(Bloomberg) -- On an overcast morning last month, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic arrived at a military airport near Belgrade to pose with six Chinese-made attack drones.
“They have a long range, they can shoot at targets from a distance of nine kilometers and record the terrain, objects of interest to Serbia deep within enemy territory,” Vucic said standing alongside Serbian troops clad in berets and face masks to protect against Covid-19.
The purchase of the six pilotless aircraft by the NATO partner makes Serbia the first European country to deploy Chinese combat drones. It also underscores China’s broadening strategic footprint on NATO’s doorstep, from cyberattacks and intellectual property theft to strategic investment through its Belt and Road Initiative.
China’s actions are prodding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to pivot to Asia, a potential sea change that’s roiling an alliance that was created to protect Europe against the Soviet Union and then Russia. China’s growing influence in the Balkans mirrors its push into other areas previously dominated by Russia. The Belt and Road enterprise already has made it a major player in Central Asian politics.
The moves could bolster the case made by the U.S., which has struggled to persuade allies to join it in confronting an increasingly assertive China. But other NATO members are cool to that prospect, inclined to keep doing business with China -- and disinclined to follow the lead of President Donald Trump, who criticizes the European allies for not spending enough on defense, unilaterally withdrew from the Paris climate accord and quit the 2015 Iran nuclear deal over loud objections on the continent.
The “America First” approach that has alienated traditional U.S. friends was underscored by the Pentagon’s announcement last week that it will pull 12,000 troops out of Germany and send more than half of them home from Europe. Criticizing German defense spending as inadequate, Trump said “we don’t want to be the suckers anymore.”
Signs of the dilemma NATO faces over China have been growing for months. Last year NATO conducted its first China Review. In December, alliance members specifically mentioned China for the first time in their declaration after the NATO Summit.
It’s easy to see why China has NATO leaders rattled. As Belt and Road has expanded across the continent, China has snapped up strategic assets including ports, power utilities and robotics firms from the Mediterranean to the Baltic Sea. The reach of Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies Co. has also alarmed countries including the U.S., the U.K. and France.
Then there’s China’s military expansion. Under President Xi Jinping, China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in 2017, giving it influence over vital sea lanes near the Horn of Africa, where the U.S. also has an outpost. It commissioned more than two dozen new ships in 2016 and 2017, and it said in October that it was making “steady progress” on a second aircraft carrier after floating its first in 2017.
Perhaps most important from the European perspective, China maintains close military ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, even conducting joint exercises in 2017 on the Baltic Sea, a region that has six NATO members.
“China is high on the NATO agenda, and that was not the case before,” NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels on June 17. “It’s not about NATO moving into the South China Sea but about the fact that China is coming closer to us. We see them in the Arctic, we see them in Africa, we see them investing heavily in infrastructure in our own countries and, of course, we see them also in cyberspace.”
For all the reluctance to follow Trump’s increasingly confrontational approach to China, NATO members can’t ignore pressure to catch up with shifting American priorities.
“Allies recognize that managing the challenge from China is rising to the top of strategic priority for the United States,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and a former deputy secretary general of the organization. “While they may not need to contribute forces, they need to show that they’re contributing to the No. 1 security challenge for the U.S.”
If they don’t respond to U.S. concerns over China, Vershbow said, European members may “become more vulnerable to Chinese pressure tactics, coercion or disinformation. But I think the most serious risk is that the U.S. will downgrade its contributions to European security.”
Moving beyond rhetoric about countering China could prove difficult. Aside from the U.S., NATO allies have few assets to project power in the Asia-Pacific region. But the U.S. needs NATO for its own interests, too, including maintaining pressure over Russian expansionism and keeping Turkey even loosely tied to the West.
Any new initiative with the alliance may be more political than military. One frequent suggestion from outside experts is to establish a NATO-China Council to mirror NATO’s existing Russia Council. Others have suggested NATO should conduct more military exercises with partners such as Japan and Australia and perhaps establish training and administrative facilities in the Pacific.
The alliance’s 30 members each view China’s rise differently. The U.K. and France have taken an increasingly hawkish tone toward Beijing in recent months, while Germany remains more open to engaging. Some Southern European states like Greece and Portugal prioritize Chinese investment over security concerns, as does Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary. The Baltic States remain largely focused on Russia.
Beijing is aware of these challenges. “In American eyes, NATO is a strategic tool of America,” said Wang Yiwei, a former Chinese diplomat in Brussels and director of China’s Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University in Beijing. “But NATO has 30 member states, and it’s difficult for them to reach consensus. Some central and Eastern European countries still see Russia as the main threat, not China.”
The divisions may come into sharper focus if Democrat Joe Biden defeats Trump in the November presidential election. Biden would probably seek to coordinate more closely with NATO allies on security policy.
“If Biden wins you’ll have a genuine request on coordinating policy” and that would “be much more difficult for European governments to refuse,” said Jonathan Eyal, international director at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Also, if China’s strategic footprint continues to expand as rapidly as it has over the last decade, European allies may not require much persuasion to continue their Pacific pivot, especially as states on NATO’s periphery begin to choose sides.
Serbia is a prime example. In addition to selling Serbia its CH92-A drones for an undisclosed cost, China has agreed to transfer technology so it can build its own military drones in the future, according to President Vucic.
It’s a deal rich in symbolism because NATO’s 1999 intervention in Yugoslavia was seen at the time as a test of the military alliance’s relevance in a post-Cold War world.
The intervention, during which U.S. stealth warplanes accidentally dropped five precision-guided bombs on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, left politicians in both China and Serbia determined to strengthen themselves against the aerial dominance of America and its NATO allies.
For a time in recent months, a banner featuring anti-NATO messages alongside images of Serbian casualties from the Kosovo war was displayed in a public park between the presidential palace and parliament in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, according to Majda Ruge and Nicu Popescu of the European Council on Foreign Relations. It was replaced by another that read: “Chinese and Serbs - brothers forever.”
“NATO, Kosovo and China are all issues on which Vucic - who presents himself as a moderate partner for the West - tries to outflank his domestic political rivals to the right by reinforcing his nationalist image,” they wrote in a commentary.
At the same time, the desire among Serbia’s elite for close cooperation with China “can potentially lead us into a conflict with the West, which has its own suspicions over China’s goals,” said Igor Novakovic, research director at the Belgrade-based International and Security Affairs Center.
Serbia’s “relations with China can become a serious political issue” he said. “We are in the deep belly of NATO.”
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