NATO and the “New Containment” Strategy Towards China: Motives, Challenges and Possibilities

Ahmed Diab | 26 Aug 2020

The former Soviet Union posed the most prominent challenge to the West and the US in particular at the ideological and military levels, since World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. However, from that moment on, strategic circles began to nominate China as the threat that would endanger the future of US power in the world. For more than a year, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has demanded that the alliance assume a greater political role in world affairs, and even help countries in the Indian and Pacific oceans compete with the rise of China.

During the NATO recent summit in London (3-4 December 2019), the final statement explicitly stated, for the first time in the history of the alliance summits, that the rising military power, China, was a potential new enemy. The statement said: "We recognise that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance."[1] In June 2020, the NATO Secretary-General, in an interview with the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, warned of the recent strong and rapid rise of China, warning that the global balance of power might change violently. He said: “China is coming ever closer to Europe's doorstep”, stressing the need for the Western alliance to be united in the face of this new force and challenges. He explained that no member country was directly threatened by China so far, but serious developments are observed in the South China Sea region, indicating that Beijing has increased its attempts to restrict the freedom of movement of ships in international waters.[2]

Incentives and Drivers

1. The expansion of China's global influence

After the outbreak of the financial crisis in the West in 2008, Beijing decided that the US decline has begun, and that it could abandon the mantra of "peaceful rise" and pursue its imperial designs in the South and East China Seas. China began to claim those waters by building artificial islands that violate the rights of its neighbours and ignoring international law, a policy that is committed to challenge Washington.[3]

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, a number of long-standing foreign policy taboos in China have been rethought. He demonstrated a new, more assertive foreign policy. In October 2013, he supported the "striving for achievement" policy in foreign affairs. At the end of 2015, he issued a new counterterrorism law that legalised, for the first time, sending Chinese troops on combat missions abroad without a United Nations (UN) mandate. The Chinese President pledged that by 2049, China would become a world leader in terms of composite national strength and broad international influence, and would build a stable international order in which China’s national rejuvenation could be fully achieved at all levels and in all fields of importance.[4]

While China's official defence budget is estimated at 260 billion dollars, it could mask far greater purchasing power, potentially reaching up to 70 percent of the US defence budget. Moreover, Beijing's expanding nuclear weapons capabilities can now reach Europe,[5] not to mention its economic capacity. China, which used to account for 10 percent of the US economy in 2001, now accounts for 65 percent thereof.

2. The US escalation against China

In recent years, there has been a clear negative shift in US attitudes towards China. The US Department of Defense believes that dealing with China’s rising power is one of the main military objectives of the US in the coming decades. The reason that the US is so much concerned about the rise of China is that China’s population and economic weight may make it a global competitor to the US. According to US military figures, the threat posed by China to US interests is the most consequential existential threat since World War II, even surpassing the Soviet threat during the Cold War. As the number two economy in the world, China’s reach into the governments and institutions of the West far exceeds what the Soviets could ever manage.[6]

In a series of speeches in the summer of 2020, senior officials in the Trump administration described Washington and Beijing as adversaries in a new cold war. Speaking to the Arizona Commerce Authority in late June 2020, Robert O'Brien, the US National Security Advisor, compared Chinese President Xi Jinping to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin during the Cold War. On 23 July 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the "free world" to "triumph over this new tyranny" practised by Communist China. He accused the Chinese President of being a "true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology”.[7]

3. Chinese expansion in Europe

Most of the NATO countries still do not believe the speed with which the Chinese government and its companies have executed hundreds of projects in Eurasia within the framework of the "Belt and Road" initiative launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013,[8] especially the widespread Chinese advance to take over, by partnership, purchase or lease, an increasing number of seaports overlooking the Mediterranean, some of which are used by NATO. For example, China controls the famous Greek port of Piraeus. It also funds highway and railway projects between the Balkan countries and Hungary.[9] Even more painful for NATO was its realization that China has achieved great success in the European defence market. Recently, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić announced his country's purchase of six Chinese-made CH-92A unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). This would make the Serbian army the first European army to use Chinese combat drones.[10]

4. Preserving NATO's unity

Traditionally, external threats generate greater cohesion for alliances. Accordingly, China can act as a driver of cohesion within the alliance which has witnessed over the past few years internal conflict between its member states. The meeting of NATO leaders in London in December 2019 could have been a disaster. US President Trump, who described NATO as an “obsolete alliance,” found it inevitable to play the role of a priest encouraging the “unity of the alliance”.[11] In the long term, China's rise will be of such a magnitude, and such closeness to the core interests of NATO, that no ally can afford to ignore it. Thus, future analysts will look back to 2019 and the London meeting as the point at which China offered NATO critical and enduring life support.[12]

5. Coronavirus pandemic crisis

It is no coincidence that the conflict between China and the West is raging while the world is preoccupied with the coronavirus which first appeared in China specifically. A senior NATO official said bluntly: “The health crisis has reinforced NATO’s concern about China. Attempts to mislead are no longer only Russian in origin, they have become a Chinese policy as well. We have realized that China can affect our security, not only indirectly, but also directly."[13] While China feels battered and oppressed by accusations of having caused the pandemic, and hit by the collapse of its economy, the leadership in Beijing also sees the crisis as an opportunity to expand its power. Their logic is such: We may be weak, but the others are currently much weaker.[14] In the eyes of the Trump administration, confrontation with China is preferable to cooperation in trying to combat the pandemic, and this was made abundantly clear during a bizarre Trump tirade in the Rose Garden on 14 July 2020 when he announced: “We hold China fully responsible for concealing the virus and unleashing it upon the world. They could’ve stopped it.”[15]

The coronavirus crisis came to crystallise the Chinese-US rivalry in an unusual way. The image of the US internationally regarding managing the coronavirus crisis, internally and externally, is catastrophic. For the first time since 1945, the US did not play a major role in managing a global crisis. While the current crisis does not allow Beijing to bypass Washington, it has accelerated China’s catch-up and made it visible to the eyes of the whole world.[16]

6. Increase in Chinese-Russian cooperation

Against the background of the Western clash with Russia after the latter's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Russia's interests with China converged greatly. In 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin met Chinese President Xi Jinping five times. In the same year, Russia and China held the largest joint military exercises in decades in Central Asia, the Arctic regions, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Trade between the two countries increased by more than 30 percent in 2018 and is expected to increase further.[17]

Mechanisms and tools

In light of the threats and challenges posed by the rise of China, the response of the West, and the US in particular, is to launch a "new containment" strategy towards China, which includes a number of tools and mechanisms, the most important of which are the following:

1. The expansion of NATO in the Asia-Pacific

In fact, the Asian continent was never a stranger to NATO. The North Korean missile programme, whose range could affect a large part of European territories before the US, has already put the continent on the agenda of the alliance, especially after the call by the NATO partners there - namely Japan, Australia and South Korea - on the alliance to intervene to deal with the security file in that region.[18]

In August 2019, NATO announced that it was expanding its security operations to include the Asia-Pacific region. US Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and his colleague Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travelled to Australia from 3 to 6 August 2019, and were joined by the Secretary-General of NATO. All discussed in Canberra the possibility of Australia's accession to the alliance. The prospect of Australia’s accession would lead to a profound change in the composition and meaning of the alliance that has so far been confined to the two sides of the Atlantic. It may also pave the way for Japan’s membership. NATO may deploy medium-range nuclear missiles around China. This was the deep meaning of the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) with Russia.[19]

2. The continuation of the US policy toward Asia

In early 2011, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a call for action in the "Pivot to Asia" and called on the US to leave Europe and the broader Middle East to deploy to the Far East. In 2018 specifically, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis re-named the US Pacific Command (USPACOM), adding the Indian Ocean, to be US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM).[20] The Pentagon has over 50,000 troops stationed in Japan, of whom half are in bases on the island of Okinawa which sits closer to Taiwan than it does to Tokyo. It is a pivotal foothold for Washington, both to protect Asian allies including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and to project U.S. power and be able to react to what are called by the US military command increasingly “aggressive military moves” by China in the region, and the ever-present threat from North Korea.[21]

3. Formation of the Quadrilateral Alliance

Washington believes that the best way to handle the Chinese challenge is to maintain an overbalance of power - a formidable coalition of democratic countries - that keeps even an increasingly aggressive China overmatched.[22] Washington’s efforts to revive the "quadrilateral" gathering (that emerged after the 2004 tsunami), made up of the US, India, Australia and Japan, began to accelerate recently. The gathering constitutes an informal strategic partnership and a tacit coalition between a group of democracies in the face of China. More recently, there were parallel exercises in the Indian-Pacific region, which included tripartite training between the US, Australia and Japan in the Philippine Sea on one side, and joint maritime training between India and the US in the Indian Ocean on the other side.[23]

4. Attempting to attract Russia to an alliance with the West against China

During the Cold War period, the US had been using China as a trump diplomatic card to contain the Soviet Union. On the other hand, China is now trying to use Russia to gain diplomatic influence vis-à-vis the US.[24] To major Western countries, China has become a major factor in their calculations towards Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron has been quoted as saying that “pushing Russia from Europe is a profound strategic error because we will push Russia either into an isolation that increases tensions, or into alliances with other great powers such as China”.[25] Some US circles believe that Russia can help contain or at least complicate China's rise to regional hegemony in Asia or in the future to global hegemony, in the event that the US follows the "third neighbour" strategy in its dealings with Russia.[26]

Risks and challenges

The "new containment" strategy towards China poses a number of risks that make the process of historical comparison with what happened with the former Soviet Union something completely different, and lead the West into a wrong "historical analogy" approach, as explained by the paper below:

  • The circumstances under which the embargo is being imposed on China are radically different from those under which it was imposed on the former Soviet Union. Washington succeeded in bringing the blockade to the Communist Alliance countries everywhere. Will it succeed in reaching nearly 120 partner countries of China in construction contracts, transport routes, and long-term loans and investments?[27] Unlike the "economic interconnectedness" and "balance of financial terror" between Beijing and Washington, there was almost no economic relationship between the Soviet Union and the US. Moreover, unlike the case with the Soviet economy, the Chinese economy in the twenty-first century is fully integrated into the global economy.
  • Historically, China has not practiced an alliance policy. China is a country that has friends and partners but no allies. It is not expected to adopt alliances as its foreign policy in the foreseeable future. In addition, unlike the Soviet Union, China does not have the ambition to establish communism at a global scale. When China signs agreements with other countries, it does not do so with the aim of helping a local communist party that later takes power in that country, but rather in order to defend its own economic interests. China is a power led by a communist party which relies on two driving forces: nationalism and capitalism. China’s main ambition is becoming the first power again, just as it had been in the nineteenth century, but this time in a globalized world.[28]
  • Talk about China among NATO members has never been equal. While serious rhetoric toward China is essential for the Americans, Europeans appear more cautious and divided about that rhetoric. While the eastern countries of this alliance do not wish to divert its attention from the Russian threat that is primary for them, most of them have joined the 17+1 group led by China, which promises them more investments. Some countries believe that the alliance has enough tasks to do with regard to issues such as Russia, terrorism and the Middle East.[29]
  • While the traditional Chinese military threat in the Indian and Pacific Oceans is totally far from NATO's borders, its hybrid activities take place in the Alliance's backyard. Prime examples include cyber espionage, intellectual property theft, penetration of critical infrastructure, debt manipulation, and misinformation. While these threats may appear outside NATO's purview, they pose serious security risks to the Alliance. For example, China's willingness to invest in the port of Klaipėda in Lithuania may not appear to be a problem for NATO on the surface, but its investments have troubling restrictions that give China operational control over infrastructure. This control could reduce the Allies' desire to move military forces through the port, and even disrupt planning and reduce military exercises, thus reducing NATO's ability to defend the Baltic states during a crisis with Russia. This may also open the door to practical cooperation between China and Russia to undermine security across the Atlantic.[30]
  • It is not yet clear what strategic role NATO will play in the new decade (2020-2030), nor how NATO might respond to regional conflicts, especially concerning the four volatile flashpoints with China: the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula. It is very unlikely that NATO would marshal its collective strategic resources (conventional and nuclear arsenals) to engage in any of the four flashpoints. NATO's strategic priorities remain in the European heartland, and its traditional mandate remains to deter Russian "aggression". Spreading its resources thin, by engaging militarily in both regions - Europe and the Indo-Pacific - would undermine its capacity to contain Russia’s subversive influence in Europe.
  • While NATO's engagement in the Indo-Pacific has grown, this does not imply some newfound strategic priorities toward this region. Indeed, NATO has been reluctant to take military action as a collective alliance against China's assertiveness in the South China Sea, East China Seas and the Taiwan Strait. Current freedom of navigation operations are not conducted under NATO’s name, but rather by individual NATO members like Canada, France, Germany and the UK. Even then, these military efforts, as the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue revealed, are undertaken in a cautious manner to avoid China’s ire and to hedge between the US and China.[31]

Possibilities and expectations

In light of those challenges and considerations, the following are likely:

  • NATO is likely to instigate collective efforts at managing the non-traditional security risks stemming from China than treat China as a traditional strategic rival.
  • NATO is unlikely to initiate major security efforts for the purpose of warfighting or deterrence against China (and North Korea), nor intervene directly in the Western Pacific’s four major flashpoints, since doing so would divert resources and attention and encourage “Russian opportunism” in Europe.
  • NATO is likely to strengthen the capability of other major powers and institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Japan and India as a means to constrain China’s emergence as a regional and global superpower.
  • NATO is likely to do this mainly through economic and technological instruments such as investments and aid, as well as through limited, non-provocative defensive measures couched under the label of “defence diplomacy,” “non-traditional security,” and “strategic partnership”.
  • NATO's aim is not to become an Indo-Pacific power, but rather to make Indio-Pacific countries able to provide security for their own region.[32]

Indeed, the alliance remains attached to its vision, and desires to avoid portraying China as an outright military enemy, while leaving the door open to the possibility of cooperation, as demonstrated by the NATO Secretary-General's statements. In this context, there will be a greater need to establish the NATO and China Council, similar to what the alliance had with Russia since 1997. The Council’s functions would include getting to know directly China's intentions, avoiding making serious mistakes of misunderstanding and wrong assessment, setting rules that guarantee the primacy of cooperation over confrontation, providing a service to Chinese diplomacy, which is dealing with twenty-nine countries, which are the members of the alliance, through one entity and not state versus state, and discussing the Chinese investments presented to NATO countries in open meetings to prevent the fall of those countries into the so-called Chinese investment trap.[33]


[1] “Has the London Summit saved the NATO from brain death?”, Alarab, 4 December 2019. Available at:

[2] Emil Avdaliani, China’s Effect: A Global NATO, Modern Diplomacy, August 10, 2020, available at,

[3] John Herbst, The Coming Russian-Chinese Clash, The National Interest, August 21, 2020,

[4] Hal Brands, “What Does China Really Want?”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 27 May 2020. Available at:

[5] Emil Avdaliani, op. cit.

[6] David Grossman, “What does the US want from China? What is its endgame?”, BBC, 8 November 2019. Available at:

[7] “Pompeo calls for triumphing over Chinese ‘new tyranny’”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 23 July 2020. Available at:

[8] Hal Brands, “Europe Has to Choose a Side in the US-China Rivalry”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 8 October 2019. Available at:

[9] “Europe is confused between Trump’s populism and the risks of the Chinese rise”, Alarab, 30 October 2019. Available at:

[10] Emil Avdaliani, op. cit.

[11] Hiroshi Yuasa, ‘China Threat’ Prods NATO Toward Unity, January 8, 2020, available at:

[12] Jens Ringsmose and Sten Rynning, China Brought NATO Closer Together, February 5, 2020, available at:

[13] “After the Corona crisis, will the NATO awaken to the Chinese threat?”, Le Figaro, 25 April 2020. A translated article available at:

[14] “An Emboldened Beijing Seeks to Consolidate its Power”, Spiegel International, 24 June 2020. Available at:

[15] Brian Cloughley, “The New Cold War Heats Up”, counterpunch, 24 July 2020. Available at:

[16] Pascal Boniface, “Trump, corona and China”, alittihad, 12 August 2020. Available at:

[17] ”Europe is not ready to counter Russia without America”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 11 May 2019. Available at:

[18] “After the Corona crisis, will the NATO awaken to the Chinese threat?”, op. cit.

[19] “Australia could join NATO,” Voltaire Network, 25 August 2019. Translated by Said Hilal Alcharifi. Available at:

[20] Thierry Meyssan, “NATO versus China”, Voltaire Network, 11 December 2019. Translated by Said Hilal Alcharifi. Available at:

[21] Brian Cloughley, “The New Cold War Heats Up”, op. cit.

[22] Hal Brands, “The 18th Century Document That Can Save 21st Century Foreign Policy”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 17 August 2020. Available at:

[23] Zikrur Rahman, “Towards reviving the quadrilateral alliance”, alittihad, 1 August 2020. Available at:

[24] Jens Ringsmose and Sten Rynning, China Brought NATO Closer Together, February 5, 2020, available at:

[25] “Russia and the West: Towards Normalization? – Analysis”, Eurasia Review, 9 October 2019. Available at:  

[26] Matthew Rojansky and Michael Kimmage, The Third Neighbor: Can America Live With Putin's Russia?, The National Interest, July 3, 2020, available at:

[27] Gamil Mattar, “Reflections on the next stage of US-Chinese relations”, ”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 21 July 2020. Available at:

[28] Pascal Boniface, “Washington and Beijing: Not a new Cold War”, alittihad, 15 June 2020. Available at:

[29] “After the Corona crisis, will the NATO awaken to the Chinese threat?”, op. cit.

[30] Lauren Speranza, China Is NATO’s New Problem, July 8, 2020, available at:

[31] Tommy Chai, NATO and the Indo-Pacific in the decade ahead: taking stock, Foreign Brief , January 21, 2020, available at:

[32] Idem.

[33] Gamil Mattar, “In search of a theory that justifies the West’s blockade of China”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 17 September 2019. Available at:


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