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Shifting focus, NATO views China as a global security challenge

Chinese soldiers during a training exercise in Xinjiang in January.
Chinese soldiers during a training exercise in Xinjiang in January.doctor song/Associated Press

BRUSSELS — China’s rising military ambitions are presenting NATO with challenges that must be addressed, the 30-nation Western alliance said Monday, the first time it has portrayed the expanding reach and capabilities of the Chinese armed forces in such a potentially confrontational way.

The description of China, contained in the communiqué issued at the conclusion of a one-day summit meeting attended by President Joe Biden and others, reflected a new concern over how China intends to wield its rapidly growing military might and offensive cyber technologies in the coming years.

At the Group of 7 meeting in Britain that ended on Sunday, Biden and his counterparts agreed to jointly counter China’s growing economic dominance. On Monday, NATO countries warned that China increasingly poses a global security problem as well, signaling a fundamental shift in the attentions of an institution devoted to protecting Europe and North America — not Asia.

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The first minor reference to China in a NATO statement, not even a communiqué, was at the London summit in 2019, but global concerns have rapidly accelerated since then.

Both Biden and President Donald Trump before him put more emphasis on the threats they say China poses, as an authoritarian political system with growing military spending and ambitions, including a budding military cooperation with Russia. China is at the center of Biden’s assertion that democracies are in an existential confrontation with autocracies.

“The democratic values that undergird our alliance are under increasing pressure, both internally and externally,” the president told reporters Monday evening after the summit meeting. “Russia and China are both seeking to drive a wedge in our trans-Atlantic solidarity.”

In its communiqué, negotiated by consensus from all 30 members, NATO is cautious in its characterization of China.

Russia is repeatedly described as a “threat” to NATO in the document, with criticisms of the buildup in Russian weaponry, its hacking and disinformation assaults on Western countries, the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and other aggressive acts.

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By contrast, China is described as presenting “challenges.” But those challenges are considerable. The NATO secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, has said China now has the second-largest military budget after the United States and the world’s largest navy. Beijing is strengthening its nuclear stockpile and developing more sophisticated missiles and ships.

“China is not our adversary, but the balance of power is shifting,’’ Stoltenberg said Monday. “And China is coming closer to us. We see them in cyberspace, we see China in Africa, but we also see China investing heavily in our own critical infrastructure,” he said. “We need to respond together as an alliance.”

China has sent ships into the Mediterranean and through the Arctic; it has also conducted military exercises with Russia in NATO’s backyard, built bases in Africa, and owns significant infrastructure in Europe, including the Greek port of Piraeus.

China’s army has hacked computers to steal industrial and military secrets all over the globe and engaged in disinformation in NATO societies. And with its effort to deploy 5G networks across Africa, the Middle East and Europe, Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, has created new anxiety that it could control the communications infrastructure needed by NATO.

In a discussion of “multifaceted threats” and “systemic competition from assertive and authoritarian powers” in the communiqué, NATO says that “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security.” While China is not called a threat, NATO states that “China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an alliance.”

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NATO promised to “engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the alliance’’ and said it planned to increase partnerships with more countries in the Indo-Pacific.

Much further into the document, China comes up again, described as presenting “systemic challenges” to the “rules-based international order.”

In a gesture toward diplomacy and engagement, the alliance vows to maintain “a constructive dialogue with China where possible,” including on the issue of climate change, and calls for China to become more transparent about its military and especially its “nuclear capabilities and doctrine.”

NATO leaders on Monday also agreed to spend next year updating the alliance’s 2010 strategic concept, which 11 years ago viewed Russia as a potential partner and never mentioned China.

New challenges from cyberwarfare, artificial intelligence and disinformation, as well as new missile and warhead technologies, must be considered to preserve deterrence, the alliance said. And Article 5 of its founding treaty — an attack on one is an attack on all — will be “clarified” to include threats to satellites in space and coordinated cyberattacks.

This NATO meeting was mostly a warm embrace of Biden, who in contrast to his predecessor has expressed deep belief in the alliance and in the importance of American participation in the multilateral institutions Washington established after the horrors of World War II.

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The contrast to Trump’s May 2017 NATO summit was remarked on by many other leaders. Then, Trump was particularly angered by the expense and lavish use of glass in NATO’s new $1.2 billion headquarters. Trump also defied the expectations of even his own aides and refused to announce support for NATO’s Article 5, a central tenet of collective defense.

Biden quickly declared Monday that the alliance is “critically important for U.S. interests” and called Article 5 a “sacred obligation.” He added: “I just want all of Europe to know that the United States is there.”

Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy spoke for many when he connected this summit with the Group of 7 summit meeting just concluded in Britain and compared them unfavorably with the period of Trump. “This summit is part of the process of reaffirming, rebuilding the fundamental alliances of the United States,” which were “weakened by the previous administration,” Draghi said.

And he pointed to Biden’s similarly important meetings on Tuesday with the leaders of the European Union, which Trump considered an economic competitor and even a foe. “We are here to reaffirm these alliances, but also to reaffirm the importance of the European Union,” Draghi said.

Another key element of Biden’s European tour, which will conclude on Wednesday in Geneva, where he meets President Vladimir Putin of Russia for a highly anticipated conversation, is how the democracies of Asia and the West can stand up to the authoritarian challenge. While Russia is a particular threat to NATO and the Euro-Atlantic world, it is not an economic rival.

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Speaking Monday night, Biden called Putin “a worthy adversary” and said he would look for areas of cooperation with Russia, while laying down red lines about Russian efforts to disrupt democratic societies.

“I’m going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can cooperate, if he chooses,” Biden said. “And if he chooses not to cooperate, and acts in a way that he has in the past, relative to cybersecurity and some other activities, then we will respond. We will respond in kind.”

It is the rise of a rich, aggressive, authoritarian China, however, that Biden identifies as a major challenge to the United States and its allies, and his intention in Europe is to solicit allied support for efforts to meet that challenge — militarily, technologically and economically.

While NATO has a role to play, so does the European Union, the largest economic bloc in the world, with deep trading ties to China. The European Union has been hardening its views of China in the face of Beijing’s human rights behavior at home and trade and espionage practices abroad. But the Europeans do not see China as quite the threat perceived by Washington.

That disparity is also true in NATO, despite the new communiqué on China.

Some NATO members, especially those nearest to Russia in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltic nations, are anxious that the shift in focus to China does not divert resources and attention from the Russian threat.

Biden made a point of meeting the leaders of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in Brussels before his meeting with Putin. NATO troops are deployed in all four countries.

But even Britain, probably Washington’s closest ally, expressed some wariness about confrontation with China. Asked at the NATO meeting about China, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned against a “new Cold War,” while acknowledging that China’s rise was a “gigantic fact in our lives.”

Similarly, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said after the meeting: “If you look at the cyberthreats and the hybrid threats, if you look at the cooperation between Russia and China, you cannot simply ignore China.’’ But she also said: “One must not overrate it, either — we need to find the right balance.”