NATO Summit Escalates Rhetoric Between China And NATO

During the lead-up to the NATO summit in Madrid from June 29-30, NATO diplomats disclosed that NATO’s new Strategic Concept would directly reference China as a “systemic challenge” for the first time, according to Reuters. However, member states were also said to be in dispute over how to describe the relationship between China, which has the world’s second-largest economy, and Russia, the world’s newest pariah state.

According to Reuters, a White House official stated that the new Strategic Concept, which planned to address the security threats posed by Russia, and for the first time, China, would utilize strong language in discussing the new threats posed by China. However, they cautioned that negotiations were still ongoing. NATO diplomats have reported that the biggest advocates of this harsher stance on China were the United States and the United Kingdom; particularly voicing concern over China’s increasingly militarized outlook on the issue of Taiwan. Conversely, France and Germany, being major investors in the Chinese industry, favored less charged language and a more cautious response.

In the final document, Russia was described as “the most significant and direct threat” to North-Atlantic peace and security, but that Beijing also posed systemic challenges. The details of how to describe the relations between the two threat-posing states were a source of debate among the member-states. According to the Washington Post, in a bilateral meeting earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin pledged a partnership with “no limits”, alarming many NATO members before the summit. Discussions on Chinese-Russian relations led to disagreements, with the Czech Republic and Hungary cited as particularly “strongly opposed” to the characterization of “strategic convergence”, according to Reuters.

In recognition of the more significant threat Beijing was seen to pose to the Alliance, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea were invited to the summit for the first time. According to Al Jazeera. during the meeting, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described China as “more aggressive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms”, further highlighting increased concerns from NATO’s Pacific allies about China’s increased militarization.

Al Jazeera reported that NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said “China is not our adversary, but that we must be clear-eyed about the serious challenges it represents”, citing Beijing’s increased militarization, its stance towards Taiwan, its monitorization and control over the Chinese populace via the use of technology, and its role in “spreading Russian lies and disinformation”. In response to the NATO declaration, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying that the document “disregards facts, confuses black and white…[and] smears China’s foreign policy”, adding that China was “firmly” opposed to NATO’s statements. He went on to criticize NATO members’ response to Russia concerning the Ukraine war, accusing NATO of clinging to a “Cold War mentality”, describing sanctions as “not a way out of conflicts” and that “the continued delivery of weapons [to Ukraine from NATO members] will not help realize peace”.

China’s continued support of Russia’s war in Ukraine, by way of its lack of explicit condemnation, should be noted and condemned by the global community at large. Its suppression of human rights within Chinese borders is also reprehensible, especially in regards to its treatment of the Uyghur population, where it enforces policies that have been described as genocide by many international observers, and China should be condemned by the world for these actions as well. However, given that American-Chinese relations have been increasingly tense since the Trump administration, this move by NATO is unlikely to smooth things over between the world’s two largest economies. Moreover, considering the global economic ramifications of the so-called “Trade War” under the Trump administration, and that economic factors are one of the leading causes of conflict worldwide, gestures that increase tension between the two states or their allies cannot be blindly applauded.

Thus, while China’s actions, especially within its mainland borders and in regard to Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as more generally in the South China Sea, should be noted and condemned, it is a needless escalation for NATO, especially with its explicit focus on the Atlantic rather than the Pacific, to antagonize China by explicitly naming them in their Strategic Concept Report.