NATO leaders signal a harder line on China

·4 min read
President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speak while visiting a memorial to the September 11 terrorist attacks at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Patrick Semansky/AP - image credit)
President Joe Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speak while visiting a memorial to the September 11 terrorist attacks at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Monday, June 14, 2021. (Patrick Semansky/AP - image credit)

With a flurry of fist-bumps, NATO leaders concluded their first mid-pandemic summit today by taking a harder line on China than the world's leading democracies did last weekend at the G7 summit.

The final communique from the trans-Atlantic military alliance's summit in Brussels presented Beijing as a security challenge to western countries because its "coercive behaviour" set a course for future security partnerships in the Pacific region and beyond.

"We have agreed to work more closely with, for instance, Australia, Japan and Asia-Pacific countries," said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg following the meeting. "That's also ... how to respond to a more assertive China."

Stoltenberg and other NATO leaders said that while they want to keep up a dialogue with Beijing, they have watched China's military modernization with concern.

Kenzo Tribouillard/AP
Kenzo Tribouillard/AP

NATO would like to draw China into some sort of arms control framework but has received a chilly reception from Beijing.

In many respects, the intense focus on China at the NATO summit suggests the beginning of a major strategic shift.

"I think China is, as I have said many times, a gigantic fact in our lives and new strategic consideration for NATO," said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson today as leaders arrived at the alliance headquarters, which was ringed with razor wire and security forces.

Going into both the NATO summit and the weekend gathering of G7 leaders in the U.K., it was the stated priority of U.S. President Joe Biden's administration to get allies and like-minded nations to focus on China.

Francisco Seco/AP
Francisco Seco/AP

For Biden, it was also a fence-mending exercise after four years of former U.S. president Donald Trump needling NATO members over military spending and questioning the value of the alliance.

"I want to make it clear," Biden said ahead of a bilateral meeting with Stoltenberg. "NATO is critically important to U.S. interests in of itself. If there weren't one, we'd have to invent one."

While all 30 members signed off on the communique, some European members are skeptical about NATO's strategic pivot to confronting China in the face of a belligerent Russia on the alliance's doorstep.

"Russia is a clear threat is what we also stress here, because of Russia's aggression," said Estonian Prime Minister Kajah Kallas, appearing on a panel organized by the Brussels Forum, German Marshall Fund of the United States. "They have definitely shown with deeds."

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was on the same panel and suggested the alliance is capable of dealing with both countries at once.

"We can certainly walk and chew gum at the same time," he said. "We can recognize Russia as a very real and present threat … even as we recognize the challenges in the Pacific and China."

Unlike many of the other leaders, Trudeau did not hold a media availability after the summit and continued with a round of bilateral meetings, including one with the president of the European Union.

Meanwhile, it was left to Stoltenberg to let down two nations desperate to join NATO: Ukraine and Georgia.

Both countries have been lobbying to get into the alliance for over a decade. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has been increasingly vocal about NATO putting his country on a path toward full membership.

Stoltenberg left the door open to membership today, pledging to increase capacity-building training. But Zelensky spread confusion on Twitter by leaving the impression that NATO had green-lit a membership action plan.

Thibault Camus/The Associated Press
Thibault Camus/The Associated Press

Biden shot that notion down, saying Ukraine still needs "to clean up on corruption" and meet other criteria required for NATO membership.

Speaking to Russian state television last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a harsh warning about the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO and obtaining the cherished security guarantee of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter — which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all.

'Russia ... has no say'

Without citing any sources, Putin claimed that more than half of Ukraine's population is opposed to joining NATO. Ukrainians are, he said, not prepared to see themselves in the crossfire of a potential conflict.

"These are smart people," Putin said. "They understand, they don't want to wind up on the firing line, they don't want to be bargaining chips or cannon fodder."

Stoltenberg bristled when asked if Ukraine would ever be able to join NATO without Russia's permission.

"The message is that it is for Ukraine and the 30 allies to decide when Ukraine can become a NATO member," he said. "Russia, of course, has no say because they don't ... they cannot veto what neighbours can do."

Also at the summit, the alliance rang down the curtain on its nearly two-decade involvement in Afghanistan, saying it hopes the security forces in Kabul — most of them trained by NATO members — will be able to hold the country.

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