During the Cold War, the European allies of the United States were overwhelmingly focused on the strategic threat posed by the Soviet Union. When it came to the Middle East, the European powers had ceded responsibility for maintaining stability there to the United States following the 1956 Suez Crisis. Similarly, when it came to East Asia, China could be an irritant, but Beijing breaking with Moscow and the American web of security ties in the region meant Europe had little to be concerned about as a security matter when it came to the Asia Pacific arena.
Today, that has all changed. Although Russia remains a strategic problem, the European powers are now deeply enmeshed in the power plays of the Middle East. China, once thought of as mostly an untapped market into which Europe could invest and to which it could export, has also become a matter of strategic concern. Last week, on a visit to Australia, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview that, while there were many reasons for the alliance to be in conversation with its Asian partners, there was a specific “need to assess the security consequences for all of us of the rising military power of China.” He added that this was not about NATO expanding its military presence in Asia, but rather about dealing with the fact that China was “coming closer” to Europe.
Stoltenberg is right that the rapid growth in Chinese military power has consequences for NATO and Europe more generally. At a fundamental level, a rising and ambitious China must be deterred from undermining the security and stability of the Asian Pacific region. With security pledges and ties throughout the region, doing so falls mainly on the United States. The reality is, with Chinese military advancements, the ability to carry out that deterrent task is no longer a sure thing. For the Trump administration to successfully carry out its national security strategy, the United States will need to beef up its military presence in Asia and to modernize its forces to deal with the complicated array of defensive and offensive weapons that China has been putting in place since the late 1990s.
The problem is that the United States military is only scaled in size and capabilities to handle a single major contingency, with little left over if that crisis becomes a conflict. For NATO, this means a fight in the East leaves the United States with no surge capacity to handle at the same time a Russian threat. Given the improving but still underperforming conventional capabilities of most of the major European NATO allies, this has created a strategic “black hole” that should worry military planners both in the Pentagon and at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Europeans, especially the Germans, get tired of being told they need to spend more on defense. However, the reality is that they do if they are serious about facing the global security environment the Western democracies now live in. Stoltenberg is also right that China is no longer satisfied with being simply an Asian power. Beijing has made it clear it intends to be a serious player in the Arctic and Africa, which are the backdoors to Europe. No less obvious, China has substantially increased its investments in key European states and regions, with Britain, Germany, and the former states of the Soviet bloc being principal targets.
Chinese companies are looking to expand market access in Europe but they are also under the gun from the government to acquire, by hook or crook, European technology assets and valuable dual use technologies. Furthermore, by investing in smaller and weaker economies of Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Balkans, Beijing gains political and diplomatic leverage that complicates the ability of the European Union to develop a working consensus among its members regarding such issues as Chinese human rights violations or unfair trade practices.
To its credit, Brussels has established a framework for sharing information about foreign investments thought to be problematic with respect to national security or critical European interests. Although a useful first step, the European Union mechanism is not binding on individual member states, and only half of member states actually have laws on the books establishing a national entity intended to review such investments. Like the reaction of NATO members pledging to spend at least 2 percent on defense and the resulting rise in spending, there has been an increase in European efforts to hedge against China using its economic power for strategic advantage, but it is insufficient to meet the actual challenge.
The fact that Europe is now talking about the challenge it faces from China is a positive development. In times past, that discussion would give Washington the opening it needs to develop a larger alliance strategy for dealing with the issue. Instead, the uneven and, at times, adversarial attitude of the Trump administration toward European allies and the European Union has made taking advantage of this discussion far more difficult. In geopolitical terms, it is called “shooting oneself in the foot.”