NATO leaders define China’s growing influence as a global threat, signaling the Atlantic alliance’s shifting focus to Asia. But not all members of the club appear to be on the same page.
NATO’s recent summit in Brussels has shown a change in the alliance’s strategic concept regarding China, as the Western security coalition has described Beijing’s military capabilities as a menace to ensuring global security.
The general political mood toward China was different at the Brussels summit compared to the previous meeting in 2019, when Beijing was cited as a potential collaborating force presenting both “opportunities and challenges”.
“China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance. We will engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the Alliance,” said the NATO communique, citing Beijing’s increasing nuclear arsenal and its cyber, hybrid and other asymmetric activities against the West.
The communique also defined the nature of Chinese policies as “coercive”, standing against “the fundamental values” of NATO and presenting “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order” and also to the alliance’s security.
While NATO’s final statement presented strong language against China’s military ambitions, it seems not all members are on the same page.
Right after the communique’s publication, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested in a speech that China should not be the focus of the Atlantic alliance, showing rifts inside NATO concerning its new political understanding over China.
“NATO is an organization that concerns the North Atlantic, China has little to do with the North Atlantic,” said the French president, referring to the fact that the Western alliance was originally established to protect Europe and North America against external threats, primarily the communist Soviet Union, following World War II.
However, even after the collapse of the Soviets, NATO persevered, following an aggressive enlargement policy across the world, accepting Eastern European countries to its membership that angered Russia, the successor state of the Soviets.
But Macron, who has in recent times strongly criticised NATO of “the brain death”, wants to focus more on a Europe-based security concept than a new pivot to Asia. Macron advocates a European army, comprising EU members to defend the continent.
“So, it’s very important that we don’t scatter ourselves and that we don’t bias our relationship with China,” Macron said, indicating his opposition to the American-led anti-China efforts. The US has recently imposed sanctions over China. France has strong economic ties with China.
“It is much larger than just the military issue. It is economic,” the French leader said, also mentioning other ties with China related to technological and strategic aspects.
Unlike France, the US, a non-European power, is a Pacific nation like China. China’s increasing presence across the Pacific concerns the US, leading Washington to push NATO into more aggressive posturing against Beijing.
“China is playing an increasing role, as is the entire Indo-Pacific region. This is of course related to the fact that the United States of America, and of course the transatlantic partners as a whole, are also a Pacific nation. Here, the economic and also the military rise of China is of course an issue,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leader of the most powerful member of the EU.
The recently developed Russia-China military axis has been regarded by the US as the revitalisation of the old Cold War connections between the two former communist countries. On the other hand, France has developed better relations with both China and Russia than the US.
Macron does not appear to be alone in his opposition to NATO’s new China concept.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also expressed caution at paving the way for a “new Cold War” by going after China unnecessarily. Merkel also suggested that NATO “must not overrate” China’s increasing global influence. “We need to find the right balance,” she added. But unlike Macron, both leaders agreed that NATO needs to monitor Chinese activities closely.
On Monday evening after the summit, US President Joe Biden appeared to warn dissidents in NATO. “Russia and China are both seeking to drive a wedge in our trans-Atlantic solidarity,” he said.
Despite NATO accusations, Beijing does not think that it poses a serious danger to any state, calling the latest communique “slander of China’s peaceful development”. The Chinese statement issued by the country’s EU mission suggested that NATO’s perception of Beijing is “a misjudgement of the international situation and its own role, and a continuation of the Cold War mentality”.
Despite its diplomatic language, China, the world’s second largest economy and the biggest army in terms of active military personnel with the second biggest military budget, was not shy to express its readiness to meet any outside threats.
“We will not present a ‘systemic challenge’ to anyone, but if someone wants to pose a ‘systemic challenge’ to us, we will not remain indifferent,” said the Chinese statement.
The first mention of China in a NATO communique was in 2019 at the London summit. “Before that, we didn’t have any language at all,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.