China’s Views on NATO Expansion: A Secondary National Interest

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 5

The eastward expansion of membership and enlargement of missions undertaken by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) over the past decade push a lot of sensitive buttons in China’s national security policy. These sensitivities include long-standing opposition to the enlargement of military blocs and strengthening of military alliances, interference in the internal affairs of other countries, fear of containment, and opposition to ballistic missile defense systems.

Despite being vestiges of what the Chinese call “Cold War mentality” (lengzhan siwei), the government of China has said very little officially and publicly about NATO expansion. Beijing’s general opposition to many specific elements of these policies has been consistently defined by official Chinese policy for decades, most readily accessible in its series of White Papers on National Defense since 1998. Moreover, the Chinese government’s declared policy for itself is to refrain from taking many of the actions NATO has embraced.

Notwithstanding its criticism of “Cold War mentality,” China’s foreign policy is rooted in the unabashedly Cold War formulation of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.” These are 1) mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity (huxiang zunzhong zhuquan he lingtu wanzheng), 2) mutual non-aggression (hubu qinfan), 3) non-interference in each other’s internal affairs (hubu ganshe neizheng), 4) equality and mutual benefit (pingdeng huli) and 5) peaceful coexistence (heping gongchu) [1].

China expanded and updated these principles early this decade with its “New Security Concept,” (xin anquan guan) the core of which is “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination.” Under this doctrine, Beijing seeks international cooperation “on the basis of the UN Charter, the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” and other widely recognized norms governing international relations” [2].

These basic principles can also be traced from the 1998 White Paper to the 2008 edition issued in January 2009. The White Papers outline China’s general intentions for its own national defense. For example, “China does not seek hegemonism, nor does it seek military blocs or military expansion. China does not station any troops or set up any military bases in any foreign country” [3]. (Emphasis added) In this context, the term “military expansion” refers to the use of force to attain foreign territory or resources. “Military expansion” does not equate to military modernization, a process the Chinese readily admit to be underway. At the same time China does not insist other countries follow the guidelines Beijing sets for itself.

While China does not join military blocs, it accepts the continued existence of military alliances (such as NATO and the U.S.-Japan or U.S.-R.O.K. alliances), but opposes their expansion. The 1998 White Paper states “the enlargement of military blocs and the strengthening of military alliances” have added “factors of instability to international security” [4]. (Emphasis added) This principle continues through the 2008 update that says China “will encourage the advancement of security dialogues and cooperation with other countries, oppose the enlargement of military alliances, and acts of aggression and expansion” [5]. (Emphasis added) Though Beijing does not support NATO expansion in principle, the subject is not addressed directly now or in previous White Papers.

The extension of NATO’s mission to conduct military operations against Yugoslavia was perceived by Beijing as a serious challenge to UN authority and contrary to the general principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of others. According to the 2000 White Paper:

“Under the pretexts of "humanitarianism" and "human rights," some countries have frequently resorted to the use or threat of force, in flagrant violation of the UN Charter and other universally recognized principles governing international relations. In particular, the NATO, by-passing the UN Security Council, launched military attacks against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, producing an extremely negative impact on the international situation and relations between countries” [6].

Left unsaid was the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by an American B-2 resulting in the deaths of three Chinese citizens in May 1999. Even while the standard formulation in the Chinese press at the time referred to the “U.S.-led NATO attack on the Chinese Embassy,” it is remarkable that the 2000 White Paper did not refer to the U.S. specifically by name in this incident [7].

The 2000 White Paper also refrained from citing the United States as the “certain country” that “is still continuing its efforts to develop and introduce the National Missile Defense (NMD) and Theater Missile Defense (TMD) systems, which have undermined the international community’s efforts to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” On the other hand, when it came to America’s relationship with Taiwan in 2000, Beijing was direct in its criticism:

“The United States has never stopped selling advanced weapons to Taiwan. Some people in the United States have been trying hard to get the Congress to pass the so-called Taiwan Security Enhancement Act. And some are even attempting to incorporate Taiwan into the US TMD system. The newly revised Guidelines for U.S.-Japan Defense Cooperation has failed to explicitly undertake to exclude Taiwan from the scope of ‘the areas surrounding Japan’ referred to in the Japanese security bill that could involve military intervention” [8].

The subject of Taiwan in 2000, shortly after the election of Chen Shui-bian as president, was important enough to name names specifically. Likewise, the potential that Taiwan could be brought under a U.S. theater missile defense umbrella also spurred Beijing to action. Furthermore, consistent with its opposition of the strengthening or expanding of military alliances, Beijing also criticized the U.S.-Japan alliance for failing to “exclude Taiwan from the scope of ‘the areas surrounding Japan.’” Of all China’s national interests, these direct references to the United States and Japan underscore “the question of Taiwan” as what U.S. strategists would define as a “vital national interest” [9]. Opposing NATO expansion does not rise to that level of national interest.

Within the past year, U.S. arrangements to deploy elements of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, two new NATO members, contributed to Beijing’s continued general opposition to missile defense in the most recent White Paper: “China maintains that the global missile defense program will be detrimental to strategic balance and stability, undermine international and regional security, and have a negative impact on the process of nuclear disarmament” [10]. However, the 2008 White Paper stated that Washington’s decision last October “to sell arms to Taiwan in violation of the principles established in the three Sino-US joint communiqués, causing serious harm to Sino-U.S. relations as well as peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits” elicited direct condemnation from Beijing. More concretely, China retaliated by canceling a visit to the United States by a senior Chinese general and port calls by naval vessels, and indefinitely postponing meetings on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (The Associated Press, February 27). The 5-month freeze on Sino-U.S. military contact resumed late February in Beijing with the meeting between U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense David Sedney and Major General Qian Lihua, the Chinese Defense Ministry’s head of foreign affairs.

Underscoring the common perceptions among much of China’s security elite, the 2008 White Paper also identifies “containment from the outside” as one of its “long-term, complicated, and diverse security threats and challenges.” While Beijing understands the necessity of combating international terrorist organizations (one of China’s “three evils” of ‘terrorism, separatism and extremism’), the ongoing, multi-year “out-of-area” deployment of NATO troops in Afghanistan is a constant reminder of its possible encirclement.

The potential of a NATO presence on China’s western borders was foreshadowed in October 1997 when 500 paratroopers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division jumped into Kazakhstan after a direct flight of 8,000 miles for training with forces from (NATO-member) Turkey, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgystan. Then-U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Catherine Kelleher statement probably contributed to Beijing’s paranoia: “Militarily stronger neighbors, such as China and India, will likely want access to these resources … As such, it’s in the interests of the United States to help establish and maintain regional stability and security” [11].

Conversely, Beijing does not perceive its participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to be a counterweight to NATO. Formed in 2001 and composed of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, the SCO is a not a military alliance. Its security cooperation focuses on “the fight against terrorism, separatism and extremism” [12]. The SCO has nothing like Article 5 of the NATO Treaty which states “an armed attack against one or more [member] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” [13]. Tensions in the organization were clearly visible during the August War in 2008 between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia when the member states expressed “their deep concern in connection with the recent tension around the issue of South Ossetia,” but did not back Russia’s military efforts [14].

Privately the leaders in Beijing and Moscow may rail against NATO expansion, but Chinese leaders have not voiced their direct concerns publicly. Currently NATO seeks to “launch a fundamental discussion of the roles [Russia] should play in the 21st Century,” but is hampered in beginning this discussion “when Russia is building bases inside Georgia.” According to the NATO Secretary General, a “new European Security Architecture” needs “to move beyond a 19th century ‘Great Game’ idea of spheres of influence” [15]. The Chinese can commiserate with Russian apprehensions, but have a different security calculus to consider. Recently the Chinese publication Outlook Weekly (Liaowang) framed NATO expansion in a purely Moscow-centric context: the United States “has gone all-out to push NATO’s eastward expansion so as to squeeze Russia’s geostrategic space” (Liaowang, February 9). Writing for Xinhua the same author observed, “The U.S.-Russia relationship has been at its worst stage mainly because of the Bush administration’s efforts to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and to enlarge NATO, especially by trying to bring Ukraine and Georgia into the military bloc” (Xinhua News Agency, February 20). In the end, the author recommends no role for China, “it is hoped that the United States and Russia can make some friendly moves, such as the US [sic] side shelving ABM deployment in east Europe and temporarily easing up on bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO; and the Russian side could step up coordinated interaction with the Obama administration on the financial crisis and the Iranian nuclear issue” (Liaowang, February 9).

In summary, countering NATO expansion has become a “secondary national interest” for China. While NATO’s new form and substance challenge longstanding tenets of Chinese defense policy and are uncomfortable for some Chinese leaders, NATO expansion currently does not threaten Beijing’s vital interests. Other goals are more important to Chinese leaders than bashing heads with those in Washington and the European capitals who have not yet been visibly influenced by Moscow’s more vigorous opposition. Beijing is likely to remain silent on the sidelines and observe the political and diplomatic infighting surrounding this issue. Finally, because of the sensitivities of a NATO military presence on China’s southwestern border, Beijing is unlikely to support the notion of an alternate supply route into Afghanistan via western China without quietly insisting on significant reciprocal U.S. or European concessions on issues key to China’s own vital national interests.


1. This joint Sino-Indian formulation, however, initially was directed toward the Third World and only over the decades has it been applied to China’s foreign policy writ large.
2. “China’s Position Paper on the New Security Concept,” July 31, 2002, at
3. “China’s National Defense,” July 1998, at
4. “China’s National Defense,” July 1998 at I am grateful to Dr. David Finkelstein of CNA who pointed out this nuance in China’s official position a decade ago.
5. “China’s National Defense in 2008,” January 2009 at
6. “China’s National Defense in 2000,” October 2000, at
7. In contrast, see “U.S.-led NATO’s Attack on the Chinese Embassy in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,” November 15, 2000, at
8.  “China’s National Defense in 2000,” October 2000.
9. See Michael G. Roskin, “National Interest: From Abstraction to Strategy,” Parameters, Winter 1994, at Roskin quotes Hans Morgenthau on two levels of national interest, the vital and the secondary. With vital interests, “there can be no compromise or hesitation about going to war.” Whereas, secondary interests are “those over which one may seek to compromise, are harder to define. Typically, they are somewhat removed from your borders and represent no threat to your sovereignty.”
10. “China’s National Defense in 2008,” January 2009. The U.S. anti-missile basing agreement was one of the “Top 10 international military news in 2008” defined by the PLA Daily. See
11. Douglas J. Gillert, “After Jumping, Battalion Learns to Crawl,” American Forces Press Service, at
12.  “Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” at
13.  “The North Atlantic Treaty” text found at
14.  “Dushanbe Declaration of Heads of SCO Member States” at
15.  “Remarks by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at the Munich Security Conference,” February 7, 2009 at