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Boasting of the unity restored with the arrival of US President Joe Biden, NATO leaders said on Monday that China poses increasing security threats to Western democracies. But they then revealed deep disagreements over the urgency of confronting Beijing, or even whether that should be NATO’s role.
In their closing statement to an afternoon summit at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, the leaders used remarkably forceful language to describe China as now their most embarrassing rival after Russia – considering Beijing’s rapidly expanding nuclear arsenal, intensified military cooperation with Moscow, and increased use of disinformation.
“China’s stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and areas relevant to Alliance security,” the leaders wrote. “We are concerned about these coercive policies which contrast with the fundamental values enshrined in the Washington Treaty”, NATO’s founding charter.
The historic shift in focus comes in part at the behest of Biden, who has made it clear he sees China as a growing threat. And NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, eager to please the richest and most powerful ally, has taken over.
Stoltenberg stressed that China was “not an adversary” but posed challenges that had to be addressed, and insisted that NATO was not moving its operations to Asia but protecting itself close to home. .
“It is about taking on a fundamental responsibility to be able to protect and defend all allies against any threat from any direction,” Stoltenberg said in his closing press conference. “Because we see China getting closer to us in cyberspace, we see them in Africa, we see them in the Arctic, we see them trying to control our infrastructure, we had the discussion about 5G.”
He noted that the very first mention of China in a statement from NATO leaders came from a summit in London in December 2019. “Before that, we had no language at all,” he said. declared. “In the current Strategic Concept, China is not mentioned with a single word. Now you can read a press release and you see that we have seen a convergence of views among the allies. “
But there didn’t seem to be much convergence when French President Emmanuel Macron addressed reporters minutes later.
“On China, as I said at the meeting, I think I can say that we should not confuse our goals,” Macron said. “NATO is a military organization, the question of our relations with China is not only a military question. NATO is an organization that concerns the North Atlantic, China has little to do with the North Atlantic.
“It is therefore very important that we do not disperse and that we do not bias our relations with China,” he continued. “It’s much bigger than the simple military question. It is economical. It’s strategic. It’s about values. It’s technological. And we must avoid distracting NATO, which already has many challenges. “
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s richest allied nation, stressed that Moscow still posed the greatest threat – a point made evident by the fact that it was mentioned 62 times in the statement with just 10 mentions of China.
“Russia, above all, is a major challenge,” Merkel said. “China is playing a growing role, as is the entire Indo-Pacific region. This is of course linked to the fact that the United States of America, and of course the transatlantic partners as a whole, are also a nation of the Pacific. Here, China’s growing economic and military power is of course a problem. “
But she also raised the risk of overreacting. “If you look at the cyber threats, the hybrid threats, if you look at the cooperation between Russia and China, then you can’t just deny China,” Merkel said. “In this regard, I don’t think we should overestimate the importance of this, so we have to find the right balance.”
Adding another layer of contention, Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte engaged in a terse exchange of words during the leaders’ meeting about their divergent views on how Europe should approach military and military policy. security. Macron, who called for greater military cooperation between EU countries and the development of strategic autonomy, claimed most other EU leaders were with him and said he belonged to Rutte “to clarify his thoughts”.
Security analysts cite a growing risk of a deep rupture within the alliance of 30 NATO countries if China becomes too concentrated, especially because the European armed forces are relatively limited in their capabilities and because the United States could not simultaneously manage a military conflict in Asia while protecting Europe along its borders with Russia.
Biden, in his own post-summit press conference, sought to focus on his overall revitalization of transatlantic bonds, which were stretched almost to a breaking point by his predecessor Donald Trump.
“Everyone in this room has understood the shared appreciation, quite frankly, that America is back,” he said, adding strong words about the United States’ loyalty to the collective defense clause. of NATO. “The United States’ commitment to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty is strong and unwavering,” he said.
Biden suggested that Russia and China pose similar risks to NATO. “Russia and China both seek to drive a wedge in our transatlantic solidarity,” he said. And the president noted that when NATO last focused on its overall strategic outlook, in 2010, “Russia was seen as a partner and China was not even mentioned.”
But some allies made no mention of China in their public comments, showing that, especially in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, Russia is the only target.
“The United States is aware of the threats facing the Baltic states and is well aware of Russia’s increasingly aggressive stance and its goal of integrating Belarus into Russian military structures,” the president said. Lithuanian Gitanas Nausėda in a statement following a meeting with Biden.
A central European official said it was clearly recognized that Washington was prioritizing the containment of China and that European countries were not disappointed. “They understand that China must be part of a new ‘transatlantic market’ to preserve NATO’s relevance to the United States,” the official said, adding, “In addition, the attention given to Russia was quite substantial and straightforward. “
Indeed, Biden’s press conference focused overwhelmingly on Russia, largely because of his summit meeting on Wednesday with President Vladimir Putin.
Asked about Putin’s laughter, in a recent TV interview, about Biden saying he believed the Russian president was a killer, Biden laughed dramatically. When asked about his approach, in the context of Reagan’s famous “trust but verify” approach to the Soviet Union, Biden reversed the sentence.
“I would check first, then I would trust,” he said. “It’s not about trusting, it’s about agreeing. You know, when you write treaties with your adversaries, you don’t say ‘I trust you’. You say that it is. is what I expect and if you violate the agreement that we made, then the treaty is canceled, the agreement is canceled.
Biden did not withdraw the murder charge but said he hoped Putin would take a new approach. “I hope President Putin concludes that there is some interest in terms of his own interest in changing the world’s perception of him in terms of whether or not he will adopt behavior more consistent with what is considered appropriate behavior of a head of state, ”he said.
A second Central European official agreed that the allies were ready to put the emphasis on China: “I think everyone, with a few exceptions in the room, has somehow recognized that Russia and China become challenges to be met and we cannot talk about one without mentioning the other.
Lili Bayer and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.