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With the regaining of unity thanks to the arrival of US President Joe Biden, NATO leaders declared on Monday that China posed increasing threats to the security of Western democracies. But then they revealed deep disagreements over the urgency of a confrontation with Beijing, or even whether that should be NATO’s role at all.
In their closing communiqué for an afternoon summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, leaders used remarkably haunted language to refer to China as their toughest rival to Russia – given Beijing’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal, increased military cooperation with Moscow, and increased usage of disinformation.
“China’s declared ambition and assertive behavior represent systemic challenges for the rules-based international order and areas relevant to the security of the alliance,” wrote the heads of state and government. “We are concerned about this coercive policy, which is contrary to the fundamental values enshrined in the Washington Treaty,” says NATO’s founding charter.
The historic shift in focus comes in part at the urging of Biden, who has made it clear that he sees China as a growing threat. And NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, eager to please the richest and most powerful ally, has taken on the task.
Stoltenberg stressed that China was “not an adversary” but posed challenges that need to be answered, and he insisted that NATO should not relocate operations to Asia but shelter near their homeland.
“The point here is to live up to a core responsibility, to be able to protect and defend all allies from any threat from any direction,” said Stoltenberg at his final 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 first mention of China in a communiqué by NATO leaders came from a summit meeting in London in December 2019. “Before that we had no language at all,” he said. “In the current strategic concept, China is not mentioned at all. Now you can read a communiqué and 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 spoke to reporters just minutes later.
“As for China, as I said during the meeting, I can say that we shouldn’t confuse our goals,” said Macron. “NATO is a military organization, the question of our relations with China is not just a military matter. NATO is an organization that affects the North Atlantic, China has little to do with the North Atlantic. “
“It is therefore very important that we do not disperse or distort our relationship with China,” he continued. “It’s much bigger than just the military question. It’s economical. It’s strategic. It’s about values. It’s technological. And we should avoid distracting NATO, which already faces many challenges. “
Chancellor Angela Merkel from Germany, the richest European allied nation, stressed that Moscow still represents the greatest threat – a point that is substantiated by the 62 mentions in the communiqué compared to only 10 mentions of China.
“Russia in particular is a major challenge,” said Merkel. “China is playing an increasing role, as is the entire Indo-Pacific region. This, of course, has to do with the fact that the United States of America and of course the transatlantic partners as a whole are also a Pacific nation. The economic as well as the military rise of China is of course an issue here. “
But she also mentioned the risk of overreaction. “If you look at the cyber threats, the hybrid threats, if you look at the cooperation between Russia and China, then you cannot simply negate China,” said Merkel. “So I think we shouldn’t overestimate the importance, so we have to find the right balance.”
Macron and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte had a brief exchange during the meeting of heads of state and government about their differing views on how Europe should approach military and security policies. Macron, who has pushed for greater military cooperation between EU countries and the development of strategic autonomy, claimed most of the other EU leaders were with him and said it was up to Rutte to “clear his mind”.
Security analysts see a growing risk of a deep rift within the 30-member NATO alliance if China is too much in focus, especially because the capabilities of the European military are relatively limited and the US is not simultaneously managing a military conflict in Asia can protect Europe on its borders with Russia.
At his own post-summit press conference, Biden attempted to focus on his general resuscitation of transatlantic ties that had been weighed almost to the breaking point by his predecessor Donald Trump.
“Everyone in this room openly understood the shared appreciation that America is back,” he said, adding strong words of US allegiance to NATO’s collective defense clause. “The US commitment to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty is rock solid and unwavering,” he said.
Biden suggested that Russia and China pose similar risks to NATO. “Russia and China are both trying to drive a wedge in our transatlantic solidarity,” he said. And the President noted that when NATO last focused on its broader strategic perspective in 2010, “Russia was seen as a partner and China was not even mentioned”.
But some allies did not mention China at all in their public statements, suggesting that Russia is at the fore, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.
“The US is aware of the threats facing the Baltic states and is well informed about Russia’s increasingly aggressive stance and its aim to integrate Belarus into Russian military structures,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said in a statement following a meeting with Biden.
A Central European official said it was clearly recognized that Washington made containing China a priority and European countries were not disappointed. “They understand that China needs to be part of a new ‘transatlantic deal’ in order to preserve NATO’s importance to the US,” the official said, adding, “Also, the attention given to Russia has been quite extensive and frank . “
In fact, Biden’s press conference was largely focused on Russia, largely because of his summit on Wednesday with President Vladimir Putin.
When asked about Putin’s laugh during a recent television interview about Biden’s statement that he believed the Russian President was a murderer, Biden laughed dramatically. When asked about his approach to Reagan’s famous “trust but verify” approach to the Soviet Union, Biden turned the sentence around.
“I would verify first and then trust,” he said. “It’s not about trust, it’s about consent. You know when you are writing contracts with your opponents, you are not saying “I trust you”. You say that’s what I expect, and if you break the agreement we made then the contract is void, the agreement is void. “
Biden did not withdraw the killer’s allegation, but said he hoped Putin would take a fresh approach. “I hope that President Putin will conclude that, in relation to his own interest, there is some interest in changing the way the world perceives him about whether he behaves like that rather what is considered appropriate behavior for a head of state, ”he said.
A second official from Central Europe agreed that the allies were willing to put some emphasis on China: “I think everyone, with very few exceptions in the room, has somehow realized that both Russia and China are becoming challenges and you don’t talk can. “only about one thing without mentioning the other.”
Lili Bayer and Hans von der Burchard contributed the reporting.