Go to Nato homepage
Go to Nato Review homepage
      current issue: autumn 2003 previous issues  |  language
Go to Nato homepage
 Book review
 Military matters
 Next issue
Go to Nato Review homepage Contact Editor/Subscription Print friendly version

Send this article to a friend


Beijing calling

Zuqian Zhang examines the potential for closer relations between China and NATO.

Belgrade bombing protest: The Chinese have not
forgotten how NATO bombed their embassy in
Belgrade, even though many accept that the bombing
was a mistake (© Reuters)

Many security analysts were surprised in October last year to learn that the Chinese ambassador to Brussels had met with NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson to discuss the potential for building a closer relationship between his country and the Alliance. Since then, however, this initiative, which had already been discussed informally in Chinese policy-making circles, has increasingly gathered momentum. Moreover, in spite of many differences, the establishment of constructive, cooperative relations between China and NATO is both a logical step and one that is in the long-term interest of both parties, as well as that of the wider international community.

Shortly after the initial Chinese overture to NATO, Strobe Talbott, president of the influential Brookings Institution and a former US Deputy Secretary of State, took up the same theme. Writing in the November/December 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs, he suggested that, in the wake of NATO enlargement and the successful Partnership for Peace programme, it was time that NATO planners turned their attention towards relations with China. Moreover, such moves reflect a shift in the principal focus of world affairs since the end of the Cold War that many security analysts, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, have noted away from Europe to Eurasia.

In many ways, the precedent for China's approach towards NATO was membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Having become a member of the WTO, China had effectively been integrated into the world economy. From that moment, it was only a matter of time before China took steps to integrate itself in a similar way into the international security system. Although China has the world's largest population, second largest economy (in terms of purchasing power parity), third largest nuclear arsenal and numerically largest army, the pursuit of a totally independent security policy is not viable in the long term. Rather, China would be better off integrating itself into the international security system in such a way that it comes to enjoy common security together with other members of the international community. In this context, China and NATO, the most militarily capable international organisation in the world, have a vested interest in exploring the possibility of establishing more formal relations. And such a relationship would clearly be important to peace and stability throughout Eurasia.

The terrorist attacks against the United States of 11 September 2001 and subsequent, related developments — the improvements in the NATO-Russia relationship, NATO's second, post-Cold War round of enlargement and NATO's growing role in Afghanistan — have effectively reduced the physical distance between the Alliance and China. Indeed, in the wake of recent deployments by NATO militaries in Central Asia, soldiers from the two sides are now virtually able to stare at each other across international borders. Such proximity does not preordain any hostility. On the contrary, it should be viewed as a great opportunity that with careful management could lead to substantial China-NATO cooperation in security matters.

Strategic cooperation between China and NATO actually has a long history. Indeed, towards the end of the Cold War, China and NATO were effectively allies against the Soviet Union, even though there was no formal agreement binding them together. Moreover, this tactical alliance played an important part in the Soviet Union's ultimate disintegration, since it contributed to that country's military over-stretch. In addition to its extensive deployments in the west on NATO's borders, the Soviet Union was also obliged to deploy forces in the east. Moreover, before the West imposed an arms embargo against China in 1989 in the wake of the Tiananmen Square incident, NATO members were China's main sources of imported weapons and military technology.

Common threats

The events of 11 September 2001 focused minds throughout the world on the nature of security threats in the early 21st century and reinforced the importance of international cooperation in combating them. The threats of terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, drug trafficking, environmental degradation, organised crime, the spread of diseases and the like clearly pose as great a danger to China as they do to NATO. Moreover, as the Alliance has transformed itself in recent years, it has become increasingly engaged in efforts to restore or maintain regional and global peace, all of which are also in China's interest. Unless the world as a whole enjoys peace, stability and prosperity, China cannot, for example, expect to meet the ambitious targets of its economic development programme.

Despite this, China clearly has a different outlook to NATO on many security issues and ill feeling remains in some circles. The Chinese have not, for example, forgotten how NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Alliance's Kosovo campaign, even though many have come to accept that the bombing was an operational mistake and not a politically directed, premeditated act. The fact that then US President Bill Clinton and other NATO leaders all apologised unreservedly for the error helped to minimise the damage, but not to erase the memory.

Differences in some areas, no matter how great, need not, however, be an obstacle to China-NATO cooperation in others where both sides have clear, common interests. Moreover, it is extremely likely that a carefully planned and managed cooperation programme would help narrow differences in viewpoints and increase the areas of consensus between China and NATO.

Several factors augur well for a constructive evolution of China-NATO relations. Firstly, NATO has already broadened its vision of cooperation with countries both inside and outside of Europe and modified its Strategic Concept in such a way as to include issues other than simply military affairs. As a result, it should be relatively easy for China and NATO to agree upon some issues on which they would be able to work together.

Secondly, since the end of the Cold War, NATO and the United Nations have frequently demonstrated that they are able to form a complementary rather than antagonistic relationship. To be sure, China wishes to see the United Nations play the leading role in global affairs. However, in the absence of a standing military capability, the United Nations will always have to rely upon its members' contributions and to cooperate with other international organisations, including NATO. Moreover, the United Nations has already worked effectively together with NATO for the best part of a decade in the Balkans to rebuild peace and stability and, in the coming months, it will likely forge still closer relations with NATO in both Afghanistan and Iraq. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China will surely accept and even welcome the complementary working relationship between the United Nations and NATO.

Thirdly and most importantly, China itself is undergoing profound changes which are likely to bring its security policy more into line with that of most other countries. In the wake of more than 20 years of economic reforms and ever-increasing contact with the rest of the world, significant changes have already taken place not only to China's economy, but also to its politics, society and people's mindset.

In the initial years of reform, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping coined the phrase "Socialism with Chinese characteristics" to describe the path he had embarked on and reassure conservative critics. Jiang Zemin, his successor, benefited from an ideologically more flexible environment in which to pursue an increasingly pragmatic reform programme. Indeed, in the political report delivered at the Communist Party's 16th Congress last November, Jiang urged his comrades to abandon incorrect interpretations of Marxism and to learn from the practical achievements of political civilisation in such a way that socialist democracy would have institutionalised procedures. Jiang also said that since the realisation of Communism was an extremely long historic process, people should not expect the end state to be reached any time soon. Moreover, it appears likely that Hu Jintao, Jiang's successor, will take the reform programme yet further both in the economic and political spheres.

Evolving security thinking

In the light of these internal political developments, Beijing's thinking about security has also evolved. Since the mid-1990s, Beijing has issued three White Papers on national defence, the first of which was issued under the somewhat less sensitive title of China's Policy towards Disarmament and Arms Control. In these papers, it is possible clearly to identify the increasing importance of transparency and international cooperation in Beijing's security thinking. Moreover, Chinese leaders have repeatedly made clear that China's so-called New Concept of Security will be based on mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and cooperation with other countries. Hence the attention that Beijing now pays to collective security and common security with other countries and especially with its neighbours.
Differences in some areas need not be an obstacle to China-NATO cooperation in others where both sides have common interests

Despite this, the question of China-NATO relations, let alone potential cooperation between China and NATO, remains controversial and sensitive. In many ways, the situation is akin to that prevailing in the initial years of economic reform when many Chinese fiercely opposed opening China to foreign investment fearing exploitation by foreign capitalists. Today, however, few Chinese continue to oppose their country's integration into the world economy. Moreover, as Chinese come to see tangible benefits from a policy of international cooperation in the security field, the attitudes of many will likely change.

Since 11 September 2001, a number of Chinese security analysts have come to realise that their country has already benefited from its commitment to the international campaign against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. To be sure, the threat posed by terrorism is not the priority for China that it is for the United States and some other countries. What is more important for China is to prevent separatist forces from splitting the country. As a result, the main purpose of Beijing's efforts to strengthen its military capabilities is to build a greater deterrence against separatist forces in Taiwan and elsewhere in the country.

Beijing has, however, seen that its participation in the international coalition against terrorism has also been useful to its efforts to curb internal, separatist forces. Largely as a result of China's cooperative position on issues of importance to the United States, relations between China and the United States have consistently improved in recent years. The US State Department officially classified the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement, one of the separatist groups in Xinjiang province, as a terrorist organisation. And the Bush Administration has gone on the record several times to say that the United States will maintain its One China policy and will not support Taiwan's independence. Indeed, as far as the Taiwan question is concerned, Washington's more pro-Beijing stance is worth far more in terms of deterrence than the deployment of another 100 Chinese missiles targeted on Taiwan. Moreover, China's international image has clearly improved as the country has committed more resources to international security and this, in turn, serves long-term Chinese interests.

Concerning the potential of a future China-NATO relationship, it might be tempting to look to the precedent of the Alliance's relationship with Russia. However, the nature of a possible relationship between Beijing and NATO will always be very different from that between the Alliance and Moscow. This is because China will surely always be out of area as far as NATO is concerned and, therefore, there can be no speculation as to whether one day China too might become an Alliance member. But this should not minimise China's potential importance to NATO.

As NATO takes on missions beyond its traditional area of operations in an effort to combat the threat posed by terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, it will come ever closer to China in Central, South and Southeast Asia. Given the virtual absence of geopolitical and strategic rivalry between China and NATO, relations between the two are likely to evolve in a much smoother fashion than, for example, in the case of NATO and Russia. At the same time, with a rapidly growing economy and equally dynamic shifts in strategic thinking, China will be increasingly capable and willing to cooperate with other countries and organisations, including NATO, in the security field. With NATO taking command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, the time may be ripe to put relations with China on a more formal footing.

Zuqian Zhang is director of European Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.