How to understand NATO designating China as 'systemic challenge'?

China Military Online
Wang Xinjuan
2021-06-17 17:09:56

By Sun Chenghao

Thirty NATO member states held a summit at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 14. According to the joint communiqué reached at the summit, working with allies to unanimously deal with China has become one of the most important topics of Biden's Europe trip.

As for the backgrounds for the convening of this NATO summit, there are two noteworthy points. First, Biden has been eager to repair transatlantic relations after taking office, and he emphasized on many occasions that the US valued NATO. This is different compared with his predecessor Trump's contempt for NATO. Second, the Biden administration continues to push forward its strategy of "major power competition" with China and Russia and requires NATO allies to work together to avoid the US from falling into the disadvantaged position of fighting alone. In this case, this NATO summit focused on two major goals.

The first is to revitalize the alliance's strength by launching the NATO 2030 agenda. Although the agenda does not point to China everywhere, it actually foreshadows full-scale competition with China, including deepening NATO's internal political consultation and cooperation, strengthening deterrence and defense capabilities, maintaining technological advantages, improving transatlantic cooperation in various aspects, including key technologies, and maintaining the so-called "rules-based international order ".

The second is to strengthen the unity of the alliance by coordinating policies against China and Russia. The joint communiqué issued by the NATO summit mentioned Russia and China many times. The document believes that the two countries pose a challenge to the "rules-based international order", including the rise of China that "fundamentally shifts the balance of power " and that China presents "systemic challenges" to NATO. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has stated on many occasions that NATO and China have completely different values, and NATO must face up to China's challenges while maintaining dialogue with China.

Driven by the positioning of the "most severe strategic competitor" and the strategy of "great-power competition" by the US, NATO is inevitably becoming a part of the US alliance system against China. It is the first time that NATO has positioned China as "systemic challenge", but this statement should also be viewed rationally.

On the one hand, raising China to "systematic challenge" proves that NATO is increasingly being sucked into the strategic track of competition against China by the US. Judging from the current situation, the Biden administration promotes the establishment of a categorized anti-China alliance system around the world. For example, the US launched the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative targeting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the field of infrastructure; proposes a global summit of democracies in the ideological field; upgrades the US-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) mechanism in the military field; builds a US-Europe technology alliance in the scientific and technological field. Only by emphasizing that China poses all-round "systemic challenges" to NATO can the US logically incorporate NATO into this system against China.

On the other hand, judging from the wording of the NATO joint communiqué, "systematic challenges" do not mean that NATO has regarded China as an imminent threat. Russia is positioned as a "threat" in the joint communiqué, and the number of occurrences far exceeds that of China. It can be seen from the traditional geopolitical perspective that NATO's main security concerns originate from Russia, not China. At the same time, the communiqué also emphasizes that NATO should maintain a constructive dialogue with China and engage with China in fields such as climate change that concern the alliance. This reflects the consideration of NATO's European members to balance Washington's tough stance towards Beijing. It also indicates that NATO will encounter resistance in implementing the China-related decisions in the future.

The debate about NATO's future and destiny has never stopped since the end of the Cold War. NATO, which came into being during the Cold War, should end its mission. However, the US has always been reluctant to give up the important mechanism that governs transatlantic relations, and Europe, which enjoys the peace dividend, can hardly end its security dependence on the US.

However, China is not the Soviet Union during the Cold War and has never posed any challenge or threat to NATO. NATO cannot simply characterize China as "systemic challenge" and therefore ignore the areas where the two sides can have dialogues and cooperation. Creating imaginary enemies to maintain the alliance will only make NATO lose its direction.

The biggest crisis encountered by NATO is that the legitimacy of its existence is constantly being questioned, and listing China as "systematic challenge" does not revive its life. At the same time, the biggest challenge it currently faces is not the external threat or potential aggression it faced during the Cold War, but the deep-seated contradictions that are difficult to resolve within NATO.

Since the Obama administration, the US has gradually reduced the status of transatlantic relations in its global strategy, implemented the strategy of withdrawing from Europe and shifting to the Asia-Pacific region, and NATO's role has decreased simultaneously. Although Biden emphasized the importance of NATO after taking office, he obviously paid more attention to "diplomacy for the middle class of the US". Therefore its allies have become the tools and helpers of the Biden administration to enhance the US's global competitiveness. At the same time, Europe's awareness of "strategic autonomy" has been awakened, and the pace of building autonomous defenses has been accelerated, lest the "Trump-style" American president makes a comeback.

During the Cold War, both sides of the Atlantic understood why such a military alliance was needed. However, the world is changing rapidly, and NATO could not keep up with the times. If NATO still lets go of itself mired in obsolete thinking, rejects any change, and falls into the quarrel of resorting to foreign enemies to seek unity, Trump's previous view that "NATO is now obsolete " may be true.

 (The author is a scholar from the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.)

Editor's note: This article is originally published on, and is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of

Related News