With new focus on China, NATO prepares for stormy summit

NATO leaders wrapped up their acrimonious 70th-anniversary meeting in relative harmony on Wednesday (4 December), bridging a series of intense internal divisions and agreeing to focus more on the challenge of China’s “growing international influence” and military might.

The strategic shift comes after a dispute between French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Donald Trump exposed major rifts in the Cold War-era military alliance.

Despite internal disagreements, several of the leaders gathering for the half-day summit in Watford, on the outskirts of London, repeatedly emphasised they were able to agree “on substance” that a reflection on the “political dimension” of NATO is necessary.

In the end, the joint declaration said Russia remains a “threat to Euro-Atlantic security” and “terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a persistent threat to all”. But NATO leaders expanded their gaze even further east to Beijing, with the US spearheading the drive to add a greater focus on China to NATO’s watch-list.

Chinese challenge

“We recognise that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance,” NATO leaders said in the joint declaration issued after they met on the outskirts of London.

China, having the second-largest defence worldwide, “recently displayed a lot of new modern capabilities, including long-range missiles able to reach all of Europe, US,” NATO-Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters after the talks concluded in the announcement.

Stoltenberg also noted that NATO leaders recognised the fact that apart from making technological strides, Beijing was investing heavily in European infrastructure and cyberspace, and expanding its presence in Africa and in the Arctic.

The new policy focus brings NATO in step with its allies in Europe, where the European Commission earlier this year described China as a “systemic rival”.

The executive urged EU countries to be more assertive, after years of welcoming Chinese investment virtually unhindered, as concerns are rising over Beijing’s growing economic leverage across the bloc.

Ahead of Wednesday’s working session, NATO’s Secretary-General noted there is a need for a collective response to Beijing’s rise as a world power.

“This is not about moving NATO into the South China Sea, but it’s about taking into account that China is coming closer to us — in the Arctic, in Africa, investing heavily in our infrastructure in Europe, in cyberspace,” Stoltenberg told an audience on Tuesday.

One NATO diplomat said there was broad agreement that China was “part of our strategic environment” but cautioned about the limits of European unity on the push.

“Some allies would be tempted to please Trump and present China as NATO’s next adversary, but most Europeans know this does not represent their national interest,” the diplomat told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Especially, when mind that NATO’s main focus so far has been Russia, this cause some in the alliance to voice some concerns over that even more widened threat perceptions could result in slower and more incisive decision-making,” an Eastern European NATO official told EURACTIV.

According to NATO representatives, the London declaration implies common efforts to ensure the security of communications, including new 5G mobile phone networks, in connection with which Washington has called for a ban of Chinese equipment from the world’s biggest telecoms gear maker, Huawei.

“I do think it’s a security risk, it’s a security danger,” US President Donald Trump said in response to a question on Huawei, although the leaders’ declaration did not refer to it by name.

“I spoke to Italy and they look like they are not going to go forward with that. I spoke to other countries, they are not going to go forward,” he told reporters referring to national contracts with Huawei.

Ahead of the summit, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson chose to skip any public appearances with Trump ahead of next week’s election but nevertheless appealed for unity.

Asked about Huawei, Johnson said it was important to balance foreign investment and security, adding that Britain would not make a decision out of step with its intelligence allies in the US-led Five Eyes intelligence alliance.

“We cannot prejudice our vital national security, (…) nor can we prejudice our ability to cooperate with other vital Five Eyes security partners – and that will be the key criteria that inform our decision about Huawei,” Johnson told reporters on Wednesday.

“I don’t want this country to be unnecessarily hostile to investment from overseas,” he added.

In an immediate response to the comments by NATO leaders, Huawei said it was confident the British government would take an “objective” approach.

“We’re confident the UK government will continue to take an objective, evidence-based approach to cybersecurity,” a spokesman for the Chinese company said.

“We supply the kind of secure, resilient systems called for by the NATO Declaration and will continue working with them to build innovative new networks,” the spokesman said.

Squabbles settled?

The NATO summit saw some harsh exchanges between Trump, Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau but – even after a hot mic at a Buckingham Palace reception caught several leaders gossiping the US president – officials largely declared the summit a success.

“We have been able to overcome our disagreements and continue to deliver on our core tasks to protect and defend each other,” Stoltenberg told a news conference when asked about the mood during the talks.

Personal animosities aside, several disputes on substance had been accommodated.

Turkey backed off from a threat to block NATO’s Eastern European defence plans unless allies declared Kurdish fighters in Syria terrorists. It is, however, still unclear why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dropped the demand after Wednesday’s talks.

Stoltenberg confirmed there was no discussion of the Kurdish militia during the working session that could have swayed his position, while sources said there had been an unscheduled meeting between Erdoğan and Trump,

Macron is likely to be satisfied that his “brain death”-comments caused the intended impact.

A Franco-German proposal for a strategic review of NATO’s strategic mission in the form of a “wise persons” group won broad support. It is meant to recommend changes in future NATO strategy and, according to draft plans, this could involve a stronger focus on the Middle East and Africa.

“I think it’s our responsibility to raise differences that could be damaging and have a real strategic debate,” Macron told reporters after the talks. “It has started, so I am satisfied.”

Trump left just as the summit ended, deciding not to hold a final press conference, unlike the last time, when he lashed out against fellow NATO allies for their failure to raise their defence spending.

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