At its Wales summit in September, NATO will focus on its future. But while the Ukraine crisis has refocused the alliance on collective defense and its immediate neighborhood, its international partnerships and cooperative security with rising powers will also become more relevant in an age of globalization, emerging non-traditional security challenges, and declining Western defense 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 (MENA) region after the Arab Spring.
It was at the EU-U.S. 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 defense budgets, many European countries saw Asia as a region too far, preferring a division of labor to focus on territorial defense and Europe’s own backyard. The countries of southern Europe, especially, feared destabilizing 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 labor is gradually emerging, with the MENA region becoming a greater European concern, and responsibility for Asia falling primarily to the United States. But this raises practical questions over whether Europe can secure its neighborhood without U.S. support. In the Libyan campaign, European allies relied on U.S. capabilities such as aerial refueling 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 China, and together form a common strategy for post-Arab Spring reconstruction.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen would like the alliance to engage China because NATO 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. NATO’s new strategic narrative would need to account for China’s entry into NATO’s neighborhood, and focus on ways to engage China for cooperative security and crisis management so as to stabilize 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 over $20 billion 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. Thus 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 defense planners in the U.S. 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 1 million citizens in 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 United States 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 the United States 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, the United States and its allies can export important lessons to the Western Pacific in the hope of also nurturing cooperative security in China’s own neighborhood.