In his opening statement at the NATO summit in Madrid on June 29, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted that for the first time the People’s Republic of China would feature in the alliance’s new strategic concept. “China is not mentioned with a single word in the current  Strategic design. China will be part of the concept that we agreed on at this summit, and I hope that the Allies will agree that China poses or is a challenge to our values, our interests and our security. China is not an adversary but, of course, we have to take into account the consequences for our security when we see China investing heavily in new modern military capabilities, long-range missiles, nuclear weapons, and also trying control critical infrastructure. This statement announced nothing really new. Stoltenberg had been tasked with developing the basis for a new strategic concept in 2019 and his initial report in early 2020 called for NATO to look to the Indo-Pacific as part of a comprehensive approach to security and stability. This reflected the influence of the Trump administration refocusing US security policy toward China, a pivot initiated by the Obama administration that continues under the Biden administration.
The NATO 2030: United for a new era report (released 25 November 2020) states that “NATO needs to devote significantly more time, political resources and action to the security challenges posed by China, based on an assessment of its national capabilities, its economic weight and the declared ideological objectives of its leaders. The June 2021 Brussels Summit went further: “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and areas relevant to Alliance security. . . . It is opaque in the implementation of its military modernization and its publicly announced military-civilian fusion strategy. It also cooperates militarily with Russia. This warning about a Russian-Chinese axis would gain weight when Moscow invades Ukraine in February 2022.
The interest of the main NATO members in the Indo-Pacific was not expressed only in words. In 2021, NATO members sent 21 warships to Asian waters where they conducted joint operations with all the regional navies that US diplomacy is trying to field against Chinese expansion. Naval forces are the obvious political tool for European governments to project their power and influence in the region, just as they have been at the forefront of the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies and partners in demonstrating their commitment and determination.
The most significant show of force was the seven-month voyage (May-December 2021) of British Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21), based on the new HMS queen elizabeth aircraft carrier and her escort of two Royal Navy destroyers, two frigates, two support ships and a nuclear-powered submarine. But it was also an alliance effort. The task force included the United States Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) and United States Marine Corps Squadron, VMFA-22 (known as the Wake Island Avengers), flying F-35B Lightning II fighters from the British aircraft carrier. The Royal Netherlands Navy frigate HNLMS EvertsenNevertheless, gave the group its true NATO character. The Dutch have always punched above their weight. The inclusion of Evertsen in CSG21 flagged Amsterdam’s concerns over Chinese breaches of maritime law set out in the Dutch government’s Indo-Pacific guidelines issued in November 2020.
CSG21 crossed the South China Sea in July last year en route to Japan. Beijing issued a series of furious protests throughout its operation. Even before leaving the British Isles, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Tan Kefei said that “the Chinese side believes that the South China Sea should not become a sea of great power rivalry dominated by weapons and warships” and that “the real source of militarization in the South China Sea comes from countries outside this region who send their warships thousands of miles from home to build muscle. Beijing’s construction of military bases on artificial islands in the South China Sea that has prompted other nations to send their warships to these waters to maintain their status as international sea lanes open to free navigation. patrol operating from Singapore for a sustained presence and could arrange base access for periodic deployments of nuclear submarines to Australia , which would do more than just wave the flag.
The Royal Navy sent warships to the Taiwan Strait, as did France and Canada. On the sidelines of the Madrid summit, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said NATO must impress upon China that invading Taiwan would be “a catastrophic miscalculation”. She said China’s growing global influence and military influence was “a problem for Euro-Atlantic security.”
France did not need NATO as a reason for involvement in the Indo-Pacific since it has territories in the Pacific and Indian oceans which are home to 1.6 million citizens and an EEZ in the region of 9 million square kilometers. It permanently deploys 7,000 military personnel, 20 naval vessels and 40 aircraft across its sovereign possessions. Paris understands that these forces are scattered as tensions rise with China’s push for influence among small island states in the Pacific. A 2022 parliamentary report recommends doubling the number of patrol boats in New Caledonia and Polynesia, creating a corvette program to provide more combat capability, and acquiring amphibious vessels for power projection. The French navy has also increased its incursions into the area, transiting not only through the South China Sea but also through the Taiwan Strait. Last year, a French attack submarine operated in the Indo-Pacific for several months. Also, a task force built around the helicopter carrier Jeanne D’Arc conducted a joint exercise with the Quad in the Indian Ocean and Sea of Japan. France considers the Quad as its main partner. It has particularly strengthened its ties with Australia; and while the controversial transfer of Melbourne’s submarine acquisition program from France to the United States and Britain caused a stir, it did not undermine the strategic relationship because the stakes are so high.
The French carrier group, built around nuclear power Charles de Gaulleoperated with the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean last year after conducting dual carrier flight operations with the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower CSG in the Arabian Sea. This year the Charles de Gaulle will operate in the Mediterranean due to the war in Ukraine which has focused NATO on the re-emergence of Russia as the alliance’s main active threat. However, as French Minister for the Armed Forces Sébastien Lecornu assured his audience at the 2022 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore: “While some fear that the crisis in Ukraine will blind us and lead France to renege on its in the region, this will not be the case. He pledged that France would continue to participate in joint exercises in the Indo-Pacific. France has also just sold 42 Rafale fighter jets to Indonesia where it will also build two Scorpene-class, diesel-electric attack submarines.
Perhaps Europe’s most significant naval deployment to the Indo-Pacific last year was that of the German frigate bavaria. In July 2022, German Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach, then Navy Inspector (CNO equivalent), said: “In the context of territorial disputes in the Indo-Pacific, it is important to stand alongside our valued partners. Traveling alone, the ship visited Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Australia, Vietnam, Singapore, Palau, Japan and South Korea. He also visited US bases in Diego Garcia and Guam and engaged in a joint exercise with the US, Japan, Australia and Canada in the Philippine Sea. China claimed that the exercise would “threaten regional peace and trigger discontent among countries in the region” and denied bavaria permission to visit China. Berlin has long placed trade with China as a higher priority than security concerns on the other side of the world. Beijing had thus counted on Berlin to be a voice in favor of constraint within NATO. But as Admiral Schönbach warned, China’s growing naval power is “explosive” and worrying if it fails to respect international law. During his cruise, bavaria monitored UN sanctions against North Korea, as France and Canada have also done.
The importance attached to NATO’s broader vision in the Indo-Pacific was underscored by the participation of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand at the Madrid Summit. But what is more important than a photo op at a diplomatic rally is the deployment of naval forces in areas of contention. The war in Ukraine was not deterred because Kyiv was explicitly declared outside NATO’s security perimeter. This mistake should not be made in the Indo-Pacific where NATO warships have joined regional powers to practice in contested areas of the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and even of the Taiwan Strait.
Engaging naval forces in this way puts the skin on the line for NATO and signals to Beijing that a global coalition of the world’s most advanced democratic nations (totaling more than half of the world’s economy) is deployed against aggression and for a stable international order. both in Europe and in Asia. The name of this game is deterrence, and expanded naval operations add more than just firepower to the equation. Given Beijing’s wild outbursts over US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, the threats, if carried out, could spark a major regional war. The foundation of deterrence must be strengthened beyond any doubt as to its integrity if peace is to be preserved in the Indo-Pacific. Continued NATO naval deployments in the region will be essential to this foundation.