03.12.2019 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

NATO Ups the Military Ante against China and Russia


In the recent foreign ministers level NATO summit held in Brussels, the NATO leaders not only re-affirmed their commitment to the same confrontational ideology that it has been following ever since its creation after the Second World War, but also added China in the list of enemy countries, vowing to start its military surveillance. This is a significant development in that it is not only meant to induce new ‘life’ into the force but also consolidate the organisation at a time when internal divisions have been making headlines for quite some time now. On the one hand, the US and Turkey, NATO’s two biggest military powers have been challenging each other in Syria, and on the other, Germany and France have been pulling strings in the opposite direction. With France trying to ‘normalise’ relations with Russia, other NATO members, particularly the US and Germany, have been pushing for elevating the NATO to an all together new level of military preparedness and confrontation. The November summit has set the tone for the future.

Two particular developments stand out: first, the NATO will be increasing its defence spending by almost US$100 billion, and secondly, NATO will be paying special attention to China, taking it as a military threat to their interests. In terms of upping the overall military ante, NATO will be using outer space as a new operational domain, which practically means weaponization.

For the Western powers, achieving this objective wouldn’t be a big problem as far as military surveillance related objectives are concerned. According to NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, “Space is also essential to the alliance’s deterrence and defence, including the ability to navigate, to gather intelligence, and to detect missile launches. Around 2,000 satellites orbit the Earth. And around half of them are owned by NATO countries.”

The need for this has become particularly important given that the US led Western alliance continues to face not only resistance from countries like Russia, China and Iran, but also potential defeats at their hands as in Syria.

The US Secretary of the State, Mike Pompeo, minced no words when he hit out these countries in his recent address in Brussels, calling them “authoritarian regimes” having nothing in common with the West. While these ‘eastern countries’ may have nothing in common with the West, the reason for the NATO’s increasingly confrontational postures isn’t merely geography; it is their increasing inability to keep a global system intact wherein they stand as the sole masters.

To quote Pompeo, “we again face threats from authoritarian regimes, and again we must face them together.  Russia, China, Iran – their value systems are simply very different from ours.  They go in an opposite direction”, adding further that “our alliance must address the current and potential long-term threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Accordingly, the goal is to enhance the NATO’s military preparedness. This couldn’t be a coincidence that the US$100 billion increase in budget and the identification of space and China as two new targets is happening at a time when the Defender 2020, the third-largest military exercise on the continent, is just around the corner. Besides it, the Defender Pacific exercise is also due to be held in 2020. These two exercises are meant to not only boost the otherwise internally divided organisation, but also aims to draw both Russia and China into a confrontational mode.

The Defender 2020 European chapter will test the NATO’s ability to deploy forces near Russia, practically from “fort in the United States to port in the United States,” and then to ports in Europe, and from there to operational areas throughout Europe from Germany to Poland to the Baltic states and other Eastern European nations, Nordic countries and even Georgia, said Lt. Gen. Chris Cavoli, the U.S. Army Europe commander. The Defender Pacific exercise will test the ability to mobilise around 100,000 soldier at one time against China. Gen. Robert Brown, who recently stepped down as commander of U.S. Army Pacific at Fort Shafter, likes to point out that the United States is in a state of strategic “hyper-competition” with China and Russia.

While there could never be any doubt about why the NATO came into existence in the first place, the fact that NATO’s military expansion is happening at a time when China is economically expanding in both Europe and Asia means that the US purpose behind this expansion is to stay entrenched in these countries and use NATO as a bulwark against its global strategic competitors.

At the same time, however, NATO’s conceptual infusion of Russia and China as its two chief “enemies” is pushing both Russia and China into an even closer cooperation mode. When Russia’s Putin recently met China’s Xi in Brasilia, they reaffirmed their own commitment to confront these threats jointly. To quote Putin, “Russia and China have important consensus and common interests in maintaining global strategic security and stability. Under the current situation, the two sides should continue to maintain close strategic communication and firmly support each other in safeguarding sovereignty, security, and development rights.”

As such, while the US, for so many reasons, may find it impossible to block China’s economic expansion in Europe and Asia, all it can do is expand its military presence in these regions in order to retain a say in these countries’ foreign relations. Its policy of upping the military ante is, therefore, unlikely to yield the expected results. Whereas it is already fusing Russia and China into a closer strategic cooperation mode, the question of Europe military confronting China or even Russia will remain crucial. The US decision to scrap the INF treaty has already exposed Europe to the Russian missiles. Will Europe like to become, once again, the main battle ground between the ‘East and the West’?

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.