The Chinese tests of new state-of-the-art hypersonic missiles has spread panic throughout the West of a new arms race, one we might well be losing. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has now called for stepped up efforts against threats emanating from the People’s Republic. Whilst this is a vitally important step, we must also look beyond NATO’s borders to win new allies and shore up existing partnerships, and we must do so with the disadvantage of a significant head-start for our rivals.
The West has stood by whilst authoritarian regimes such as China, Russia, Iran and Turkey have been midwifing a new world order, premised not on freedom and democracy, but on the whims of strong men. The tendrils of this project stretch broad and deep, from the property market of London, to the copper mines of Zambia, manipulating political systems, laundering dirty money, and seizing strategic control of the world’s critical resources. Many in the West see this as simple commerce, the natural business of globalised free markets, but that is not how it is seen from the Kremlin or Zhongnanhai, and our often-wilful blindness to the pressure points being squeezed has rendered us unable to recognise that we are in a chokehold. We are already at war, whether we choose to acknowledge this simple fact or not.
Chinese military thought particularly emphasises the importance of broadening the scope of conflict, to include theatres outside of the traditional battlefield, where they would risk being crushed by overwhelming American superiority. Instead, China emphasises forms of warfare that we would not even recognise as such – drug warfare, financial warfare, legal warfare, informational warfare, and above all political warfare. Russia of course also has a long history of deception warfare, and is still building on its successful annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Authoritarian political warfare threatens to undo the very foundation of NATO: Article V. The musketeer principle, that an attack on one NATO state represents an attack on all has only been invoked once, by the US against al Qaeda and the Taliban following 9/11. However, this requires a unanimous vote of the North Atlantic Council and both Russia and China have been cultivating ties that could lead to crucial holdouts in the event of an Article V vote. Russia has been supporting NATO members such as Hungary who also risk becoming pariahs in the European Union, whilst China has the leverage of debt against a number of member states.
Amidst the scramble for allies, NATO must build solidarity among its members. However, it cannot use Article V as a comfort blanket and assume that will keep us safe. There are serious question marks hanging over a number of members, not least that Ankara is an active participant in the project to roll back the frontiers of the free world. Voices in Budapest defend stronger ties with Vladimir Putin, whilst decrying the European Union. Meanwhile, Montenegro, a NATO member and EU candidate state, is mortgaged to the hilt with Chinese debt, and has been forced to turn to European partners for help.
NATO must do more to counter these influences, which pose such a potent threat to the international rules-based order, by building broad bases of support further afield with partners that can be trusted. In the Gulf we must work with the Iraqi government, reliable security partners in the Emiratis, and, of course, the Israelis to address Iranian mischief-making. In this arena the Abraham Accords offer a powerful pushback against Tehran. In Africa, described by Howard French as China’s Second Continent, we have much ground to make up to liberate its people from debt-trap diplomacy and should be reinvigorating our alliances there, particularly with Kenya and Nigeria as continental wealth-makers with strong ties to NATO members. In Asia, the threats are the most acute, for obvious reasons, and above all we must stand behind India and South Korea as the beacons of democracy in the region, and make clear our commitments to protect Taiwan from invasion.
The Second Cold War has already begun, at least as far as the Russians and Chinese are concerned. We can choose to accept that and begin to make arrangements to defend our people, interests, and values, or we can opt for sleepwalking into crisis after crisis.
Simon Schofield is Deputy Director of the Human Security Centre, an independent, London-based think tank.