Nato leaders have warned that China poses “systemic challenges” to the rules-based international order in a sign of growing western unease over Beijing’s military ambitions.
Members of the transatlantic alliance convening in Brussels on Monday cited disinformation, Chinese military co-operation with Russia and the rapid expansion of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal as part of the threat, according to a Nato communiqué.
The strength of the statement showed how far relations between the west and Beijing have deteriorated in the 18 months since Nato countries last met. Then, the transatlantic alliance had issued a cautious statement about the “opportunities and challenges” presented by China.
On Tuesday, China’s mission to the EU called the Nato statement “slander of China’s peaceful development and a misjudgement of the international situation and their own role”.
It added: “We will not present a ‘systemic challenge’ to anyone, but if someone wants to pose a ‘systemic challenge’ to us, we will not remain indifferent.”
The communiqué from the 72-year-old cold war-era military pact followed a stronger line from the weekend’s G7 meeting, when the club of rich democracies criticised China over human rights, trade and a lack of transparency regarding the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, insisted Beijing was “not an adversary” but said the alliance needed to “engage with China to defend our security interests”.
“There is a strong convergence of views among allies,” he said, adding that Nato was primarily concerned about Beijing’s activities in the group’s Euro-Atlantic sphere of operation. “China’s growing influence and international policies present challenges to alliance security.”
President Joe Biden said that Russia and China were both seeking to drive a wedge into transatlantic solidarity.
“The last time Nato put together a strategic plan was back in 2010, when Russia was considered a partner, and China wasn’t even mentioned,” the US president said.
Biden, who will meet Vladimir Putin this week in Geneva, described the Russian president as “bright”, “tough” and a “worthy adversary”.
“I am going to make clear to President Putin that there are areas where we can co-operate if he chooses,” said Biden. “And if he chooses not to co-operate and acts in a way that he has in the past relative to cyber security and some other activities, then we will respond. We will respond in kind.”
The Nato statement, approved by the leaders of the 30 member states, said China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour” posed “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security”.
“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 communiqué pointed to China’s “coercive policies”, its accumulation of nuclear warheads and sophisticated delivery systems and its participation in Russian military exercises in Atlantic waters. Another trend troubling Nato allies was the involvement of Chinese companies in critical infrastructure in Europe, such as in ports and via telecommunications company Huawei.
Nato said it would aim for “constructive dialogue” with Beijing “where possible”, including on climate change, a sign of the more nuanced views held by some of the alliance’s members.
The Nato broadside reflected an attempt by the Biden administration to use the president’s first European trip to mobilise allies against China.
The Nato leaders also pressed ahead with efforts to modernise the grouping, originally set up as a bulwark to the Soviet Union. Nato will pull back from an era of “expeditionary” international missions, with its forces preparing to leave Afghanistan along with US troops after almost two decades.
The Nato heads of state and government approved a cyber defence strategy and extended powers to invoke the alliance’s Article 5 principle of collective defence in cases of co-ordinated cyber attacks.
Nato leaders also pushed through measures to strengthen the response to attacks on satellites and to build capabilities in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence. Members of the alliance have become increasingly preoccupied with potential military uses of AI and with the activities of China and Russia in space.
Additional reporting by Helen Warrell in London and Kathrin Hille in Taipei