Recent NATO Debate Highlights the Growing Transatlantic Dialogue on Taiwan

Recent NATO Debate Highlights the Growing Transatlantic Dialogue on Taiwan

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Recent NATO Debate Highlights the Growing Transatlantic Dialogue on Taiwan

2022 has been a momentous year for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). After years of relative stagnation and a perceived decline in usefulness, the venerable alliance has been revitalized in the wake of Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. Now, with a common enemy at its doorstep, NATO has once again become an indispensable feature of transatlantic security. Reflecting this renewed vigor, the alliance has begun to look beyond the confines of Europe and the North Atlantic, increasingly directing its attention toward other potential sources of geopolitical tension. As my colleague Russell Hsiao noted in a recent article, NATO has taken on a notably global character in 2022, even inviting the leaders of several Indo-Pacific nations (Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand) to attend its 2022 Summit, which was held in Madrid from June 28-30.

While much of NATO’s focus remains fixed on Eastern Europe, the alliance has become increasingly vocal on issues related to the Taiwan Strait in recent months. This tilt toward Asia has only grown more pronounced in the aftermath of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) August military exercises around Taiwan, which served to clarify the rising threat posed by China. In the month following the drills, NATO members engaged frequently on the issue, culminating in the alliance’s first-ever dedicated debate on Taiwan issues in September. Though NATO’s exact role in a Taiwan Strait contingency remains unclear, the fact that the alliance conducted a formal discussion on this issue suggests that a new phase of NATO engagement in the Indo-Pacific could be on the horizon. For the United States, which has long sought greater transatlantic cooperation on cross-Strait issues, such a shift in focus toward the region could be a welcome development.

NATO and the PRC: Distant Rivals

While NATO was originally conceived as a means of countering the influence of the Soviet Union in Europe, it has grown increasingly globalized in recent years. This outward turn has been fueled by a variety of factors, ranging from the need to safeguard global supply chains to a recognition of the threat posed by transnational criminal enterprises. However, these issues appear to be secondary to the alliance’s growing concern over the rise of China. Though NATO is still a relative newcomer to the China conversation, it has shown unprecedented interest in the issue over the past several years.

As Michael Trinkwalder noted recently, NATO’s growing outspokenness regarding the PRC would have been unthinkable a mere three years ago. In a joint declaration from 2019, the alliance mentioned China only once, briefly and dryly stating that the PRC’s “growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.” While frustratingly vague and noncommittal, such language was hardly uncommon at the time. For many NATO members—particularly those in Europe—China was simply too far away to be viewed as a legitimate threat. This indifference was a consistent source of exasperation for the United States, which repeatedly sought to convince the alliance of the danger posed by the PRC, both to Taiwan and to the international order more broadly.

Beginning in 2020, however, this dynamic began to change. In November of that year, the alliance released a report entitled “NATO 2030: United for a New Era.” In a departure from past NATO documents, the report focuses heavily on the PRC, even dedicating an entire section to it and describing it as a “systemic challenge.” Specifically, it states that:

“NATO must devote much more time, political resources, and action to the security challenges posed by China–based on an assessment of its national capabilities, economic heft, and the stated ideological goals of its leaders. It needs to develop a political strategy for approaching a world in which China will be of growing importance through to 2030.”

This mounting interest in understanding and contending with the PRC continued the following month, when the alliance held its first-ever Foreign Minister’s meeting with four Indo-Pacific partner countries (the aforementioned Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand). [1] According to NATO officials, the meeting focused extensively on the rise of China and its implications for the global balance of power. For an alliance that was once so indifferent to the PRC, this represented a notable shift in both rhetoric and behavior.

While these developments were noteworthy in their own right, they pale in comparison to the events of 2022. For NATO’s European member states, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a seismic shift. For the first time in decades, war had returned to the continent, upending long-held assumptions about the rules-based international order. This, combined with China’s overly aggressive response to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August (see here and here), seems to have shattered any illusions NATO states may have held about the threats posed by authoritarian powers. 

Growing NATO Interest in Taiwan

In the wake of the Russian invasion, many commentators were quick to draw parallels between the conflict and a potential Taiwan Strait contingency. While the two scenarios differ widely in many key aspects, there are undeniable similarities. Like Ukraine, Taiwan is a relatively new—albeit far more stable—democracy, forced to operate in the shadow of a far larger, far more powerful rival. And like Russia, China is a vast, irredentist autocracy, determined to reclaim a territory it regards as its own sovereign soil. Though such comparisons are certainly simplistic, they are powerful nevertheless. For many NATO member states, the parallels between the war and Ukraine and a future war in the Taiwan Strait seem to be difficult to ignore. 

For its part, the PRC has not done itself any favors. While China is not directly involved in the Ukraine conflict, its behavior in the months before and after the invasion has led many European states to draw an association between the two. As Trinkwalder notes, Beijing’s declaration of a “no limits” partnership with Moscow and subsequent echoing of Russian rhetoric on NATO “aggression” have eroded European opinion toward China. Relations have been further strained by the PRC’s continued refusal to disavow Russian attacks, including those targeting civilians and noncombatants. For many in Europe, China’s actions—or lack thereof—during the conflict have confirmed that Beijing is not to be trusted. These concerns were reflected in the alliance’s 2022 NATO Strategic Concept, released in June 2022, which stated that the “deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.”

Where China’s behavior during the Ukraine conflict sparked widespread discontent in Europe, its conduct following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan provided a far more tangible example of its belligerent tendencies. Speaking in the days after the visit, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated that the “visit of Nancy Pelosi is no reason for China to overreact or threaten Taiwan or to use threatening rhetoric.” While Stoltenberg’s statement was far from a call to arms, it nevertheless signaled that the alliance was concerned about the stability of the Taiwan Strait. 

Evolving Debates on Taiwan

Given these events, NATO’s decision to hold its first-ever dedicated debate on Taiwan issues is perhaps not surprising. It is a remarkable development nonetheless. For an alliance that was long reluctant to even mention China, the debate represents the culmination of a multi-year evolution in rhetoric toward the PRC. As reported by the Financial Times, the discussions occurred during a September meeting of the North Atlantic Council (NAC), the alliance’s “main political decision-making body.” According to US Navy Admiral (ret.) James Stavridis, the former NATO supreme allied commander, topics of discussion included “the status of Taiwan, its democratic government, and its critical role in the manufacture of microchips globally.” While participants cautioned that there was no formal discussion of the alliance’s role in a potential Taiwan Strait contingency, they nevertheless noted that the implications of such an attack were extensively debated. In a further demonstration of Taiwan’s growing salience among European alliance members, one participant stated that “if there is an issue that we are discussing inside out and upside down, it’s Taiwan and possible scenarios and essentially a sense of what would happen.” 

Already, the alliance seems to be building on its Taiwan debate. During another leaders’ meeting held in Bucharest, Romania from November 29-30, NATO officials “engaged in their most concerted effort yet to grapple with the China challenge.” Notably, the meeting included discussions of substantive steps that the alliance could take to reduce its vulnerabilities to Chinese influence, including developing shared export control standards. While it is unclear whether the members directly discussed Taiwan, the meeting nevertheless demonstrated growing transatlantic alignment vis-à-vis China.

For the United States, this was likely a welcome development. For years, Washington has sought to bring European states into greater alignment when it comes to China. While this had seemed to be a futile endeavor in the past, the events of 2022 seem to have made European states more receptive to the US position. Now more than ever, a more unified, transatlantic approach to China and Taiwan could strengthen the United States’ hand in its dealings with the PRC. NATO may only be taking its first steps into the Taiwan Strait regional security discussion, but it is progress nonetheless. If the alliance is able to capitalize on its renewed relevance and develop a coherent, actionable plan for confronting China, it could greatly improve its strategic position moving forward.

The main point: In the wake of several geopolitical crises, a reinvigorated NATO has begun to discuss security issues surrounding the Taiwan Strait region. If its member states continue this trend, it could greatly strengthen their collective position vis-à-vis China. 

[1] While this was the first direct meeting with the four Indo-Pacific states, NATO had maintained various degrees of relationships with them since 2004. For more information, see https://globaltaiwan.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/QuarterlyConnections_Q32022.pdf.