12 January 2021

NATO enters the great powers competition

Sergiu Medar

The great powers competition brings the US, Russia and China into the ring. The US cannot cope, simultaneously, with Russia’s security threats in Eastern Europe and China’s in Eastern Asia. Thus, it needs, in terms of security, a fourth power: an entity able to act together with the US. NATO is the only power which, together with the US, can counterbalance Russia and China.

Image source: Profimedia

All the democratic states in the world agree that China and Russia can be seen as the main threats to democracy. The two countries are also UN’s Security Council members, being able to influence the international relations. Given the increasing aggressiveness of the two authoritarian regimes, the US is trying to make a power balance in case if it should carry and win a confrontation with them. The result of the analysis was negative, as the US cannot win this confrontation alone. The only capable ally that is also ready to fight together with the US is NATO. Once again, it is confirmed that NATO, implicitly Europe, needs the US and the US, in the great powers competition, needs NATO.

An analysis of NATO’s vulnerabilities in Europe leads to the geostrategic conclusion according to which Central and Eastern Europe are the more exposed areas to an aggression coming from Moscow, getting to a direct conflicting situation with Russia. Thus, the North-Atlantic Alliance is, mostly, falling back on the concept which, according to Lord Ismay, the first NATO Secretary General, was summarized through “USA in, Russia out, Germany down”, the answer to the question “What is NATO?”.

The collective defence concept, the fundamental doctrine of NATO, allows the defence of the states in this region. But, considering Russia’s military force, NATO alone cannot cope with such an aggression. It needs the US not just as a member of the Alliance, but also as a direct partner with the central and eastern European states’ governments. Thus, the US can reach both its strategic interest on Russia, which is the great powers competition, and the commitments on its other strategic allies: Romania and Poland. Therefore, NATO becomes more relevant for the US and vice versa. Both Russia’s aggressiveness, and China’s threat are dictating the US position in the area and the types of armament defensively positioned.

China, unlike Russia, does not have a complete military strategy on Europe. Therefore, it relies more on Russia’s strategy, keeping its interest and most of its forces for the South-Eastern Asia. China, alone, cannot be a military threat for the US. Together with Russia, however, it is indeed a challenge. The two powers are cooperating in making weapons and sophisticated military equipment. From submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles to nuclear weapons, China is copying the military procurement plan of US and Russia. The AI component, quantum computers or robots are based on the huge accomplishments of China in the field.

The vulnerability of the two powers on the US is related to the global projection of force. Russia and China have competitive military capabilities on the tactical plan, but not the possibility to project force. China has the biggest number of tanks in the world, but these cannot be used but for tactical operations, which only sometimes can have a strategic value. In order to push this vulnerability away, the states must have a strong transport fleet, but also a protection one. Although numerous, Russia and China’s fleets cannot be used but in the coast areas, thus not project force thousands of kilometers away.

Due to such limitations, the two great powers do not have a global strategy to carry a war, but a strategy for a limited war.

The fait accompli strategy that Russia and China are now applying was used in the limited war carried against Crimea and Hong Kong.

The action area of a limited was is, for Russia, the Eastern flank of NATO, from the Baltic Sea up to the Black Sea. For China, this area is represented not only by South-East Asia, but also by the projection capacities of the nuclear charges, from China to the US territory. In a medium and long terms analysis, one can say that the US involvement, without NATO, in defending the Eastern flank of NATO would weaken the US in the Pacific Ocean area, as China has enough methods to act. At the same time, a possible conflict in the Pacific Ocean, followed by the quick intervention of the US, would weaken the East and South-East of Europe. Thus, the only option for the US is to continue to collaborate with NATO and Alliance’s participation in building this project: a strong Transatlantic Alliance which could, with US’s support, defend its Eastern borders. This is how the US could support the democracies from South-East Asia to deter China’s aggressiveness.

The main obstacle of this huge project is the fact that the Trump Administration has diminished the transatlantic relation’s force. The US president which, soon, will leave the White House, has clearly stated that “Europe is an enemy of the US” (economically speaking). This is what made the EU and China’s economic interests resemble. The agreed commercial agreement between the two great economic powers made it extremely difficult for US to take a stance in the European competition of the great powers.

In fact, general brigadier Ben Hodges was stating: “We need Europe to deter Russia”, underlining the determination of the new administration to resume the transatlantic relation.

 Russia and China’s influence operations have reached, these days, a climax in terms of the effectiveness of the way to manipulate large masses of people. Even if, now, we cannot but confirm that these two states were directly involved in the breaching process of democracy on Capitol’s stairs, these are the main beneficiaries of the protests, thus, the main suspect. In fact, before these actions, there was a huge manipulation campaign in the US which led to violence. The concern of this campaign was that the Biden Administration would lead America to communism. An unexpected big number of people believed this fake news, most likely launched by the Russia China duo and reacted accordingly.

 The cyber attack capabilities, which do not need any land, air or maritime dislocation methods, were developed by these two states so much that their attack power is global, unlike similar methods.

For the NATO states and their allies, the main threat comes from the Russian fleet and especially from the aggressiveness of the Kilo submarines, able to project their attack force to distances that can reach any maritime area in Europe and North Africa.

In order to cope, together with the US, with Russia’s threats, in the Mediterranean and Arctic maritime areas, NATO had to review its Maritime Strategy elaborated in 2011, before Russia’s aggressiveness in Crimea or the development of new naval capabilities of Russia in the Black Sea and the arctic area.

China, through the Belt and Road Initiative, has developed its maritime force projection capabilities to great distance. The new interests and commercial alliances signed with European states are the foundations of China’s expansion, for now just economic, to a global level.

A new NATO Maritime Strategy, following the strategic concept of Great Powers Competition, would allow the US and NATO to keep control over the navigation freedom and security in the arctic waters. The global warming had extended the navigation routes and, thus, the maritime traffic can, now, connect the Atlantic and the Pacific. Is in the arctic area Russia is involved, the South area is where China is present. The Chinese naval base from Djibouti is dedicated not just to economic purposes, but to China’s maritime routes and security.

As a future member of the great powers competition, NATO can readjust its doctrines and, hereof, the new action strategies.

Until now, NATO was approaching Russia’s threat through the collective defence concept, effective on tactical level spaces. Now, Russia’s deterrence can take place on bigger spaces and distances, in a strategic matrix.

Until recently, the air supremacy was the key to success in armed conflicts. Once security was approached from a strategic perspective, needing force projection on great distances, the naval forces are the main US and NATO concern in developing the national military capabilities available for Alliance’s forces. Without the US help, Europe alone cannot deter Russia’s naval threats in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic Sea or the Arctic area. Apart from the necessity to build a trustable fleet and joint action tactics, NATO must develop a new Maritime Strategy to identify, first of all, the threats included in the great powers competition concept, and then the necessity of a tied coordination within the transatlantic relation.

Translated by Andreea Soare