Start / Analys / New developments in NATO-China relations and their potential impact on Sweden’s future relations with China
Henrik MontgomeryTT-min

Henrik Montgomery/TT

Excecutive summary

  • In 2019, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) decided to prioritise China as a security concern. At the time, members had disparate views about how to approach China, but their analyses of China have since increasingly converged. Nonetheless, the discussion on how much of NATO’s focus should be on China is still ongoing. NATO’s most recent communiqué, from July 2023, describes China as striving “to subvert the rules-based international order”.
  • The areas about which NATO is most concerned with regard to China, such as cyberspace and space, are primarily global and have the potential to directly affect Euro-Atlantic hard security. The exception is the intensification of the partnership between Russia and China since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which could also have a direct impact on Euro- Atlantic hard security. Partly because of NATO’s worries about China, the organisation’s collaborations with its Asia-Pacific partners have also deepened.
  • China’s tone, official view on and concerns about NATO sum up the country’s approach to the organisation. China’s tone became more negative after NATO mentioned China in its strategic concept for the first time in 2022. China’s long-standing official view of NATO is that it is a relic of the Cold War manipulated by the US at the expense of European strategic autonomy. China’s biggest concern, however, is not Europe but whether NATO will involve itself more in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • Chinese-Swedish bilateral relations are unlikely to change in the short term because of Sweden’s NATO membership. Long before Sweden submitted its application, China believed that Sweden’s loyalties belonged to the NATO camp. Sweden’s NATO membership will therefore not change China’s fundamental approach to Sweden.
  • In contrast, Sweden may have adopted NATO’s viewpoint, or at least rhetoric, on China in connection with its NATO application process. I also suggest that NATO membership might increase the possibility that the government could start to reinterpret existing Swedish regulations on military exports to allow Sweden to export military materiel to Taiwan in case of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
  • The impact of Sweden’s NATO membership on its relations with China is likely to depend on how NATO-China relations develop in the Indo-Pacific region. Future events could have considerable ramifications for NATO-China relations, and hence also for Sweden as a future NATO member. While I deem it improbable that Article 5 (the collective defence clause) of the North Atlantic Treaty would be triggered if a military conflict broke out between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific region, there are other ways in which NATO could intervene if such an event occurred.

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