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Time to improve relations between China and NATO

China’s expanding overseas economic interests, with commensurate maritime power projection capabilities across the Indian Ocean littoral and the Mediterranean, present a timely opportunity for Beijing to help burden-sharing in providing global public goods – especially in the maritime commons – writes Christina Lin

At its Wales summit in September, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation will focus on its future. But while the Ukraine crisis has refocused the alliance on collective defence and its immediate neighbourhood, its international partnerships and cooperative security with rising powers will also become more relevant in an age of globalisation, emerging non-traditional security challenges and declining Western military budgets. This is especially important given China’s rise as a global actor and its growing presence in the Mediterranean and Middle East and North Africa – or MENA – region after the Arab Spring.

It was at the European Union-United States Summit in November 2011 that the transatlantic partners initially discussed the idea of a joint pivot to Asia and agreed to increase their dialogue and coordination on Asia-Pacific issues. However, in view of declining budgets, many European countries saw Asia as a region too far; preferring a division of labour to focus on territorial defence and Europe’s own backyard. The countries of southern Europe, especially, feared destabilising spillovers from developments in North Africa – such as mass migration and terrorism as well as energy and maritime disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey, Cyprus and Greece.

This division of labour is gradually emerging, with the MENA region becoming a greater European concern and responsibility for Asia falling primarily to America. But this raises practical questions over whether Europe can secure its neighbourhood without American support. In the Libyan campaign, European allies relied on US capabilities such as aerial refuelling and ran quickly through their munitions.

Moreover, such a division risks weakening the transatlantic bond over time. As such, China’s growing footprint in the Mediterranean presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the United States and Europe to constructively engage and together form a common strategy for post-Arab Spring reconstruction. Now NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen would like the alliance to engage China because his organisation operates with United Nations mandates, and China is the only permanent UN Security Council member with which it has no formal mechanism for engagement and consultation. The new strategic narrative would need to account for China’s entry into NATO’s neighbourhood and focus on ways to engage China for cooperative security and crisis management so as to stabilise the MENA region.

For Beijing, the MENA region is primarily important as a source for energy resources to feed China’s growing economy. It is also an export hub for Europe and Africa and a forward front for protecting China’s ‘one China policy’ and combating terrorism and East Turkistan separatist forces. After losing more than $20bn in investments and evacuating 36,000 Chinese nationals from Libya, Beijing is concerned about another scenario of that nature. China also fears that the new Islamist regimes in the Arab Mediterranean countries will be more supportive of Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang and deny Beijing’s access to their energy supplies. Therefore, Beijing will increasingly exercise its diplomatic and military power to protect these far-flung interests – and already China is developing its long-range naval logistic capability.

To this end, China’s recent entry into Mediterranean security requires a readjustment of sensitive regional balances as well as the need for defence planners in the US, European, Central and African commands to incorporate China into their strategic calculus. China’s increasing economic and maritime footprint, especially in the eastern Mediterranean, could benefit cooperation on non-traditional security challenges such as counterterrorism, anti-piracy, crisis management and arresting weapons of mass destruction proliferation.

Maritime security is another issue for cooperation given China’s interest in Israeli and Cypriot gas as well as counterterrorism against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which attacked Chinese interests in Algeria in 2009. In Syria, China has concerns about Uyghur jihadists linked with Al Qaeda.

With almost one million citizens in the Middle East and Africa facing threats of piracy and kidnappings, China also has an interest in crisis management and emergency response. Moreover, NATO engaging China would help keep the US firmly anchored in the Mediterranean region despite the Asia pivot, and reassure allies and NATO partners in the Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative that America is not leaving the region.

China’s expanding overseas economic interests, with commensurate maritime power projection capabilities across the Indian Ocean littoral and the Mediterranean, present a timely opportunity for Beijing to help burden-sharing in providing global public goods – especially in the maritime commons. If the transatlantic community can succeed in working with China in MENA on emerging security challenges, America and its allies can export important lessons to the Western Pacific in the hope of also nurturing cooperative security in China’s own neighbourhood.

Christina Lin is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank in Washington DC. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series: China’s Mediterranean presence is an opportunity for NATO

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