NATO leaders have warned that China poses “systemic challenges” to the rules-based international order, a sign of growing Western unease over Beijing’s military ambitions.
Members of the transatlantic alliance meeting in Brussels on Monday cited disinformation, Chinese military cooperation with Russia and the rapid expansion of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal as part of the threat, according to a NATO communiqué.
The strength of the statement showed how far relations between the west and Beijing have deteriorated in the 18 months since NATO countries last met. Subsequently, the transatlantic alliance had made a tentative statement about the “opportunities and challenges” presented by China.
On Tuesday, China’s mission to the EU called the NATO statement “defamation of China’s peaceful development and a misjudgment of the international situation and their own role”.
It added: “We will not present a ‘systemic challenge’ to anyone, but if someone wants to present a ‘systemic challenge’ to us, we will not remain indifferent.”
The 72-year Cold War military pact communiqué took a stronger line from the weekend’s G7 meeting, when the club of wealthy democracies criticized China over human rights, trade and a lack of transparency about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg insisted Beijing was “not an opponent” but said the alliance should “enter talks with China to defend our security interests”.
“There is a strong convergence of positions among allies,” he said, adding that NATO was primarily concerned about Beijing’s activities in the group’s Euro-Atlantic sphere of activity. “China’s growing influence and international policies pose challenges to the security of the alliance.”
President Joe Biden said Russia and China were both trying to drive a wedge in transatlantic solidarity.
“The last time NATO drafted a strategic plan was in 2010, when Russia was considered a partner and China was not even mentioned,” the US president said.
Biden, who will meet Vladimir Putin this week in Geneva, described the Russian president as “bright”, “tough” and a “worthy opponent”.
“I’m going to make it clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can work together if he wants to,” Biden said. “And if he chooses not to cooperate and acts in a way that he has done in the past with regard to cybersecurity and some other activities, then we will respond. We will respond in kind.”
The NATO statement, approved by the leaders of the 30 member states, said China’s “outspoken ambitions and assertive behavior” posed “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to the security of the alliance”.
“We call on China to honor its international obligations and act responsibly in the international system, including in the areas of space, cyber and maritime, consistent with its role as a great power.”
The communiqué pointed to China’s “coercive policies,” the accumulation of nuclear warheads and advanced delivery systems, and its participation in Russian military exercises in Atlantic waters. Another trend that has alarmed NATO allies has been the involvement of Chinese companies in critical infrastructure in Europe, such as in ports and via telecommunications company Huawei.
NATO said it would seek “constructive dialogue” with Beijing “wherever possible”, including on climate change, a sign of the more nuanced views of some members of the alliance.
The NATO side reflected an attempt by the Biden administration to use the president’s first European trip to mobilize allies against China.
NATO leaders are also continuing their efforts to modernize the group, which was originally established as a stronghold of the Soviet Union. NATO will withdraw from an era of “expeditionary” international missions, as its troops prepare to leave Afghanistan along with US forces after nearly two decades.
NATO heads of state or government adopted a cyber defense strategy and expanded the powers to invoke the Article 5 principle of collective defense of the alliance in coordinated cyber attacks.
NATO leaders also pushed through with measures to strengthen the response to attacks on satellites and build capabilities in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence. Alliance members have become increasingly preoccupied with possible military applications of AI and with China’s and Russia’s space activities.
Additional reporting by Helen Warrell in London and Kathrin Hille in Taipei