China’s growing military and economic presence in the Atlantic region is expected to trigger a rare warning from Nato leaders about the potential security threat when they meet on Monday, diplomats said.
From joint Chinese drills with Russia to western worries that China wants to set up military bases in Africa, the Nato focus reflects China’s primacy among western foreign policy concerns, in particular those of US president Joe Biden.
“This is not about ‘Nato going to China’,” said Claudia Major, a defence analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. “It’s about ‘China is coming to Europe and we have to do something about it’.”
In 2015, joint military drills with Russia brought the Chinese navy into the Mediterranean and the heart of Europe for the first time. Since then, China has built up the largest naval fleet in the world and invested in critical European infrastructure, including ports and telecoms networks.
“China [through its navy] has come through the Indian Ocean, into the Gulf, up to the Red Sea and they’ve been in the Mediterranean,” according to one British military official, who said China had not yet deployed submarines in the north Atlantic but could do so in future.
“You build nuclear submarines for range and stealth. And China does like to test the boundaries.”
The planned joint statement by the transatlantic security alliance, which diplomats said was still under discussion and subject to change, would be only the second time that Nato leaders have addressed the subject of China head-on. The first was in December 2019, at the insistence of the administration of Donald Trump.
But Biden is understood to be pushing for tougher language than the bland “opportunities and challenges” terminology used that time.
Nonetheless, how to deal with the issue represents a dilemma for the 30-member group, which was originally set up in 1949 to deal with cold war-era threats.
Internally, Nato countries are divided over how to treat China: member Hungary, for one, has good political relations with Beijing.
In addition, there is reluctance to confront Beijing in its own Pacific region — although the UK and France have followed the US in deploying ships to carry out freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea.
China’s joint military operations with Russia are viewed as a particularly unwelcome development by some Nato members. As well as their annual military exercises, Beijing and Moscow have recently added joint missile defence drills and training for internal security forces.
“Their [the Chinese/Russian] relationship is transactional and pragmatic rather than ideological,” the UK military official said. “But working together in any form provides confidence. And confidence is something we should be wary of.”
As the Center for a New American Security, a bipartisan US think-tank, warned in a January report: “Where Russian and Chinese interests align, Moscow and Beijing could eventually co-ordinate their combined capabilities to challenge US foreign policy.”
Another Nato anxiety is Africa, which China could use to expand its military presence in the Atlantic as part of its long-term goal to become a truly global armed force.
Gen Stephen Townsend, head of US Africa Command, told the US Senate in April that his “number-one global power competition concern” was what he described as Chinese efforts to establish a militarily useful naval facility on Africa’s west coast. “I am talking about a port where they can rearm with munitions and repair naval vessels,” he said.
Experts on the Chinese military said there was no evidence that Beijing was trying to establish such a west African base, yet. However, China has a base in Djibouti and has already used international anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden to train thousands of military personnel and to build military relations with countries outside its usual neighbourhood.
Each time a naval contingent finishes deployment, for example, it typically takes a detour on the way home. Some have visited the Mediterranean and the east and west coasts of Africa.
Another trend vexing Nato allies is the growing involvement of Chinese companies in critical infrastructure in Europe, such as through telecommunications company Huawei.
Chinese state shipping company Cosco also owns a controlling stake in Piraeus, Greece’s largest port, and is reportedly in talks to invest in a Hamburg port terminal.
Such economic ties complicate Nato’s efforts to create a unified approach on China — as do the political relationships between Beijing and friendly European leaders.
That creates the potential for clashes, with the tougher stance of Washington and Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, who last month warned that China was “coming to us” in areas including cyber space, Africa and the Arctic.
“There is a risk that having this discussion within Nato surfaces very uncomfortable differences between allies on how much China is actually perceived as a threat,” said Sarah Raine, an expert in geopolitics and strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“The fact is that there are countries which are seen by hawks as making very pro-China arguments within Nato, at least with regards to being robust but not confrontational.”
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington