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With one eye on Russia, NATO meeting underscores growing concern about China

Members of the North Atlantic Alliance gathered in Bucharest are due to approve a confidential report about the challenges posed by Beijing, which the West relies on for supply chains as well as key components and materials

Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Bucharest on Tuesday.
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Bucharest on Tuesday.ROBERT GHEMENT (EFE)
María R. Sahuquillo

Even though NATO is currently focused on Russia’s war against Ukraine, the 30 allies of the North Atlantic Alliance are not losing sight of the looming threat located further east: China. The Asian giant has been roiled by nationwide protests against zero-covid policies, in an unprecedented mobilization of civil society against the political leadership in Beijing that is being met with crackdowns.

In light of these events, NATO officials gathered in Bucharest, Romania, were on Wednesday planning to approve a confidential report alerting about China’s growing role as a military force in all global scenarios and its rising might in hybrid wars.

The report on China is very much focused on security and defense, but also stresses the importance of leaving open spaces for a “constructive dialogue” in fields such as disarmament and the non-proliferation of weapons, according to allied sources. It also supports advances in ”mutual trust.”

“China is stepping up military modernization. Increasing its presence from the Arctic to the Western Balkans. From space to cyber space,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday in his opening remarks at the Aspen-GMF Bucharest Forum, ahead of a meeting with the foreign ministers of Alliance countries.

“The war in Ukraine demonstrated our dangerous dependency on Russian gas. This should also lead us to assess our dependencies on other authoritarian states. Not least China,” he added, noting that the West relies on China for certain key components and materials, including rare earth minerals, as well as for many supply chains.

Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine remains the main and most immediate threat to the Atlantic Alliance, and support for Ukraine is a priority, the foreign ministers of the allied countries reiterated on Tuesday. Despite the rhetoric, however, there was no progress on specific commitments to send more weapons and air defense systems to Kyiv. There was an agreement for humanitarian aid.

The war in Ukraine demonstrated our dangerous dependency on Russian gas. This should also lead us to assess our dependencies on other authoritarian states. Not least China
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

With the armed conflict in Eastern Europe as a background scenario, NATO is also trying to advance its common position on Beijing, defined for the first time at the Madrid summit in June in its “strategic concept” as “challenges to our security, to our values, and to our economy” after refusing for years to discuss the risks posed by the Asian giant.

After months of work, the foreign ministers of the Alliance countries came together for a two-day meeting at the Palace of Parliament (or People’s Palace), a huge building featuring kitsch Socialist architecture whose construction was ordered by the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. The meeting is expected to greenlight a report focusing on China as the great challenge in the mid- to long term, according to Allied sources.

The text, due to be reviewed this Wednesday at a session devoted to resilience, focuses the challenges for the Euro-Atlantic space posed by China. It also takes into account the link between Russia and China, and the powerful statement made at a Beijing summit in February (20 days before the invasion of Ukraine, which Beijing has not condemned), in which Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin called for a new type of relations between world powers and enshrined a “friendship without limits.”

The United States is concerned about China and its assertiveness. One of the priorities of the Joe Biden administration from the beginning has been to put Beijing on NATO’s agenda and try to offset its influence and plans (and those of Russia) against what the Alliance calls the “rules-based international order.”

Washington has long pushed for progress in this position, and Russia’s war in Ukraine and the relationship between Beijing and Moscow, which are conducting joint military exercises despite the Russian aggression, have been the main arguments used by the United States – supported by the United Kingdom and Canada – to raise the issue within the military alliance. China has traditionally caused a great division within NATO, with member countries such as France and Germany opting for a pragmatic stance, disinclined to broadening NATO’s focus and wishing to maintain contact and business with Beijing.

This division is also evident in the European Union, which has not agreed whether to change its common position and what the best approach to China should be. In fact, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, is planning to travel to Beijing this Thursday to discuss global challenges and relations between the EU and China. Now, amid the wave of protests in Chinese cities over zero-Covid policy, there is a growing chorus of voices saying this trip should be canceled.

Underlying the debate is China’s use of its enormous financial clout, which underpins a system that hardly admits any competition and exports models that are not very respectful of the environment or labor rights. “We will continue to trade and engage economically with China. But we have to be aware of our dependencies, reduce our vulnerabilities and manage the risks,” said Stoltenberg on Tuesday.

The Bucharest meeting is very symbolic for Ukraine. It was in the Romanian capital, in 2008, that the Eastern country received, along with Georgia, the invitation to join NATO that angered Russia. Its accession has barely budged since then, and the Alliance – which is finalizing accession procedures for Sweden and Finland as a result of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine – has insisted that the doors are not closed to Ukraine. But the language used shows no indication that Ukraine’s bid to join NATO will move forward an inch.

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