NATO. In fact, one major Chinese concern is how NATO has relied on self-legitimization, citing humanitarian justifications such as the responsibility to protect threatened civilians, for its military actions when the Security Council fails to authorize them—such as in Kosovo and Libya (Xinhua, May 20).

Chinese officials profess to have learned from the Libyan experience that they cannot offer the Western powers anything that could justify armed intervention, because of their “preoccupation with armed might” (Xinhua, May 20). In their view, NATO exploited a Chinese and Russian decision to abstain on a Security Council resolution authorizing the modest use of force to protect civilians in Libya to expand its air campaign and eventually help organize a rebel ground force. “Libya offers a negative case study,” cautions an authoritative commentary, adding ”NATO abused the Security Council resolution about establishing a no-fly zone, and directly provided firepower assistance to one side in the Libyan war” (People’s Daily, February 6).

Chinese officials now often block NATO-supported resolutions in the UN Security Council, joining with Russian officials who share Chinese concerns about giving NATO a free license. Another official commentary after the June 2012 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit censored NATO for its proclivity to engage in military interventions over the years (China Daily, June 8; Xinhua, June 8). The SCO summit, held in Beijing, also published a declaration critical of NATO’s ballistic missile defense plans.

A major consideration driving Chinese interest in engaging with NATO is the negative concern to prevent the alliance from harming China’s security interests through its military and other actions. For instance, Chinese analysts worry that NATO efforts to negotiate the relocation away from Europe of Russia’s large stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons could result in Moscow simply relocating these weapons closer to China [4].

There is also an argument that NATO offers the PRC another avenue to influence foreign policies of the European Union. Correspondingly, the PRC has made a point to increase communication, cooperation engagement with the EU and its individual countries. Some PRC experts hope that collaboration between the PRC and EU will push the United States to act less unilaterally and adopt a less confrontational policy towards the PRC in correspondence with Europe’s desire not to harm the PRC economy and lower interest in East Asian military affairs [5].

Unsettled Reservations

Chinese representatives are uneasy about the alliance’s increased emphasis on global partnerships that extend into Asia. A particular concern is that Washington may be using NATO to help construct a global alliance network to contain China. Chinese writers have noted growing cooperation between NATO and India, Japan, Australia and other Asian states that may want to balance the growth of Chinese military power.

These concerns contribute to Chinese ambivalence about the U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Chinese analysts perceive NATO’s Afghan mission as struggling but worry that it might establish an enduring NATO military presence on China’s border (China Daily, May 21).  The People’s Daily stated NATO “should make efforts to strike a balance among security, governance, and development in Afghanistan, prevent its counter-terrorism efforts from producing the opposite results, and avoid leaving Afghanistan in a mess like the Soviet Union did” (People’s Daily, February 27).

For their part, NATO officials are eager to secure additional financial support to help pay for the alliance’s costly plans to build large Afghan security forces to preserve security even after NATO removes its combat troops from the country in 2014 (Reuters, April 19). Beijing however has been seeking to avoid tying its fate too closely to the Afghan government in Kabul. Helping build the Afghan security forces could antagonize the Taliban insurgents, who might turns their guns on China directly or, more likely, be less eager to suppress Uighur separatists and other Chinese Muslim groups opposed to Beijing’s religious policies.

The U.S. pivot to Asia also has heightened Beijing’s concerns about NATO, Qu Xing, Director of the Foreign Ministry-related China Institute of International Studies, termed the debut appearance of Australia, Japan, South Africa and North Korea at the Chicago summit as reflecting “the U.S. desire to expand NATO into Asia or to establish closer ties with allies in the region to handle the challenges that the US mentioned in Asia, especially East Asia.” Another senior government-affiliated scholar suggested NATO planned “to set up some strategic strongholds in the Asia-Pacific region” (China Daily, May 21). NATO’s engagement with Mongolia has further exacerbated these concerns, which probably prompted Rasmussen’s recent downplaying of NATO’s support to the pivot (Xinhua, June 30; China Daily, May 17;, March 19).

Other constraints on stronger Chinese-NATO ties include Beijing’s official position of nonalignment and aversion to military alliances, the different values between China and NATO and the traditional lack of interest in many European governments about China’s growing military potential in Asia. Beijing also wonders why NATO still exists as shown by a People’s Daily commentary that warned the alliance “should not maintain its unsustainable life by exaggerating others’ military threats, pulling new members into it and establishing expansive missile defense systems” (People’s Daily, May 23).

Future Steps

NATO’s efforts to expand its global role, combined with China’s growing security engagement in regions to its west—Afghanistan, Central Asia, Gulf of Aden and the Mediterranean—seem destined to require further political dialogue with NATO. Next steps could include joint anti-piracy exercises between their parallel missions in the Gulf of Aden. Similarly, China could participate in NATO-led natural emergency relief exercises, such as those held in many of the former Soviet republics [6].A longer term goal might include institutionalizing their relationship by creating a NATO-China council or commission similar to the ones NATO has established with Russia and other select partners.

Afghanistan is likely to be the main driver for the next few years. Both China and NATO want to see a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan, but NATO’s ongoing military pullout could worsen hitherto largely latent tensions over burden sharing and buck passing. Rasmussen told the Chinese press that Afghanistan’s neighbors would need to provide more support for that country as NATO curtails its mission there (Xinhua, September 17, 2011).

Beijing remains uncomfortable with NATO’s growing ties with other Asian countries, so joint projects in East Asia will be difficult to achieve. NATO members need to discuss more with one another their perspectives on China’s security priorities and policies. The United States—as NATO’s sole member with major military assets in the Pacific—will need to lead efforts to inform its Asian allies about NATO’s evolving approach toward China. In most cases, “shared awareness and de-confliction” seems an appropriately modest but still achievable and useful goal for issues of mutual concern between NATO and China.


  1. Pan Zhenqiang, “China and NATO in the Future,” Foreign Affairs Journal [Beijing], No. 75, 2005.
  2. Assen Agov, “The Rise of China and Possible Implications for NATO,” NATO, Spring 2011,
  3. Christina Lin, “NATO-China Cooperation: Opportunities and Challenges,” testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Hearing: China-Europe Relationship and Transatlantic Implications, April 19, 2012.
  4. Paul Haenle and Shi Zhiqin, “The Second Chinese Scholars-NATO Dialogue Series,” Carnegie Endowment  Beijing, March 3, 2011,
  5. Pan, “China and NATO in the Future.”
  6. “The Rise of China and Possible Implications for NATO,” NATO, Spring 2011.