It seems counter-intuitive, but China is increasingly a concern for the commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa and NATO's Allied Joint Force Command.
Navy Adm. James G. Foggo told the participants of a webinar sponsored by the International Institute of Strategic Studies that China is actively working in Europe and Africa to subvert the international rules-based infrastructure that has maintained peace since the end of World War II.
China's whole-of-government approach has expanded out of the Indo-Pacific into the Arctic, Europe and Africa. In this region China is conducting unsafe intercepts of aircraft and ships, he said. It is threatening nations. China has established an overseas military base in the Horn of Africa, and is looking to control other ports.
China is "purchasing news outlets and entertainment companies to push its propaganda and erase any criticism against its government," he said. Chinese leaders are meddling in elections across the world, "restricting information about the coronavirus and donating equipment and personnel, even in Europe as a way to show that it is a world leader."
The Chinese One Belt, One Road initiative combines economic, diplomatic, military and political arms to change the international rules-based architecture. They are offering financial relief and opportunities to nations, especially in Africa, and then using that to influence the governments. "This type of influence is a security concern, and it could be used to restrict access to key seaports and airport facilities while providing access to sensitive government and military information through the technology of state-owned and state-controlled enterprises," he said.
In the past decade a lot has changed. Ten years ago, it was possible for U.S. officials to envision working with China and Russia.
But that was before Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine. That was before China started building and fortifying islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea. That was before both nations began a huge military build-up, and before both nations conducted cyber operations against other nations. Finally, that was before Russia and China meddled in domestic politics.
"China has even labeled itself as a 'near Arctic country,'" he said, complicating an already complicated situation as new sea lanes of communication open in the North. "NATO can no longer ignore China's activities in Europe," he said. "Things like 5G — the Trojan horse. Buying port infrastructure, and the One Belt, One Road initiative."
Foggo's responsibility spans from the North Pole to South Africa, from the middle of the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, Black, Barents, Caspian and Baltic seas. There are 93 countries in this region with 23 percent of the world's population.
The admiral gave a virtual tour of the area of operations beginning with the North. The United States has long been an Arctic nation — it was Navy Rear Adm. Robert Peary who led the first expedition to reach the North Pole. "The diminishing ice coverage is causing competition to emerge in this new area," he said. "The High North is attracting global interest with abundant natural resources and opening maritime routes that have not been navigable before."
Russia, with its long Arctic coast, is aggressively pursuing its interests in the region. They are building new ice breakers and arming them with offensive weaponry. They are re-occupying old Soviet era bases. "We're seeing a new era of maritime competition in the Arctic, and strong navies are needed to protect common interests and ensure the timely flow of trade," he said.
The North Atlantic is an integral part of the name of the most successful military alliance in history. Foggo believes NATO is involved in the Fourth Battle of the Atlantic. The first battle was World War I, the second during World War II and the third being the Cold War.
Last year, unclassified sources indicated there were 10 Russian submarines underway in the North Atlantic. This is a lot even when compared to Cold War sailings, he said. Russia has also already earmarked five new attack submarines for the Northern Fleet. "We still have the competitive advantage in the undersea domain, … but they're pretty good at their tradecraft," he said.
The U.S. Second Fleet is meant to counter this development. "The North Atlantic is critical to NATO's collective security, and whoever can exert control over this region could either protect or threaten NATO's northern flank," Foggo said. "The North Atlantic is therefore synonymous with our security and our sovereignty."
The Trident Juncture Exercise in the North Atlantic and the High North was in part a demonstration to the Russians of the capabilities the alliance has and can deploy to the area. U.S. and British ships also cruised in the Barents Sea last month to reinforce the point, Foggo said.
The admiral next discussed the Black Sea and upholding international law and norms in that strategic body of water. American and NATO warships routinely conduct patrols in the Black Sea. Last year, there were around 240 days of presence in the Black Sea. "I think that's a wonderful demonstration of our commitment to our Black Sea allies and partners," he said.
The Eastern Mediterranean "is becoming one of the most kinetic places in the world," Foggo said. Russian forces are propping up the Syrian regime. They have submarines in the region capable of hitting European capitals with little warning, he said. "Routine violations of sovereign airspace and dangerously … unsafe intercepts have become standard operating procedure for Russia," the admiral said.
Russia occupied Crimea and its strategic bases. It has forces in Syria. They have moved forces into Libya, and Foggo sees this as dangerous. "This highlights the need to maintain a vigilant, highly capable naval presence throughout European waters," he said.
The world ignores Africa at its own peril, Foggo said. "Africa is a complex continent of great importance," he said. "By 2050 one in four people in the world will live in Africa — that's 2.5 billion people. The potential African workforce will exceed China's by 2030 [and] exceed India's by 2035."
There is tremendous poverty on the continent and vast amounts of natural resources. Thirty of the top 50 most fragile states in the world are in Africa.
Working with partner nations and organizations like the African Union, U.S. and NATO security experts work to build security capabilities in nations of the continent. They work to promote connectivity among the nations of the continent and intelligence sharing.
"I think we're making a difference in Africa," Foggo said. "We saw that with the development of the 2013 Yaounde (Cameroon) Code of Conduct signed by 25 Western and Central African nations as they collectively sought to address matters such as piracy, illegal fishing and illicit maritime activity. The Code of Conduct framework established objectives and improved inter-regional coastal relationships and joint capabilities. The resulting joint efforts have already reduced illegal activities in the Gulf of Guinea."
Moving forward in the entire region, the United States needs to maintain and build the relationships from the High North to the Cape of Good Hope, the admiral said. "You can't surge trust, it has to be developed over time," he said. "We also need to reevaluate our force structure, and we need to champion what we have here in the theater."
There also has to be a re-evaluation of NATO's maritime strategy. The last look came in 2011, before a resurgent Russia and a newly active China.
"Our collective strength, that ability to project power with the help of our capable NATO allies and partners is what enables us to confidently state that there truly is no competition in this era of great power competition that we cannot overcome," he said.