The China Challenge: Remaking the Landscape of Transatlantic Security
For much of its history, China has been a major global power.
And after a lapse of three centuries, it has made a resounding comeback.
Over the last four decades, China has re-emerged as the world’s largest trade and shipping nation, the second biggest economy, the second biggest military power, and a technological giant.
Our security has always been affected by developments in other parts of the world, including in Asia. Not least because the two countries that have had the greatest impact on European security – Russia and the US – are Pacific powers.
Today, however, China’s influence is much more direct. China is no longer only a regional power affecting US military posture in the Pacific. It is a global power.
With the means and capabilities to influence international law and institutions.
With the strength and technology to be a key competitor of the US in some areas.
And with a value set that differs from our liberal norms.
It was in a period of great power rivalry that the international system was established.
The current era is different, though. Gone is the iron curtain. Our economies are intertwined; markets have become global and the level of interdependence between countries is higher than we ever imagined it would be.
The differences between military and civilian technology have also become more subtle. And the world seems poised for a fourth industrial revolution that could once again transform our societies in profound ways.
In other words, not only will a new bipolar order be very different from the past one. Our old mental maps, strategies and solutions will probably be highly inadequate as well.
Containment, for instance, is not a viable path to the future we want. China is the largest trading partner for more than 100 countries, and it is a major stakeholder in global health efforts. It is both the world’s largest coal nation and a major innovator in renewable energy.
Indeed, when it comes to addressing some of the major challenges of our time, China is an indispensable partner. And we need to develop our cooperation further.
If we are to keep the transatlantic bond strong, we must also use other means than we did 30 years ago. The transatlantic community is not only bigger today. It is also much more diverse.
So how can we pursue a constructive relationship with China and safeguard the benefits of globalisation, while enhancing our security and keeping the transatlantic bond strong?
Over the past few decades, China’s GDP has increased 25 times in real terms, poverty is down more than 65 percentage points since 1990, while infant mortality has dropped a whopping 91 percentage points since 1970.
China has become a massive manufacturing base and a huge market, importing everything from salmon to semiconductors.
Norway has benefited from China’s growth in cheap imports and high prices on our exports.
The financial crisis that began in 2009 would have hurt the global economy far more, had it not been for the cushioning effect of China’s continued growth.
Meanwhile, on the international stage China is engaging in the current multilateral system.
In the 1984, China acceded to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and for years it has abided by the Missile Technology Control Regime.
Between 2000 and 2018, China supported 182 of 190 UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on states violating international rules.
With 2,500 deployed personnel, China has more UN peacekeepers, than the other permanent UN Security Council members combined. And it is the second largest funder of the UN and UN peacekeeping missions.
Finally but importantly, China has not been involved in armed conflict or insurgencies since the early 1980s.
But, increasingly the praise for China’s achievements is giving way to concerns – from many quarters – about the aims and ambitions of the emerging superpower:
Concerns that China is using various methods, including cyber operations, in influence campaigns across the world.
Concerns about the human rights situation in China
Fears that China will dominate technology development in the future, including in the military domain.
Concerns about the Chinese model of state capitalism and whether or not it allows for free and fair competition.
And worries from countries in the region about China’s role in the South China Sea.
This widespread unease is not surprising. To a certain degree it has to do with the sheer size and global reach of the new China. The pace at which it has risen to prominence. As well as a growing awareness of differences in terms of political values, ideals and worldviews.
A more powerful China is seeking to influence and shape multilateral institutions in line with its interest.
Militarily speaking it has also grown much stronger. 30 years ago, it would not have made it onto Nato’s top five list, in terms of military spending. Today, China’s military budget is about as big as all of Nato’s European military budgets combined.
Chinese capabilities are also developing at an staggering rate. In some areas – missiles, cyberspace, artificial intelligence – China is seen not only as a near-peer competitor, but as a real contender and a leading innovator.
Most observers tend to agree that we are seeing a more multipolar, or even bipolar, world order in the making.
But we have to remain prudent and balanced in our assessment of the implications of this.
The world is changing, but it has not been turned upside down.
Nato remains the backbone of Norway’s security policy, and the US remains our most important ally.
The course of history is not deterministic either.
Bipolarity does not inevitably lead to instability, rivalry or conflict. What matters is the way we handle it and the choices we make. As the past 40 years have shown, the emergence of new powers can also contribute greatly to global wealth, stability and security.
Euro-Atlantic security is still primarily evolving in response to events in our own region, such as:
• A more capable and assertive Russia;
• An unstable North Africa and Middle East; and
• A bigger and more diverse Alliance.
This is unlikely to change in the short term. The same holds true for Allied cohesion. In the long run, rivalry between great powers might take its toll on this cohesion. But as interesting as such speculation may be, it is still far from being a reality. Allied cohesion is still predominantly challenged by internal factors, such as:
• The issue of burden-sharing;
• Pressure against common values emanating from within the alliance; and
• Member states having different threat perceptions.
China’s rise may amplify these challenges. Burden-sharing, for instance, may become an even more pressing issue, as US military needs in the Indo-Pacific continue to increase.
But again, we are not there yet. In fact, the US presence in Europe is larger today than it has been for years. And while the US expects Nato Allies to deliver on the two percent pledge, the US has required far more of some of its allies in Asia.
Developments in threat perceptions across the Alliance also lend little credence to the idea that the two continents will drift apart in the near future. Attitudes seem to a certain degree to be converging rather than diverging on China – a trend that is also consistent with Allied history.
In contrast to many other international organisations, Nato has tended to grow stronger and more united in the face of external challenges. The Suez crisis, 9/11 and the Korean war are three very different, but compelling examples of this.
We should not overestimate China’s influence on transatlantic cohesion. But nor should we underestimate its impact on international peace and security. Power shifts bring both opportunities and challenges.
First, in terms of technology. Global markets, where mature and emerging actors compete, are key to developing the technology we need to address major common challenges. But new technology will also change the face of defence and deterrence in the future.
High-end capabilities (cyber capabilities, advanced missile systems, drones and autonomous platforms), are becoming far more prevalent and accessible. This is the case for a growing number of countries, not only for China. It is already challenging the West’s military power. And it will make it even more expensive for us to maintain our technological edge in the years to come.
This is not a ‘China challenge’ per se. But China is seen as the main competitor to the US in this area, and this triggers public debate on rivalry between the US and China.
Second, the distinction between civilian and military innovation is becoming less clear-cut than it was in the past. GPS, the internet, digital cameras and computers all originated in the military domain and then made the transition to our daily lives. Today the tide is turning.
In an increasing number of strategically important areas, the private sector is spearheading innovation, research and development. The strongest powers of tomorrow will probably be those that are most successful at quickly identifying and using civilian technology and effectively integrating it into military strategy and doctrine.
Indeed, our defence and security will continue to become more reliant on a private sector that is both global and digital. And by extension, our value chains are getting longer, more complex and potentially more vulnerable.
Third, the rivalry between China and the US is not primarily of a military nature. It is also economic, cultural and political. When it comes to security, Europe is not wedged between two great powers. But a more multipolar or bipolar world order will challenge us in other areas.
We must make sure that supply chains that are critical to Allied defence and deterrence are reliable and secure. But containment cannot be our answer. Closed economic systems may be very secure, but they will not produce the technology and trade dividends we need to meet other objectives: to resolve the climate crisis, reach the Sustainable Development Goals or reform our welfare societies so that they can effectively deal with an aging population.
So where do we draw the line? How do we protect critical infrastructure and intellectual property while maintaining global markets and ensuring fair competition?
Fourth, more is at stake today than the last time the world faced bipolarity: world markets, free trade, institutions and agreements are all vital to the way our world works. Ideally, we should now be further developing the international architecture. Instead, we are increasingly caught up in an effort to safeguard the existing system in the face of growing pressure, rather than adapting it to new challenges.
In terms of disarmament, we already know to a large degree what mechanisms and tools work. They have been tried and tested during, as well as after, the Cold War. That is to say, under both a bipolar and a unipolar order. But at present, the political climate does not allow us to move forward as we should have done.
Last but, not least, China and the West have different value sets. During the Cold War, our different values were to a certain extent confined to specific countries or blocs of countries. Today, our value sets meet, compete and are played out in the same arenas.
China seems increasingly intent on influencing international law and institutions, and does not shy away from exerting pressure on countries that make choices that are not to its liking. This is by no means unique to China. In fact, it is quite common for great powers. But the differences between our value sets make it more challenging than before.
So how can we deal with these challenges?
Power shifts and multipolarity have traditionally been associated with a number of risks: shifting and opportunistic alliances, secrecy, and inherent instability. I do not believe there is a single way to avoid dangers of this kind. We have to pursue multiple tracks at the same time.
First, we have to preserve the multilateral system. And we need to do so by being both innovative and pragmatic.
China is benefiting hugely from international stability and the current world order. It continues to work within the market-based world economy, and within the structures of existing multilateral institutions.
As a major stakeholder in the international system, China should be allowed and encouraged to take full part and play a constructive role in the whole range of existing multilateral institutions.
The process of admitting China on equal terms into existing institutions has been too slow. For instance, the IMF and the World Bank remain Euro-American in important respects, at least in terms of their formal governing structure.
It will be just as important to include China fully when new rules have to be made, such as in the areas of trade and intellectual property, cybersecurity and social media, and climate change.
The engagement of all great powers in international governance has been one of the strengths of the international system we have built since 1945, in contrast to previous structures.
We, for our part, have to be pragmatic. Norway is cooperating more closely with likeminded countries. But in key areas such as climate or trade, we should not be averse to also cooperating with other countries, like China, when they have a similar interest in finding constructive solutions.
Second, foreign policy can never be only interest-driven. We will always work to protect and promote international law and human rights, which are of fundamental importance to international relations, and to our countries and populations. This is also why I was very clear in my support for the Foreign Minister of Sweden before Christmas, in the face of Chinese criticism. As liberal European countries, we cannot, and will not, renounce the values that have made our countries free and prosperous. Freedom of expression is fundamental to our societies and must be respected.
As partners Norway and China discuss areas where we agree and disagree, and we meet regularly to consult. We advance Norwegian interests comprehensively. We discuss how to develop our cooperation. And we voice our concern about the human rights situation in China. The situation in Xinjiang is of special concern, and has been addressed repeatedly in bilateral meetings. The last being our political consultations on 9 January. And multiple times in the UN, both in Geneva and New York.
We addressed Xinjiang during the Universal Periodic Review of China in November 2018; when we adopted the report in March 2019; in a joint letter with 21 other countries to the UN Human Rights Council in July; in a national statement at the Human Rights Council session in September; and most recently at the UN in New York in October last year.
Third, Nato is both a North Atlantic defence alliance and a political alliance. We do not see a big role for the Alliance in Asia. But it needs to have situational awareness in regions that may have a bearing on transatlantic security. The Indo-Pacific region is very important to the US. It is a region where the US has key allies. And just like the North Atlantic, it is a region where modern capabilities are being put into operation, and where the future of defence and deterrence may be defined.
Norway has therefore welcomed discussions in Nato on developments in China and the Indo-Pacific region. Strengthening the political bonds among allies has always been key to forging a strong alliance that can adapt to new challenges.
Norway has, for years, also been a strong advocate of further developing Nato’s partnerships with Asian countries, including China. Dialogue on different levels is the best antidote to suspicion, distrust and misunderstandings.
We also have common interests that could form the basis for future cooperation. Today, much is being written about China’s new facilities in Djibouti. We tend to forget that a decade ago the same region (the waters outside the Horn of Africa) was where Chinese and Nato vessels first sailed alongside each other, in the fight against piracy. Albeit as part of separate operations.
I am encouraged by China’s willingness in recent years to take strong responsibility for UN peacekeeping. Complex crises across the globe are increasing the requirements of UN peace operations, in terms of finances, personnel and capabilities. Indeed, China’s growing capabilities are not only a challenge, they are also an opportunity. They can pave the way for closer cooperation in areas such as counter-piracy, counter-terrorism and peacekeeping.
Fourth, as Nato Allies, we must strengthen efforts to build resilient societies. Not to contain China, but to tackle the inherent weaknesses and challenges of global and digital supply chains.
Our defence and deterrence not only rely on military capabilities. They also rely on a resilient civilian sector and resources must be available and reliable in a crisis.
However, in striving to achieve that end, we must maintain a principled and transparent approach with regard to how we regulate our markets. We will always do our utmost to maintain competition and allow all companies to bid on public contracts in the civilian sector.
Indeed, competition is essential to fostering new technology at affordable prices.
Competition is a two-way street. We expect China to make every effort to ensure its markets are open to our capital, products and services, in the same way as Europe is open to Chinese exports and investment. And it must refrain from practices that distort competition or infringe on intellectual property rights.
Fifth, Nato Allies and European partners should strengthen their industrial and technological cooperation. We have to make sure that enough resources are invested in research and development. Moreover, a bipolar or multipolar world order is likely to create further inflationary pressure in the defence sector. Therefore, we should revitalise our efforts to promote smart defence in Nato, and make sure we get as many capabilities out of our resources as possible. Norway is also supportive of initiatives such as the European Defence Fund, the European Intervention Initiative, Pesco and Nato’s Framework Nation Concept.
Finally, but importantly, for the first time in 400 years, the world’s political and economic centre of gravity is shifting away from Europe and towards Asia. This is happening as we are on the brink of what some have called a fourth industrial revolution. With breakthroughs expected in areas such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, genetic engineering, and autonomous systems
However, despite all these changes, our security architecture (CFE, the now-defunct INF, New Start, Open Skies, the OSCE, the Council of Europe etc.) remains, by and large, Euro-Atlantic and adapted to the world as it was in the 1940s or mid-1990s.
This is by no means an excuse for the attempts we are seeing by some to undermine the European security architecture. But in a number of areas there certainly seems to be a need for agreements, institutions and practices that also include emerging military powers such as China. Without China’s participation, there is a risk that new disarmament agreements, for instance, will be irrelevant.
In conclusion, the path ahead of us is full of dilemmas and difficult decisions. We have to find the right balance between cooperation and competition. Between security and prosperity.
In line with its size and power, China will seek to shape international norms and institutions in its image, just as other great powers have done before it. And as a result of its economy, size, military power and technology, it will continue to evolve as serious contender to US and Western power.
But provided we manage to safeguard the multilateral system, China’s rise will also continue to provide opportunities for the rest of the world, as it has done over the past 40 years, in many different areas.
Should Norway succeed in winning a seat in the elections to the UN Security Council this June, China will be a partner in many of our priority areas. We are already working together in the area of peace and reconciliation, where China is playing a key role in many critical situations. I outlined Norway’s main priorities in the area of peace and reconciliation in a keynote speech at a peace conference during my last visit to Beijing.
These and a range of other examples show the benefits of co-existence and cooperation with major rising powers. Inevitably, there will be competition, disagreement and also the potential for conflicts. But I firmly believe that vigilance and engagement within the framework of a strong multilateral system is the answer. Containment, confrontation and decoupling are not.
Ine Eriksen Søreide is Norway's Minister of Foreign Affairs. Søreide's statement was delivered at the Leangkollen conference on defence and security policy on February 3.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.