On November 25, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg released a report titled Nato 2030, meant to reveal the 30-nation security alliance's strategic orientations. The last time such a report was issued was in 2010, titled "Strategic Concept". It is essentially a Nato equivalent of the US National Security Strategy.
The document details many security challenges that have emerged during the past decade, including social unrest and terrorist threats in the Middle East, and, as Nato sees it, Russia's assertive agenda in its neighbouring states.
But its most remarkable feature is the description of China as a "systemic rival" of Nato, on par with Russia. The report repeatedly talks of challenges posed by Beijing to Europe, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific region.
This is the first time a Nato document has portrayed China in such manner. In contrast, the 2010 Strategic Concept did not even mention Beijing. This reflects how much the discussion on China between the US and its European allies has evolved over the past 10 years. In April 2019, US Vice President Mike Pence used the celebrations of Nato's 70th anniversary to call on its member states to play a greater role in the Indo-Pacific region vis-a-vis China. Mr Pence's words demonstrated growing tensions between Washington and Beijing during the Trump administration – be they over tariffs, Chinese naval activities in the South China Sea or 5G competition.
The new focus on China could have implications on how Nato views the Arab world. The document depicts the Middle East primarily as a theatre of power plays between the West, Russia and China – reminiscent of the Cold War era. But this is a skewed vision of the region, one that could narrow Nato's partnerships with Arab countries as a means to balance China.
That worldview is unlikely to fade away under a Biden administration. In fact, at the moment, China might be one of the few international issues rallying bipartisan support in the US. However, President-elect Joe Biden may differ from President Donald Trump in his expectations of allies when addressing it. It is, therefore, no coincidence that Nato felt the need to acknowledge the issue of China on its own terms.
The Chinese question did not surface suddenly in Nato discussions in 2020. For years, the alliance has been speculating about the impact of China's strategic rise, and more broadly the new primacy of Asia in international politics.
In 2019, Fabrice Pothier, formerly the head of Nato's Policy Planning Unit, wrote that "if Nato did not go to the Asia-Pacific, the region would come to Nato". European countries also began re-orienting their foreign policies towards Asia. France released its own Indo-Pacific strategy in 2019, denouncing what it perceived to be China's gunboat diplomacy vis-a-vis its South-East Asian neighbours, in tandem with cementing new political ties with India and Australia. Meanwhile, the UK also revived its partnerships with Asian allies, amid mounting speculation over the potential forward deployment of British naval assets in East Asia.
These developments indicate a certain degree of alignment between the US and some of its European allies on the nature of the Chinese challenge. But putting China explicitly on the agenda of Nato is a major new step that will generate more geopolitical uncertainty, rather than clarity. There is no consensus in Europe on how it should define its relations with China. Whereas the views in France may echo those in Washington, other countries maintain a distinct position. For instance, Italy embraced China's Belt and Road Initiative. Last August, Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio talked of building a "strategic partnership" with Beijing.
In the current context, adding China to the Nato agenda is likely to exacerbate the disputes among western allies. Until recently, this internal debate was driven by two competing views. On the one hand, those in eastern Europe argued that Russia, particularly after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, was the obvious priority that required Nato's full attention and resources. On the other, those in southern Europe argued that the major threat to the alliance was instability in North Africa and the Middle East, with its consequences in terms of terrorist attacks and illegal migration.
Nato has always trodden a fine line between the different priorities of its member states, but in the past few years the political environment in Brussels has deteriorated, in light of Mr Trump's overt contempt for the politics of the alliance and the escalating dispute between France and Turkey, two of its key members. That particular rift has also altered perceptions of the strength of the Nato alliance in places like the Middle East, where France and Turkey have publicly competed to solidify their own alliances.
Furthermore, Nato appears ill-prepared to play a role in a hypothetical US-China confrontation. As a military alliance, it devotes most of its time and resources to defending Nato territories. It is in fit shape for a Cold War scenario of a conflict with Russia. But so far the competition between Washington and Beijing is of a different nature, given that it primarily focuses on economics, a domain outside Nato's scope. Even if tensions were to flare up in East Asia, a military crisis would not automatically lead to an engagement of the alliance, whose original mission remains the defence of the territories of its members.
Also, while Nato may aspire to a greater role in the Indo-Pacific, its diplomatic reach in the area is limited. Nato partnerships with Australia, New Zealand, or Asian partners such as Japan, are modest. Significantly, the Nato 2030 report recommends stronger ties with India, a move designed to reign in China but which merely rehashes old American strategies. To this day, Delhi maintains a cautious distance from Nato as a result of two main factors: India's enduring non-alignment foreign policy and its general scepticism of multilateral organisations.
The mention of China in the new Nato strategic document clearly signals the desire in the West to reframe the trans-Atlantic partnership vis-a-vis the rise of Beijing. However, it cannot simply be described as just a policy shift. Rather, it is the manifestation of major political battles to come in Brussels.
Jean-Loup Samaan is an Abu Dhabi-based researcher in strategic affairs