NATO grapples with grasping China’s transportation clout in Europe


COLOGNE, Germany – NATO officials are scrambling to understand the extent to which Chinese investments in key transportation nodes throughout Europe could impede the alliance’s ability to move troops quickly in case of a conflict.

The problem touches two distinct lines of effort underway as part of the NATO 2030 reform process, which is expected to be a major theme at an upcoming summit tentatively scheduled for June in Brussels, according to officials.

For one, members are taking steps aimed at readying their countries for major shocks, including future pandemics. In addition, they are trying to find common ground on a strategy for dealing with China, whose whole-of-government strategy in pushing its global agenda has baffled alliance leaders trained in viewing threats through a military lens.

Assured access to transportation hubs – airports, ports, railway terminals – is the common thread binding the two NATO buzzwords of “resilience” and “military mobility” together. Agility can fuel deterrence and recovery alike, the thinking goes, but Chinese-controlled infrastructure in Europe could threaten that objective.

“I have my doubts if we really clearly understand where we have Chinese influence,” German Army Gen. Jörg Vollmer, who commands Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum, said in remarks at an online discussion organized by the Center for European Policy Analysis on March 3.

The command’s portfolio includes NATO’s initiatives in the northern and eastern regions aimed at deterring Russia.

The Washington-based think had published a comprehensive study on military mobility earlier that day, pulling together current and former military leaders, civilian officials, academics and analysts. One of the group’s recommendations is that NATO and the European Union begin a comprehensive assessment of relevant transportation infrastructure to highlight bottlenecks and pool money for improvements.

According to Vollmer, three major Chinese seaport operators already hold stakes in 12 ports across Europe and the Mediterranean Sea, resulting in varying degrees of control over the flow of cargo.

“Do we all understand what that means if we need these ports in peacetime to deploy our troops?” he asked.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg last month called for “clearer and more measurable” national resilience targets among member states. Also needed, he said, is an annual review of “vulnerabilities in Alliance critical infrastructure and technologies, including those stemming from foreign ownership and influence.”

Those ideas stem from a mid-February paper Stoltenberg sent to member governments on how he envisions the broader NATO 2030 effort to take shape. The document, which alliance officials declined to release, “drastically expands” the scope of the resilience agenda, said one analyst familiar with it.

It is unclear what steps alliance officials have already taken in understanding Chinese influence over critical nodes, especially given that Stoltenberg’s missive was meant only as a starting point for further debate.

One NATO official participating in the CEPA online discussion this week offered that analysts in a “geo information services team” at headquarters in Brussels had already begun “mapping” Chinese investments under Bejing’s so-called Belt and Road Initiative. The review includes ports, airport, transportation links and telecommunications across the Euro-Atlantic area, according to the official.

Others downplayed the level of effort devoted to Chinese activities, specifically, framing the infrastructure discussion as merely conceptual in nature.

It is also unclear how serious the implications are of Chinese-owned transportation infrastructure here that Beijing could choose to suddenly use against NATO interests.

Could governments in Europe simply move to requisition critical assets from private owners during crises, for example, as CEPA report adviser Julian Lindley-French suggested during the think tank’s online discussion?

“There is nothing the Chinese could do short of blowing it up, which they would not,” he argued.


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