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NATO Issues Warning Over Chinese Military Goals

At a NATO meeting in Brussels, President Joe Biden scored another diplomatic win as the alliance put China's military ambitions at the center of its strategic thinking.

(CN) --- With anxiety in Europe and the United States growing over the rise of China, the NATO military alliance on Monday for the first time placed not just Moscow but also Beijing at the center of its strategic thinking and declared that the Asian superpower “presents challenges.”

Meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, the 30-nation military alliance said it needs to focus on the threats China poses as it builds up a high-tech military, expands into space, draws closer to Russia militarily and tries to seize control of critical infrastructure such as airports and cutting-edge internet systems.

It was the second big diplomatic win in two days for U.S. President Joe Biden on his weeklong trip to Europe, where he is rallying allies after four discomfiting years of the disruptive presidency of Donald Trump, who questioned the need for NATO. This is Biden's first foreign trip as president.

On Sunday, Biden persuaded the Group of Seven rich nations to back a wide-ranging American-led plan to counter China's rise. In a joint communiqué, they accused China of human rights abuses, uncompetitive trade practices and spreading its authoritarian style of government around the world. Biden is carrying on a decade-long policy by the U.S. to curb China's rise.

The change in tone from NATO and the G-7 signals a potentially far-reaching shift in European attitudes towards China and a break in what have been until recently friendly relations.

The erosion of trust has been in the making for several years, partly due to Trump's hawkish views on China.

In 2019, the EU declared China a “systemic rival” and it began to extricate Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from the building of 5G internet systems in Europe. Since then, the EU has joined the U.S. in denouncing China over its crackdown on Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement and treatment of Uyghur Muslims. Earlier this year, the European Parliament put on hold an investment deal the EU and China had reached in December.

A souring in relations between China and Europe poses challenges for both sides. China is a major trading partner for Europe and China has seen Europe both as a major market for its goods but also a bulwark against U.S. demands. But a major rift appears to be opening, though just how smoothly U.S.-EU cooperation over China will be remains far from clear.

In its joint communiqué, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as NATO is formally known, said it must pay attention to the security challenges from China.

“China's stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security,” the statement read.

The alliance said it was concerned by China's “coercive policies” and over its rapid expansion of a nuclear arsenal that can be launched from land, submarines and aircraft, what is known as a “nuclear triad.”

U.S. President Joe Biden, left, speaks with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a plenary session at a NATO summit in Brussels, Monday, June 14, 2021. U.S. President Joe Biden is taking part in his first NATO summit, where the 30-nation alliance hopes to reaffirm its unity and discuss increasingly tense relations with China and Russia, as the organization pulls its troops out after 18 years in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, Pool)

NATO also said it was concerned about China's military cooperation with Russia, including joint military exercises close to NATO territories. It called China's “lack of transparency and use of disinformation” troubling.

“We call on China to uphold its international commitments and to act responsibly in the international system, including in the space, cyber, and maritime domains, in keeping with its role as a major power,” the statement said.

It urged China to “engage meaningfully in dialogue” about its nuclear capabilities and doctrine but also welcomed cooperation with Beijing on areas of mutual benefit, such as climate change.

Placing China at the center of its military thinking largely expands NATO's sense of its core mission because it now claims that a major power far from any of NATO's member states is a threat.

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, defended the decision to put China into its military thinking, arguing the country is drawing closer to NATO states and must be taken seriously.

“We see that China is coming closer to us in cyberspace; we see them in Africa; we see them in the Arctic; we see them trying to control our infrastructure,” he said during a news conference.

NATO was set up after World War II as a military alliance between Western powers to stem the spread of communism in Europe and the expansion of the Soviet Union. NATO members vow to defend each other if they are attacked.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has grown and taken on member states on the borders of Russia, angering Moscow. Its military interventions too have gone beyond NATO members, including military actions in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars in the 1990s. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, NATO troops were sent into Afghanistan. Those troops are now being withdrawn.

“We've been out of area for decades,” Stoltenberg said, defending NATO's interest in countering faraway China. “To respond to the challenges we see that China poses to our security, it's not about moving NATO to Asia, it's about very much what we do at home – resilience, technology, cyberattacks, because we see that China is coming closer to us.”

He said NATO first mentioned China in an official document only 18 months ago and that China is not mentioned in NATO's last “strategic concept,” a document outlining the alliance's main objectives and challenges. The alliance is updating its strategic concept, which was last drafted in 2010.

Stoltenberg insisted that “China is not an adversary” but that it must be watched.

He said NATO must also stay ahead of China's technological advances by investing more on military and security spending. U.S. military spending exceeds that of Russia and China combined.

“This is about making sure we keep the technological edge,” he said.

He said NATO members realize there are advantages to standing up to China and not seeing it only as a major economic powerhouse.

“It's not either/or,” he said. “It's not like you either do nothing and trade or you are not able to trade. The world is not that simple.”

With China expected to surpass the U.S. as the world's largest economy, he said NATO members see their alliance as economically strategic too.

“The new thing we have seen today is that we strongly agree that we should do this together as the alliance because we understand that we need to stand together,” he said.

There was no immediate reaction from the Chinese government, but it is expected to issue a furious denouncement of NATO's decision to see it as a security challenge.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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