China has emerged as the most formidable challenge that has ever faced NATO. That is true as well for the North American and European economies upon which NATO rests, which account for roughly half of global GDP.
Most media focused on the theatrics of this week's 70th anniversary summit of NATO's now-29 members. The biggest news – though woefully underreported – was that NATO, history's most enduring and successful alliance, for the first-time defined China as a strategic challenge.
That news was drowned out by French leader Emmanuel Macron, who came into town having declared NATO brain dead; by Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who responded that it instead was the French leader's brain that was lifeless; by Canadian leader Justin Trudeau, who was caught mocking President Trump during allied cocktail hour; and by President Trump, who shrugged in response that the Canadian was two-faced.
As entertaining as all that was, more significant was that NATO allies have belatedly focused on the most significant challenge to world democracies and their market-driven economies in our new era of major power competition. However, although the closing NATO summit statement required unanimity, even more revealing is the ambiguity of its language, reflecting disagreement over whether Beijing is more of an economic opportunity than fundamental challenge.
"We recognize that China's growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an alliance," it said.
That's soft stuff considering that this authoritarian, state capitalist country has already become a global center of gravity – the world's largest by population, ranking second only to the United States in military spending and, depending on what measure you like, is already or will soon be the largest economy on Earth.
The language was also muted compared to new outrage and legislative action in the United States and elsewhere regarding the reported repression of China's Uighur Muslim minority, following weeks of Hong Kong protests and local elections supporting their cause, and in the face of continued concerns regarding Huawei's 5G telecom dominance.
One also didn't have to look far in the news this week to see new evidence of China's growing partnerships with Russia, NATO's primary focus for many years, ranging from a new 1,800 mile-long gas pipeline connecting both countries, to Huawei's expanded relations with at least eight top Russian universities and research institutes.
Writing for Defense One, the Atlantic Council's Barry Pavel and Ian Brzezinski have usefully called upon NATO to create a NATO-China Council that would collectively engage China on areas of concern. It would be a structural mechanism for dialogue with Russia to raise concerns, avoid misunderstandings and, where possible, foster cooperation.
The list of matters it would deal with is already a lengthy one, write the authors: Huawei's targeting of European and North American digital infrastructure; increasing ownership of major European seaports critical to NATO; joint exercises with the Russian military, including in the Nordic-Baltic region; and cyber espionage and intellectual property theft.
A London financier friend, who has enough business in China to remain anonymous, lays out the case for why democracies around the world need to get their act together soon to address [Beijing's] still-underestimated challenge.
Over time, he argues, China will have the largest human, economic and technological resources of any single country.
"The government has more successfully fostered economic development in a strategic fashion than any other communist or totalitarian regime in history," he says, "successfully managing the tension (so far) between central control and harnessing the power of capitalist and market-based incentives and structures. Rising per capita incomes and the power of compounding means it will become the largest economy on the planet. Period."
Nothing could be more confounding for those who thought history had determined that democratic rule was the flavor of the future. Unlike previous communist and authoritarian states, China has combined political control with innovation and development resulting from decentralized markets. In startling manner, China has managed to become a technological leader as well, and its closed system is feeding its advancement using big data and Artificial Intelligence.
"China has been smart about building strength without projecting strength," says my London financier friend. "Many of its totalitarian predecessors lacked that discipline. And it will likely continue. It can further its rise until the discipline is no longer required."
At that point, he reckons it will all become about one thing: what is China's intent and how will it use its power. On this point, it would be unlikely to foster freedom of speech, dissent and discourse, rule of law, or democratic elections and decision making – everything NATO was created to defend.
So, it then comes down to degrees and modes of conflict or competition, which is what a concerted Western strategy would be designed to discuss and steer.
If you play the world forward, the resources still available to the US and its allies are formidable. They include the global financial system and the world's reserve currency, which is critical to maintain. The U.S. also has the world's most advanced innovation engine, though that's no longer secure.
The NATO summit was also a good reminder of the value in pooled resources, not just for military purposes but perhaps more importantly to promote economic strength. However, at a time when unity of purpose is most required, new trade skirmishes broke out last week with Brazil, Argentina and with France.
History may still force transatlantic allies together to better manage China's rise collectively. During the last world leadership transition, common Western purpose was less necessary because the US was displacing the United Kingdom, and both had similar value systems. As China rises, common purpose among Western allies will be more crucial.
Hong Kong protests have been a useful reminder that human desire for freedom is universal. Pluralism and democracy have proven to be the most resilient systems over time. Yet even optimists have got to worry about the costs of mismanaging this period of history.
It's a good thing that NATO called out the challenge this week. Now alliance leaders should replace mocking and name calling with strategic planning and purpose.
Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.
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