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NATO’s looming future amid divergence and fractures

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) leaders pose for a group photo at the NATO Summit in London, Britain, on Dec. 4, 2019. (Xinhua/Han Yan)

People’s Daily Online | 2019-12-6 Friday

US efforts to steer its allies to define China as a threat have come to nothing after members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) issued a declaration Wednesday, in which China was identified as providing strategic “opportunities and challenges”. Experts have described this as a demonstration of NATO’s looming fractures.

According to the London Declaration issued by NATO on Dec. 4, Russia and terrorism are once again listed as threats to the transatlantic military alliance, while for the first time, China’s growing influence and international policies are singled out as “both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.”

Before the NATO summit, several US officials called for NATO to treat China as a threat, with secretary of state Mike Pompeo calling China a country which “poses an enormous risk to NATO”, while Kay Bailey Hutchison, the permanent US representative to NATO, added that China is now a “developed threat” and it’s time for the country to “respect global rules.”

“Despite US efforts to make China the new enemy of NATO, its allies have different concerns. The declaration has revealed the growing divergence among NATO members,” Sun Chenghao, an assistant research fellow with the Institute of American Studies of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told People’s Daily Online.

Looming conflicts

Responding to the declaration, Hua Chunying, spokeswoman of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, noted Thursday that even within NATO, different voices are stating China is not an enemy. She further added that the greatest threat the world faces is unilateralism and bullying practices.

Hua’s remarks come after a fierce row between the presidents of France and the US earlier this month, with Macron warning that NATO was at risk of “brain death” due to ongoing indifference towards the alliance from the US side, while Trump declared the comments “nasty and insulting.”

Zhao JunJie, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of European Studies, told People’s Daily Online that there are rising tensions at the top of the alliance, which is dominated by pro-European military independence powers such as France and Germany, and the openly EU-skeptical US.

According to Zhao, pro-EU powers such as France and Germany are not satisfied with a NATO led by US priorities. They wish to build an independent European defense network, while the US attitude towards multilateralism has irritated European countries.

“The US attitude towards its allies has changed significantly. Before, the US provided Europe economic benefits in exchange for military support. Now, however, it accuses the latter of taking advantage of the US, while demanding they serve US security interests,” said Sun, who added that under such circumstances, Europe is more willing to reduce its reliance on the US and develop its own strategic and security independence outside of the NATO framework.

In addition to mutual discontent between the US and Europe, alliance members cannot agree on current priorities and major tasks of NATO.

“Unlike many European countries, the US has already changed its primary national security concern from terrorism to inter-state strategic competition. Thus it will always try to make NATO a frontline to tackle China’s rising influence,” said Sun.

Europe, on the other hand, has more pressing issues than China to deal with, noted Sun, who said that for some Eastern European nations, Russia is regarded as a significant threat, while for countries like France, anti-terrorism measures should always be the most pressing issue for NATO.

“Sino-European relations are now flourishing. Europe may follow the US to condemn China when it comes to economic issues, but it’s unlikely that Europe will announce China as a military threat, considering the intensive cultural and economic cooperation from both sides,” Sun added.

Confusing alliance at a crossroad

As a 70-year-old military organization set up to fight the long-gone USSR, experts noted that NATO is currently at a crossroad, as members are confused about the significance of NATO’s existence, as well as how much influence members should have over one another’s military policy.

“During the Cold War, NATO members were united, as the enemy they feared was too powerful to tackle alone. But the USSR is long gone, and whatever threat is posed today cannot compare. Thus a new powerful enemy is urgently required to maintain NATO’s legitimacy,” said Sun, who added that the failure to list China as NATO’s enemy would deepen doubts within NATO.

Experts also noted that the disagreement on major political issues among the member states had added more uncertainty to NATO’s future, especially when it comes to France and Germany’s attitudes toward NATO, as well as Turkey’s position in the organization.

“Though both France and Germany want to promote military integration, the former pursues a more radical method, while the latter doesn’t wish to abandon US-led NATO as Europe’s security insurance right now,” said Sun. He noted that such disagreements, along with Turkey’s actions without NATO’s approval cannot be easily solved, and will cast shadow on NATO’s future.

“Though, surely, the US will keep persuading its allies to name China as a powerful enemy, it is unlikely to happen,” added Sun.

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