In mid-2020, Chinese and Indian forces faced off in a series of violent skirmishes in the Galwan Valley along the Sino-Indian border. Troops engaged in brutal hand-to-hand combat before national leaders facilitated a de-escalation of the situation. For the first time in decades, China chose this specific moment, during the height of the global COVID outbreak, to test the resolve of its southern, democratic neighbor. Was this belligerence simply a ploy to deflect blame for the Wuhan outbreak or cater to nationalist sentiment, or was there more meaning to this test?
With China increasing its aggressive posture across the Far East, the Galwan incursion’s timing and casus belli achieved both domestic and regional objectives. As tensions rise in the South China Sea and central Asian nations like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are positioning themselves to secure rare earth metals, China’s posture toward its regional neighbors speaks profoundly to its willingness to compete beyond economics. The United States should further embrace its battle-tested, trans-Atlantic alliances to prepare for the great power challenges of the next decade. With the Belt and Road Initiative expanding Chinese influence through infrastructure projects worldwide, NATO now sees China’s rise beyond parlor talk or purported American paranoia; it is a reality that must be addressed multilaterally.
In June 2021, NATO leaders met in Brussels to renew commitments to multilateral Western security. As autocratic regimes challenge democratic systems with cyberattacks, information operations campaigns, and border skirmishes, the alliance directed much of its energy toward a rising China, in a move that mirrors the sentiment of domestic audiences across the Western world. The pivot represents a sharp turn away from the last decade’s focuses on counterterrorism and Russian challenges. While there is little doubt that terrorism is a dark and lethal force to contend with—and that Moscow will remain a disruptive force in cyberspace and on the European continent—there is finally consensus beyond American shores that the greatest threat to Western hegemony emanates from Beijing.
In September 2021, the announcement of the AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, United States) pact further emphasized the West’s resolve in the Pacific. Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, in a joint press release with President Joseph Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, described AUKUS as “a partnership where our technology, our scientists, our industry, [and] our defense forces are all working together to deliver a safer and more secure region that ultimately benefits all.” The first initiative will deliver American nuclear submarines to Australia, which meant the cancellation of the earlier French contract to deliver diesel-electric submarines. France directed its anger and disappointment toward Australia and the United States in what French officials called “a major breach of confidence and a very bad signal,” going so far as to recall their ambassadors from Washington and Canberra.
Despite elevated friction in the medium to long term, it is very likely that relations will be repaired due to mutual interests. The United States should find a way to make France whole after the loss of this particular contract; rebuilding trust will take time. In the meantime, some French lawmakers have called for France to downgrade its NATO membership as it did in 1967 or withdraw from the alliance altogether. Regardless of French President Emmanuel Macron’s subsequent assertion that Europeans must “stop being naive” and stand up for European interests in the Pacific, AUKUS will not replace NATO as the main driving force behind collective Western security.
Although gross domestic product (GDP), military spending, and nuclear armaments are not the only indicators of industrial might and military capability, these data points offer compelling reasons for NATO’s changing orientation toward China. In April 2021, an International Monetary Fund report on global GDPs showed that Russia is no longer a top-ten world economy, slipping to eleventh behind South Korea. While American defense spending still dwarfs Chinese expenditures, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to rapidly expand its capabilities across all domains. With China estimated to surpass the United States’ GDP by 2032, American alliances with the world’s other advanced industrialized democracies are essential.
After decades of considering the rise of China as a threat outside the purview of NATO’s focus, the United States must now effectively integrate its NATO partners into the “pivot to Asia.” Multilateral Western engagement should 1) enhance intelligence and counterintelligence sharing; 2) integrate NATO allies into Pacific Pathways; 3) coordinate the denial of further Chinese port leasing; 4) secure defense supply chains; 5) purge malicious Chinese hardware and software from NATO defense systems; and 6) continue to modernize the alliance’s nuclear architecture. If NATO can incorporate these mutual defense measures into a revamped grand strategy, it will be better prepared for a more muscular China.
Enhance Intelligence and Counterintelligence Sharing
The United States and its allies rely heavily on each other to exchange intelligence within Five Eyes, NATO, and theater-level sharing agreements. Intelligence partnerships between NATO and the democracies of Asia must be updated to enable a faster flow of contextual intelligence. As an example of progress, discussions within the international security community are occurring on how to effectively add nations like Japan into the coveted Five Eyes alliance. National compartmentalization is still necessary to protect partners’ self-interests, but administrative processes for exchanging timely and contextual intelligence with foreign entities should be modernized to ensure that procedures act as safeguards rather than barriers. If democratic intelligence and defense agencies cannot move collectively in this area, our partnerships will be unable to achieve unity of effort if called upon for mutual defense.
Integrate NATO Allies into Pacific Pathways
Pacific Pathways, a series of bilateral training exercises between the United States and its Asian partners, should be expanded to include European forces. Although some of these exercises do not always achieve the upfront goal of bilateral interoperability, they do provide a sense of shared mission and cohesion. Training together with partners like Japan, the Republic of Korea, India, and Thailand provides American headquarters elements the opportunity to exercise mission command and stress logistics systems. Multi-month deployments also show our Indo-Pacific partners that America maintains a vested interest in the readiness of their armed forces. Lastly, exercises like Pacific Pathways expose American forces to various operational environments, doctrinal frameworks, and capability sets.
Pacific Pathways is about building relationships. If NATO nations are serious about challenging Chinese aggression, the United States should invite NATO units to serve alongside American expeditionary forces in the Pacific. This will build capacity in the East and will demonstrate to China that NATO acts on its communiqués. It will also have the added effect of stimulating NATO defense spending to complement proportionally high contributions by the United States, Germany, United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada, and Spain.
Coordinate the Denial of Further Chinese Port Leasing
Late to the game, the Chinese government has taken a page out of the American, British, French, and Russian playbooks on force projection. The Chinese government is laying the groundwork for the next century of Chinese naval and commercial expansion, welcomed to host nations’ shores thanks to injections of capital. Recently, Chinese companies have legally completed deals, unlocking immense strategic access for the Chinese government. While competition is inherent to geopolitics, NATO members and other democracies should attempt to block port leasing as long as China flouts international norms like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, specifically with regard to exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the South China Sea. If China does not abide by the two-hundred-nautical-mile rules that define EEZs, NATO members must work in unison with available economic levers to influence Chinese behavior.
The Australian government recently announced that it is reviewing the decision to allow a ninety-nine-year lease of the port of Darwin by Chinese-owned Landbridge Group. This is the right move, as the lease clearly threatens Australia’s national defense and positions Chinese assets closer to US Marines and Australian forces who train together in the Northern Territory. Australia’s desire to host additional American forces over the next decade directly conflicts with the existing port deal. Domestically, the Australian government is debating whether canceling the deal is a priority in comparison to other critical national infrastructure like the electrical grid that is heavily reliant upon Chinese state-owned interests. Prime Minister Morrison must act decisively in the interests of deterrence and national security, though this will likely result in additional Chinese condemnation and short-term financial consequences.
In Africa, the PLA retains a significant presence in and around the port of Djibouti after starting construction on a base there in 2016. Chinese conglomerate COSCO also secured a foothold at Europe’s doorstep at the Greek port of Piraeus, purchasing a 51 percent majority holding after privatization in 2016. COSCO is now expected to raise its stake in Piraeus after a September 2021 Greek court ruling. If China continues to take advantage of the West’s free-market systems to gain strategic advantage, NATO members must respond with new regulations, competing bids, and incentive packages to block these efforts.
Secure the Defense Supply Chain
NATO’s vision for 2030 directly addressed technological innovation and supply chain shortcomings, launching the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA). Under the agreement, DIANA will include joint “offices and test centres across the Alliance, and it will manage a database of trusted sources of investment.” Members “also agreed to establish a multinationally funded NATO Innovation Fund, to which Allies can contribute on an opt-in basis, to invest in start-ups working on dual-use and emerging and disruptive technologies in areas that are critical to Allied security.” The United States should embrace the tenets of DIANA, as well as NATO’s commitment to the ethical implementation of artificial intelligence in “emerging and disruptive technologies.”
In the United States, the passage of the United States Innovation and Competition Act is a step in the right direction to secure the United States’ own defense supply chains. Much of the nation’s defense materiel is made domestically per the Buy American Act and executive order, but a glaring weak spot is the lack of semiconductor and rare earth metal production capacity. While this bill does much to mitigate the shortcomings of the last decades, additional public-private partnerships must be formed to realize the full potential of American industry and innovation. The government should incentivize and invest in the discovery and acquisition of rare earth metals, both domestically and abroad with allied nations, and should accelerate the growth of semiconductor foundries on American shores. Though some of the incremental investments of 2020 and 2021 are welcome news to domestic producers, the United States must use every legislative and executive tool available to expand domestic capacity and reduce reliance on foreign sources. To its credit, the Department of Defense continues to seek additional funds to reduce supply chain threats to critical industries like semiconductors. To offset government costs and stimulate capacity, the United States should market new excess American defense chips exclusively to NATO partners and democratic allies in Asia and the Pacific.
Purge Malicious Hardware and Software from NATO Defense Systems
Over the last decade, Chinese telecom giant Huawei sold large numbers of hardware and wireless devices across the world, saturating overseas markets with products the United States and NATO allies consider a security threat. In addition to NATO efforts aimed at collective cyber defense, the United States should encourage other democracies in Asia and the Pacific to review the use of Chinese technology in their defense systems. Though there is the risk of further destabilizing relations with China, as seen with the arrest of Huawei executives and subsequent reprisals against Western businesspeople in China, the West should focus first and foremost on the threat of spyware, which must be rooted out of critical infrastructure.
This goal is more easily achieved in the homeland, and as supply chain issues due to the COVID pandemic ease in 2022, waivers for Pentagon contractors using Huawei technology should also be revoked. NATO members must take internal steps to mirror American waiver revocations and focus on the credible Chinese 5G hardware threats that make the alliance’s current perimeter cyber defense structures obsolete. The 5G threat can be mitigated in the future through trusted DIANA capital marketplaces and companies but the alliance must speed up the 2023 implementation date and act swiftly to execute this strategy.
Continue Nuclear Modernization Efforts
The United States and its NATO allies must also remain committed to modernizing aging nuclear arsenals. American lawmakers continue to contend with the hefty $1.2 trillion estimated price tag of arsenal modernization and whether it is worth the cost. After several congressional hearings and public embarrassments like the 2014 60 Minutes piece that revealed nuclear mission-command systems operating on antiquated technology, support continues to build for sweeping upgrades to counter China’s growing nuclear arsenal. The French and British are also debating similar issues.
Political and defense leadership among the world’s most powerful democracies is coming to terms with the rise of China and what it means for our shared future. The United States, NATO, and Asian democracies should collectively harden infrastructure and supply chains to prepare for a generations-long standoff with an ambitious China that acts with strategic foresight and intends to increase its global influence and force projection. This article offers only a few initial targeted solutions to face this threat, with the hope that shared defense and economic interests will deter China from increasing its aggressive behavior. However, Chinese actions in the South China Sea, in the Galwan Valley, and elsewhere over the last few years do not offer any sort of expectation that this will be the case. Readiness is the best antidote, with geostrategic, physical, and operational security all playing major roles in preparations. We must take care of our NATO, Asian, and Pacific alliances and partnerships, and strengthen them for what is to come.
Captain Michael Greenberg is currently assigned to the Department of History at West Point as an instructor. He is a Northwestern University graduate and earned a MA in Terrorism, Security, & Society in the War Studies Department at King’s College London and a MA in History at New York University. His most recent operational assignment was in the Pacific where he served with 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team as a military intelligence company commander and infantry S-2.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Lisa Ferdinando