When NATO leaders convened for a summit in Madrid this week, their agenda was dominated by renewed threats from Russia, but there was another major challenge looming close behind: China.

For an alliance first built to counter Cold War military threats from Moscow, China has become an uncomfortable, albeit pressing, topic to address. Some countries in Europe have in the past quietly balked at the thought of being dragged into a growing geopolitical showdown between Washington and Beijing, while others were wary of picking fights with one of the world’s top economic powerhouses and a key trade partner for Europe.

But that reluctance seems to be slipping away, as NATO unveiled a more muscular approach to China at the Madrid summit, referring to it as a strategic challenge and linking China directly to the growing threat from a revanchist Russia.

When NATO leaders convened for a summit in Madrid this week, their agenda was dominated by renewed threats from Russia, but there was another major challenge looming close behind: China. 

For an alliance first built to counter Cold War military threats from Moscow, China has become an uncomfortable, albeit pressing, topic to address. Some countries in Europe have in the past quietly balked at the thought of being dragged into a growing geopolitical showdown between Washington and Beijing, while others were wary of picking fights with one of the world’s top economic powerhouses and a key trade partner for Europe. 

But that reluctance seems to be slipping away, as NATO unveiled a more muscular approach to China at the Madrid summit, referring to it as a strategic challenge and linking China directly to the growing threat from a revanchist Russia.

The alliance’s new strategic concept, released at the summit, says that China’s “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values” and warns of “the deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.”

“We see a deepening strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a public address on Wednesday at the Madrid summit. “And China’s growing assertiveness and its coercive policies have consequences for the security of allies and our partners.”

For the first time, leaders from top Western allies in the Asia-Pacific region attended the NATO summit, showcasing the alliance’s global outlook even as it grapples with the immediate crisis in Ukraine. The summit in Madrid marked the first time that the top leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand were in attendance.

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The shift—both in the language of the strategic plan and in the makeup of the summit itself—represents a policy victory for Washington, which has been pushing its fellow NATO allies to take a more hard-line stance on China under both the Trump and Biden administrations, despite the massive trade relationship between Europe and China and the current crisis on NATO’s borders with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

“We have to take stock of the fact that China is investing more in its military, is undertaking economic coercion, and is also supporting Russia in this different narrative, particularly when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Mélanie Joly, Canada’s foreign minister, told Foreign Policy in an interview.

So I think that there is a reckoning, and I think also that reckoning is important while we’re taking decisions for how we will evolve as an alliance in the coming years and decades.”

Some leading alliance members, including the United States and United Kingdom, have voiced alarm over China’s investments in expanding its nuclear arsenal and the implications for global security, including a spate of criticism from the West after Beijing conducted a test flight of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that circumnavigated the world in July 2021. They have also condemned China’s heavy-handed diplomatic outbursts and economic retaliation campaigns leveled at smaller European countries, namely Lithuania, which sought to tighten relations with Taiwan. (China views Taiwan, an independently governed island with a pro-Western democratic government, as part of its own territory.)

Behind the scenes, officials from alliance countries voiced concerns to one another over how China was spreading its economic tendrils throughout Europe and alliance territory through the Belt and Road Initiative. This includes the construction of motorways in Montenegro, port complexes in Greece and Turkey, and investments in telecommunications networks and critical infrastructure in other corners of Europe. This has led U.S., Canadian, and European officials to raise concerns that Beijing could disrupt the alliance’s logistical or communications networks if they ever needed to be mobilized for war. That in turn ratcheted up pressure on NATO officials to more clearly define what exactly the rise of an authoritarian, global superpower China means for the alliance.

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“NATO is a regional and collective security alliance and is principally focused on security in Europe and in the North Atlantic community, but China is increasingly having an impact on security globally,” U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Foreign Policy in an interview on the sidelines of the summit.

“You can’t ignore the global role, the role in space and cyber, in the Arctic and maritime domain, and innovation and the economy that China plays.”

Chinese officials immediately lashed out at the stiffer language coming from NATO, with a spokesperson to Beijing’s mission to the European Union calling NATO’s new strategic concept as a product of “Cold War thinking” that was “maliciously attacking and smearing China.”

“The sewage of the Cold War cannot be allowed to flow into the Pacific Ocean—this should be the general consensus in the Asia-Pacific region,” read an editorial in the Global Times, one of China’s largest state media outlets. U.S. lawmakers in Madrid for the NATO summit dismissed the “Cold War” rhetoric from China, but they stressed that there is a clear strategic challenge coming from Beijing. 

For months, China has been seeking clarity from European governments on how NATO would frame its approach to China ahead of the summit, according to a European security official, speaking on condition of anonymity. NATO first warned that China’s foreign-policy ambitions and assertive behavior posed “systemic challenges” to the post-World War II international order in a communique signed by all 30 allies in Brussels last year.

Former U.S. officials who have worked closely with the alliance suggested that NATO’s enshrining of Chinese security threats in its new strategic concept will establish the precedent of member states invoking Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty for consultations on possible saber-rattling by Beijing.
“It telegraphs that NATO is not confining itself to the territory of NATO nations—that in the modern era, what goes on around the globe, directly or indirectly, significantly affects allies,” said Michael Ryan, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy during the Trump administration. “This just publicizes it as a message to the Chinese that, ‘Hey, we’re watching.’”

​​And it comes as members of the alliance, beyond the United States, have become more invested in Asia, hotly contesting China’s territorial grabs. In December 2021, the first German warship in nearly two decades passed through Chinese-claimed waters in the South China Sea, after recent transits by French ships through nearby waters and the Taiwan Strait. The United Kingdom has announced a “tilt” to the region and is a founding member of the so-called AUKUS alliance with Australia and the United States that aims to provide nuclear-powered submarines and hypersonic weapons to Canberra. The U.K. has also banned Huawei 5G equipment from its networks under pressure from the United States.

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Beyond the signaling from Western capitals to Beijing, the new NATO document offers something of a software update, as tough talk toward China has become more of a norm for member states in the past decade-plus: The European Union, for instance, has described China as a “systemic rival” since 2019. The strategic concept, renewed roughly every decade, provides “the framework through which 30 allies can create policy decisions and work together on agreed-upon issues,” said Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The last one was written back in 2010 and it’s woefully out of date.”

“It’s not that I think every single ally is on the same page about the threat China poses, but I think most allies are on the same page that there is a strategic challenge there,” Rizzo added. 

The last time NATO wrote a strategic concept, the environment was so different that NATO consulted with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the document, as it came at a time when then-U.S. President Barack Obama sought a “reset” with Russia. The 2010 strategic concept did not mention China and advocated “a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia.”

Not everyone in Europe is so convinced that NATO needs to have much of a role in dealing with China. Most of the Chinese threats that leaders flag, from hacking to economic coercion, are outside NATO’s traditional lane of defending Europe from an assault from the east.

“The fact that all NATO states agree on China being a threat, even though all of the threats that they mention—economic statecraft and coercion, hybrid measures, trade—are really more E.U. than NATO tasks, just underscores that it was a U.S. priority,” Oscar Jonsson, a researcher at the Swedish Defence University who attended the NATO summit, told Foreign Policy in a text message. 

“The best thing European NATO [countries] can do versus China is carry a bigger load in Europe to free more U.S. resources.”

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