NATO, China and the BSEC 4—Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania

China has been the focus of many policy debates across the globe, with individual states and regional alliance-based organizations contemplating their relationship with Beijing in a period of heightened geopolitical and geoeconomic tensions. Does Beijing present an opportunity or challenge? Does the nature of its economic relations with countries present a non-traditional security challenge? Given the nature of its relations, is cooperation or competition more likely in geopolitically significant regions? These are some of the broad, overarching questions that have been raised by policymakers and think tanks over the past couple of months.

For the NATO alliance members these questions are of particular importance given that in the December 2019 meeting, they were tasked with assessing the opportunities and challenges that Beijing presents for the purpose of determining whether or not the alliance should adopt a China policy. This short article examines these questions but within the context of the four-NATO alliance members within the wider Black Sea region (WBSR), namely Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania. The first part of the article examines the debates within NATO on China; China’s view toward NATO; and the importance of the WBSR for NATO, the EU and China. Part two briefly examines China’s relations with the four-NATO members in the WBSR, concluding that China’s relations with these four-alliance members does not per se present a non-traditional security challenge to the alliance. Finally, the article concludes that Beijing presents both opportunities and challenges for the alliance; but, given China’s view toward NATO, the traditional European, issue-based approach to addressing the challenges will be more efficacious in the long-term than would adopting an overarching policy in the present period of heightened US-China competition.

NATO, China and the Wider Black Sea Region

NATO has been and will continue to be central to European security, and the U.S. will continue to be the main provider for Europe’s security needs despite some concerns expressed by EU member states about its reliability in the face of threats. As Velina Tchakaraova and Sofia Maria Satanakis of the Austria Institute for European and Security Policy have most recently written, Europe’s complex security environment and its inability to develop a common strategic culture; disagreement among member states over perceived regional and global security threats; and the potential defense cuts by key states in the post-COVID period make a US-led NATO security
architecture essential for both navigating growing geopolitical competition among major powers and reducing the exploitation of that competition by both state and non-state actors. Both the EU and the US view China as a strategic competitor but they differ on how to approach the “China
challenge.” The EU’s preferred approach is to address both opportunities and challenges in an open-ended framework that allows for variation by issues. NATO has yet to define its China policy; and, according to Jens Ringsmore and Sten Ryinning, it is using this year to determine how each alliance member understands China in order to undertake strategic reflections at the 2021 Summit.

All the alliance members seem to agree that Beijing does not present a traditional security challenge given that its engagement with Europe is primarily economic in nature. NATO has primarily focused on traditional kinetic and non-kinetic security concerns rather than non-traditional, non-kinetic security concerns, and it is the latter which is what is of concern to those within the alliance who view China as a threat. Writing for Defense News, Aaron Mehta nicely outlines the debates among alliance members. The alliance members who view China as a non-traditional security threat posit that the growing economic dependence of countries within the alliance directly threatens cohesion among member states; potentially hinders NATO’s ability to conduct future operations (mainly due to Beijing’s strategic transport infrastructure investments); and, opens the door to the use of soft power to indirectly influence policy outcomes in multilateral institutions such as the EU. Those in the opposing camp posit that Beijing does not pose a direct military threat to NATO, particularly since it has been focused more on the development of economic relations rather than military or security relations with European states, and that the economic challenges are not within purview of the alliance’s mandate.

According to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, China seeks to strengthen dialogue and cooperation with NATO on the basis of equality and mutual respect in order to promote cooperation on issues of common concern and to reduce differences on issues where there is concern. The non-traditional security challenges such as drug trafficking, environment degradation, organized crime, terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the spread of diseases are shared by Beijing and alliance members. Zuqian Zhang wrote back in 2003 for the NATO Review that it would be in these areas where the two sides would find a meeting ground and where China would be capable and willing to cooperate with other countries and organizations like NATO. Non-traditional security has been central to Beijing’s security agenda for years and formed the foundation of its security dialogue with other countries across the globe.

The Wider Black Sea Region (WBSR), as defined by the member states of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) organization, is home to Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania, all of whom are alliance members, which means that any instability or hostility in the region, so argues Pavel Anastasov, will have a direct impact on the alliance. The region is also
strategically significant because it is a transit corridor for energy resources for many of the energy dependent states of the EU and Chinese access to European markets. Many of the states in the region are also plagued by non-traditional security challenges, which means that political and economic instability in key strategic states in the region will negatively impact European and Chinese security. The region holds the key to potential cooperation among major powers such as the US, EU and China; yet it could also be an area rife with geo-economic and geopolitical competition in the post-COVID period between the US and China. The latter, of course, could
exacerbate existing domestic tension and regional tensions among states, which would then pose a non-traditional security challenge for the EU and China and leave the US in a difficult position given the role it plays within NATO.

Brief Overview of China’s Relations with Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria and Armenia

Sino-Turkish Relations
Sino-Turkish relations have evolved since they were first established in 1971, with there being a gradual increase in the nature of economic and military/security relations beginning in the 1980s and an elevation to what has been referred to by both governments as a “strategic partnership” in 2013. The strategic part in their relationship is limited to economic rather than military/securityrelations. It’s economic relations primarily consist of trade in consumer, industrial andmanufacturing goods and investment in energy, logistics, manufacturing, telecommunicationsand transport infrastructure. Military and security relations are deep and include traditionalmilitary-to-military relations, intelligence cooperation and sharing, and military armament andequipment sales. China does not seek, nor does it want, to replace either the U.S. or the EU asTurkey’s strategic security partner. For China, Turkey is a trade, transportation and energytransfer hub for Eurasia; it is also an influential actor in the Middle East and Islamic World. Moreover, China recognizes that Turkey has historically used its relationship with Beijing during periods of tension between Ankara and Brussels or Ankara and Washington to push for increased economic and security ties, and thus has distance itself during those times. Strategic stability at the regional and global levels will likely remain the main driver of China’s bilateral approach to Turkey in both types of relations, with strategic caution guiding the development of Beijing’smilitary/security relations given the potential negative impact of them on China-U.S. and China-EU relations.

Sino-Romanian Relations

Sino-Romanian relations have evolved since they were first established in 1949, with there being significantly higher levels of economic and security cooperation in the Cold War period and more economic cooperation than security cooperation in the post-Cold War period. Economic relations between the two countries consist of trade in consumer, manufacturing and industrial goods and investments in energy, industry, infrastructure, real estate and telecommunications. Military relations consist of traditional military-to-military relations, limited bilateral training exercises, and peacekeeping operations. For China, Romania is strategically located, rich in natural resources, and has the potential to be a regional energy hub. For Romania, China is an attractive non-EU trade partner that provides an alternative to Russia and has the technology, expertise and financing needed for infrastructure development. Despite mutual interest between the two countries at the political levels, neither their economic nor security relationship has developed into a comprehensive or strategic partnership; and, it is unlikely to do so in the near future. Relations are likely to continue as they have in the past. A combination of existing non-traditional security threats in Romania and its preference to engage China multilaterally rather than bilaterally and Beijing’s intent to strategically diversify its investments across the WBSR help to explain why it’s unlikely for the development of a comprehensive or strategic economic partnership in the near future. Romania is also unlikely to upgrade its security relationship with China because of the strategic importance of U.S.-Romanian security relations. China is also unlikely to pursue security relations outside of multilateral engagement with Romania due to needing to balance its relations with the U.S. and the EU.

Sino-Bulgarian Relations

Although Sino-Bulgaria relations were first established in 1949, with Bulgaria being one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China, they remained cordial until the 1980s, which is when the first set of cooperative agreements were signed. The nature of their relationship (or the lack thereof) can be explained by Bulgaria’s relationship with the former USSR during the Cold War period and Beijing’s alliance with the U.S. Following the end of the Cold War, relations did change to a degree but not extensively, which is explained by the divergent paths taken by the two countries, with China going global and Bulgaria, like Romania, turning to the EU. Bulgaria did not begin to push in earnest for enhanced economic relations until it began suffering a loss of FDI and its businesses were struggling in the Ukrainian and Turkish markets. In 2013, Bulgaria became the first 17+1 CEE-member states to join China’s BRI. Then, in July 2019, Bulgaria and China upgraded their relationship to a strategic partnership. Despite the upgrade, economic and military/security relations have remained minimal in relation to China’s relations with the larger, wealthier European countries and non-EU member states. Economic relations consist of trade in consumer, industrial and manufacturing goods and investment in agriculture, business, energy, media, technology and transport infrastructure. Military relations are limited to the traditional military-to-military relations. Both economic and military relations are likely to remain the same in the near future. Bulgaria is likely to “play-it-safe” in its relations with Beijing. Beijing is also not likely to antagonize relations with either the U.S. or EU by increasing either its bilateral economic or military cooperation with Bulgaria.

Sino-Albanian Relations

Relations between Albania and China have fluctuated over the years since they were first established in 1949. Between the 1950s and 1970s, Beijing helped to modernize Tirana’s industrial sector, construct better agricultural infrastructure, and provide both economic assistance and loans to facilitate economic growth in the country. In the 1960s, when the Soviet Union refused to provide Albania with military assistance, Beijing stepped in once more to help Tirana with its construction of military underground fortifications such as bunkers and other types of anti-bombing shelters. Analysts have referred to the nature of their relationship in that period as an informal alliance. Then, in 1978, the two countries severed their formal political relationship, bringing to an end both the informal alliance and bilateral economic and military relations that had been previously cultivated. They began to re-cultivate their economicrelationship in the late 1980s, with the establishment of a joint intergovernmental economic and
trade commission in 1989 to facilitate trade and investment. In 1992, formal political relations were reestablished. Despite these changes, economic and political relations continued to remain minimal, with neither side proactively seeking their cultivation, until the 2008 financial crisis. Sino-Albanian economic relations are likely to remain the same in the post-COVID period; that is, they are likely to remain limited to economic relations, consisting primarily of trade in consumer, industrial and manufacturing goods and investments in energy and transport infrastructure. The two countries do not have a military or security relationship at this time, and neither side has expressed a desire for the development of one. In fact, Beijing has only expressed its desire to
further develop economic, political and people-to-people relations with Tirana.

To conclude, an examination across the cases finds that China’s economic relations with the NATO-BSEC members consists primarily of trade in specific sectoral goods and a diverse array of investments. In terms of the countries’ total imports from China, manufacturing and consumer goods consist of the bulk of goods traded. In terms of their exports to China, manufacturing goods were the most goods traded, followed by consumer, industrial and agricultural goods. Exports surpassed imports in all cases, highlighting a trade imbalance. In terms of investments across the cases, Chinese investment outside of investments in energy and transport
infrastructure are diversified across the sectors (agriculture, business, industry, logistics, media, manufacturing, technology and telecommunications). Given the nature of Beijing’s economic relations with these countries, it cannot be said that they present a non-traditional economic security challenge to NATO. Even Beijing’s military relations cannot be considered a challenge to or threat for NATO given that (with the exception of Turkey) the majority of its relations consist of traditional military-to-military relations.


China presents both challenges and opportunities for NATO, and because of that, coupled with the complexity of the operational environment, an issue-based approach is best suited for the development of a China policy for the alliance. It is also in the US long-term national security interest for the alliance to adopt such an approach. First, many of poorer European countries suffer from non-traditional security challenges ranging from corruption and transnational organized crime to the more unstable dimensions of human insecurity including economic, energy and political insecurities to name just three. Non-traditional security challenges have been the main focus of Beijing’s military and security dialogue with countries across the globe, and, more specifically, in its dialogue with the US and the EU. This is an area where both NATO and Beijing could find common ground for facilitating dialogue and developing strategic trust.
Second, Beijing’s trade relations and investment diversification in those countries coupled with NATO’s security guarantees could help in providing regional stability, thus reducing potential conflict that might emerge as a result state and non-state actors’ exploitation of geopolitical and
geoeconomic competition among major powers. Third, the issue-based approach to address the challenges in an open-ended framework is best suited for developing a long-term policy toward China given the complex nature of the global, regional and domestic security environments. It
best allows for the application of a multidimensional approach, which is more suitable given the political and economic variations among alliance members. Finally, U.S. policymakers will find themselves constrained regionally and globally in the medium and long-term if they adopt an
approach that does not allow for the type of flexibility that the open-ended issue-based approach provides. The wider Black Sea region is an area where both Beijing and NATO could find common group for cooperation and developing an approach to reduce challenges. All alliance members should be wary of adopting concrete, long-term policy initiatives in the short-term given heightened bilateral tensions between the US and China.


Aaron Mehta, “NATO struggles with its China conundrum,” Defense News, December 3, 2019.

“China willing to strengthen cooperation with NATO based on equality, mutual respect: FM,”
Xinhua, February 15, 2020.

Jens Ringsmose and Sten Rynning, “China Brought NATO Closer Together,” War on the Rocks,
February 5, 2020. Data—Global Trade Database, April 20, 2020.

Paul Anastasov, “The Black Sea region: a critical intersection,” NATO Review, May 25, 2018.

Velina Tchakarova and Sofia Maria Satanakis, “EU-NATO Relations: Enhanced Cooperation
Amidst Increased Uncertainty,” Austria Institute for European and Security Policy, May 14, 2020.

Zuqian Zhang, “Beijing calling,” NATO Review, September 1, 2003.

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