Gu Suhua writes from Beijing: China makes no bones about the fact that it sees itself as the dominant power in Asia so it throws its considerable weight around, picking fights with others. This includes claiming that the South China Sea, its islands, hydrocarbon and minerals resources underwater, belong to it. This is challenged by Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and other states that regard some of the islands as theirs. There has been a tense standoff between China and the Philippines over fishing rights, for instance.
Washington has already stated that free navigation in the South China Sea and elsewhere in East Asian waters is a strategic interest for America. Needless to say, Beijing has not taken this claim lightly.
The Americans have an alliance which can be used to play an increasing role in relations with the People’s Republic. This is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). At the recent Chicago summit Australia, Japan, South Africa and South Korea appeared for the first time. So NATO is evolving from being a purely North Atlantic alliance into a global alliance. This is causing deep concern in Beijing.
China’s first contact with NATO occurred in 1999 when NATO bombers hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and killed three Chinese. An apology that old, out of date maps were responsible was not accepted by China. It suspected that the real target was to disrupt or destroy military intelligence gathering. Beijing vehemently attacked NATO for intervening in sovereign states without UN Security Council approval. Common interests in Afghanistan after 2002 brought the two sides together. There are now regular meetings between Chinese diplomats and ministers and NATO officials in Brussels.
Anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden have also helped to improve the relationship. The first NATO military delegation to China engaged in discussions about military cooperation, security problems in the Asia-Pacific region and NATO’s peace and security role. Annual staff talks between NATO and the People’s Liberation Army are planned.
NATO argues that China and it share common global security interests. One is to ensure free passage for shipping in the Indian Ocean. However Beijing is wary of NATO advances. It fears that the alliance is attempting to forge a global partnership, the goal of which is to contain growing Chinese military power. NATO’s contacts with Mongolia and Central Asian states increase this concern.
China is faced with a dilemma. The more it pursues its interests in South East Asia, the more jittery these states become. They naturally look around for a protector. NATO is the obvious partner. Of course, to Beijing NATO equates to the United States. Hence what happened in western Europe after 1945 – too weak to defend itself from Soviet power – is occurring in East, South East and South Asia today. In both cases America was and is the only power capable of acting as protector.
NATO, for its part, is concerned about cyber hacking. Most of this appears to originate in China. This is becoming a major problem. As Chinese military power grows, it will become more and more difficult to combat.
The next theatre of cooperation is obviously Afghanistan when NATO forces leave in 2014. Beijing wishes to ensure that Islamist groups do not penetrate Xinjiang from there. China has large investments in Afghanistan and this causes a serious dilemma. If it is seen to be too close to NATO, the Taliban may target it. So Beijing will attempt to establish a relationship with the Taliban to protect and expand its economic projects. China’s good relations with Pakistan may be of considerable value here.
The next step is to set up a China-NATO Council similar to those with Russia and other states. The People’s Republic may even appear at the next NATO summit.
However at the end of the day China knows that NATO’s goal is to restrict the expansion of its power. NATO lost direction after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now it has a new mission: contain China.