NATO and China restart military staff to staff dialogue

18 June 2018

NATO has maintained a dialogue with countries that are not part of its partnership frameworks, on an ad-hoc basis, since the 1990s. One such country is China. After a three year pause NATO and China reconvened military to military staff talks on the 5 June in Brussels.

Yearly NATO and China military dialogue started in 2010, but the planned 2016 talks were cancelled due to reforms in the Chinese armed forces and the terror attacks in Brussels in March 2016. China is seen as an essential part of NATO’s so-called 360° engagement approach to projecting stability and cooperative security given the wider understanding of interrelated crises and security challenges. The interaction with Beijing is said to follow “clear political guidance that has developed over the last 10-15 years”. Other recent NATO-Chinese dialogue includes NATO’s Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller and Deputy Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Lieutenant General Steven Shepro meeting with a Chinese delegation in the margins of the Shangri-La Dialog in Singapore on the 2 June, and both NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg and Deputy Secretary General Gottemoeller meeting, on separate occasions, with the Chinese Ambassador to EU in the Spring.

The tone of this 5th edition of the staff talks was described in the NATO statement as “open and candid”, with both parties seeking to establish a concrete way forward and focusing on practical cooperation within the established political framework. Topics in the discussions included: North Korea, the South China Sea, Maritime Security and Counter Piracy, the security perspective on Central Asia - in particular in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the European security landscape, China’s defence and military reforms, NATOs partnership policy and finally, possible areas for more practical cooperation between NATO and China.

One of the concrete outcomes from the staff talks is an ‘action list’ of possible areas for practical cooperation to be developed jointly between NATO’s and Chinese Military Staffs, which includes participation in conferences, like  the Xingshan Conference in Beijing, participation in courses at NATO Defence College and the NATO School in Oberammergau, NATO participation in courses at China’s Defence University, and better and quicker information exchange related to possible interaction between naval forces. The talks concluded with an agreement to hold follow-on meetings to keep the ‘action plan’ active and alive. The 6th edition of the staff talks is likely to be held in Beijing in 2019.

NATO’s Strategic Foresight Analysis 2017 report, which is completed every four years and identifies trends that will shape the future security environment and possible implications for the alliance out to 2035, saw China’s growing military strength as a rising challenge to NATO in the coming years. The report showed a higher risk of major interstate war than in the 2013 report, although with Russia rather than China, as the most serious threat. Some former officials, such as retired US Marine Corps General John R. Allen, who served as commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and US forces in Afghanistan, have called for a stepped-up partnership with China, including the creation of a NATO-China Council akin to the NATO-Russia Council that facilitates dialogue with Moscow.