When NATO presented a new blueprint for the future this week, the alliance didn’t mince words about China.
China, NATO declared, was a systemic “challenge,” which the country first called out in its mission statement. The country’s policies were ‘coercive’, its cyber operations ‘malicious’ and its rhetoric ‘confrontational’. Along with Russia, Beijing sought to “undermine the rules-based international order,” the alliance said — efforts that are “contrary to our values and interests.”
For Beijing, NATO’s strong statement reinforced the feeling that China is surrounded by hostile powers bent on hindering the country’s advance. In addition, the NATO summit also included, for the first time, the leaders of four Asia-Pacific countries: South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
“This is very serious,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “It puts China in a global perspective as an adversary, not just in the Pacific and East Asia, and it does so in a formal document.”
Beijing, far from withdrawing, has shown a persistent commitment to its tough security stance, including by building its own spheres of influence.
Chinese officials angrily reprimanded NATO, accusing the alliance of using Cold War strategies to contain the country. On Wednesday, an unnamed spokesman for China’s mission in the European Union accused NATO of “provoking a confrontation” and promised to respond with “firm and firm” measures.
The mission “claims that other countries pose challenges,” read the statement. “But it is NATO that is causing problems all over the world.”
A comment published Thursday by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, accused the United States of “forcibly pushing” the alliance to encourage Washington’s quest to suppress China.
“The United States wants to kill ‘three birds with one stone’ – to curb China, destroy Russia and harm Europe,” it said.
The new NATO mission statement, also known as a strategic draft, was released this week in Madrid at a meeting of the bloc’s 30 member states. As the alliance identified Russia as its main adversary, China loomed in the background.
Days before the NATO summit, leaders of the Group of 7 countries announced plans to raise $600 billion to expand global infrastructure investment in developing countries. It is designed to counter Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a major flow of funds to build ports, railways and telecommunications networks around the world — while strengthening China’s diplomatic ties.
Such steps are part of the Biden administration’s ongoing efforts to strengthen global alliances in the face of China’s growing economic, political and military power. In the past year, the government announced that the United States and Britain would help Australia develop nuclear-powered submarines; created a new economic bloc with about a dozen Asia-Pacific countries; and strengthened relations within the so-called Quad Coalition of Australia, India and Japan and the United States.
Among NATO countries, especially France and Germany, there has been some reluctance to follow Washington’s tough stance on China, partly because of economic ties. China is the European Union’s second largest trading partner, while Germany’s auto industry, a huge engine of the country’s economy, is heavily dependent on the Chinese market.
But in recent years, concerns have grown over China’s crackdown on Xinjiang and Hong Kong and its increasing assertiveness over the South China Sea and Taiwan, a self-governed island that Beijing claims as its own territory. China’s push to rapidly expand its nuclear arsenal has also set off alarm bells, as has its willingness to use economic ties for political ends. Beijing, for example, cut off trade with Lithuania because it allowed Taiwan to open a “Taiwanese representative office” in its capital.
Unrest intensified after Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared in early February that his country’s friendship with Russia had “no limits” just days before Moscow launched its attack on Ukraine. Since then, Chinese leaders have refused to condemn Russia for the invasion, instead blaming Washington and NATO for urging Moscow to expand the alliance into Central and Eastern Europe.
In some NATO countries, negative views on China remain at or near historic heights, according to a new Pew Research Center survey released Wednesday.
“China is not our adversary,” NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday. “But we need to be clear about the serious challenges it represents.”
Born in the Cold War, NATO has traditionally focused on North America and Europe. But the alliance has expressed growing concern about China, first citing the challenge of its military ambitions in a communiqué last year.
In the months leading up to the NATO summit, Mr Xi sent senior diplomats to Europe to allay concerns over Beijing, said Noah Barkin, a Berlin-based analyst for the Rhodium Group. The range fell flat.
“They didn’t offer anything new,” Mr. Barkin said. “They failed to allay European concerns about Beijing’s rhetorical support for Russia.”
Some analysts say there is an ever-deepening realization that confrontation is the reality of this new era. It is based on Mr Xi’s world view that China must reclaim its rightful place as a world power. Speaking on Friday, marking the 25th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain, Mr Xi noted how China’s “sons and daughters strove to survive and save the country” despite the humiliation by British colonizers.
for mr. Xi, it is important right now to project a strong image to the domestic public as he prepares for an unprecedented third term in the fall.
“China’s strong development is our strategic goal, and this will not change,” said Song Zhongping, an independent Chinese military analyst.
Despite China’s anchoring in its mission statement, NATO has not committed to direct military involvement in the Pacific. But for China, the statement raises questions about whether the alliance would become involved in future disputes over issues in the region.
While Washington has for decades deliberately left vague how the United States would react if Taiwan were ever attacked by China, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought the issue to the fore. In May, President Biden indicated that the United States was prepared to intervene militarily in such a scenario.
“In the future, Chinese war planning or security will have to consider not only the US as a potential enemy, but also NATO,” said Yun Sun, the director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington.
A White House official said last week that the administration did not see the participation of the four Asia-Pacific countries as a step towards establishing an “Asian version of NATO”. But the prospect remains a concern for Beijing.
Ahead of the Madrid summit, the Global Times, a state-sponsored nationalist tabloid, strongly condemned the participation of Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand in the meetings.
“It is an extremely unwise choice for any country in Asia-Pacific and will certainly damage that country’s strategic trust with China, leading inevitably to repercussions,” the editorial reads. “Cold War sewage should not flow into the Pacific.”
Determined to show it is not isolated, Beijing has accelerated efforts to build its own partnerships. In recent months, Beijing has been trying to expand its military and economic presence in the South Pacific.
Last month, Mr Xi spoke virtually with leaders of the BRICS economic bloc – including Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa – and praised Beijing as an open and cooperative multilateral partner. He contrasted China’s approach with what he called the “block-based” and “zero sum” strategies of other countries. He called on countries to join China’s new Global Security Initiative and the Global Development Initiative, two loosely defined campaigns.
“China is in a hurry to rally friends to break its isolation and break US and Western alliances,” said David Arase, a professor of international politics at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center.
Some officials in NATO countries have expressed unease about lumping Russia and China together, arguing that this could backfire. Last month, Jens Plötner, a top German foreign policy adviser, warned that attempts to economically decouple from China would result in a “self-fulfilling prophecy” by bringing Beijing and Moscow even closer together.
But any attempts by Beijing to exploit such disagreements within the bloc would not go unnoticed, the alliance warned in its mission.
“We will raise our shared awareness, increase our resilience and preparedness and protect ourselves against the coercive tactics and efforts of the PRC to divide the Alliance,” it said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
Amy Chang Chien reporting contributed.