Nato has described China as a security risk and moved to confront the Asian power’s military ambitions for the first time in a joint communique warning that it poses “systemic challenges”.
The declaration came at a summit of the 30-strong transatlantic military alliance in Brussels, following urging from the US of the need to stand up to Beijing’s rapid military expansion and international ambitions.
The communique expressed concern at “coercive policies” by Beijing and said that “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security”.
In a press conference, Nato’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said that China now had the world’s largest navy, was accumulating nuclear warheads, and investing in “disruptive technologies” such as facial recognition.
“This is changing the nature of warfare in a way that we have hardly seen before, perhaps never seen before, and this affects our security,” Mr Stoltenberg said.
“China’s growing influence and international policies present challenges to alliance security. Leaders agreed that we need to address such challenges together as an alliance, and that we need to engage with China to defend our security interests.”
He noted that China had held joint military training with Russia in north Atlantic waters, was involved in cyberattacks, and was “controlling infrastructure in Africa”.
“We see that China is coming closer to us,” Mr Stoltenberg said. “We need to address the challenges that the rise of China poses to our security, even though a lot of allies have economic ties with China. It’s not either or.”
The US has been alarmed by Chinese military expansion in recent years, which has included the construction of military bases in Africa, and has warned allies against involving Chinese companies in key strategic infrastructure as Beijing bankrolls major road and rail links from east to west.
China has used a new security law in Hong Kong to smother opposition to its encroaching power over the territory, and there are concerns about its intentions towards Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway part of its territory though Taiwan views itself as a sovereign state.
The Nato declaration came a day after the G7 group of major economies issued a statement calling for peace in the Taiwan strait, for the respect of rights in Hong Kong, and for China to uphold human rights in Xinjiang, where authorities have orchestrated the mass detention of Muslims and are accused of widespread abuse and torture.
Beijing responded by demanding the G7 “stop slandering China, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, and stop harming China’s interests”.
The EU is also concerned about increased assertiveness by Beijing, and accused it of orchestrating aggressive disinformation campaigns during the Covid-19 pandemic last year.
But European powers have often taken a more moderate stance towards China than the US, describing Beijing as an important trade partner and potential ally on tackling climate change.
Following the Nato declaration, French president Emmanuel Macron suggested China was not an issue for alliance as it was a “North Atlantic organisation” while German chancellor Angela Merkel said that the significance of the communique should not be overstated.
“China is a rival on many issues, and at the same time, China is a partner on many issues,” Dr Merkel told journalists following what would be her final Nato summit before stepping down as German leader. “You cannot simply ignore China . . . we need to find the right balance.”