Europe sees China through a Russian lens, and Beijing is not happy
Hong Kong (CNN) – As the leaders of major Western democracies and their allies met at two back-to-back summits this week in Europe, their goal was clear: to keep the pressure on Russia as its brutal assault on Ukraine enters its fifth month.
But another country was also honored during these meetings: China. And Beijing is not happy about it.
For the first time, China has been included in NATO’s “strategic concept”, adopted at the bloc’s summit in Madrid on Wednesday. The document, last updated in 2010, lays out the security challenges facing the alliance while outlining a course of action, and now says China’s ambitions and “coercive policies” challenge the interests, security and values of allies.
The new language has prompted China to accuse NATO of being a “relic of the cold war”.
“The strategic concept claims that other countries pose challenges, but it is NATO that creates problems in the world,” the Chinese mission to the EU said in a statement on Wednesday.
“We urge NATO to stop provoking confrontation by drawing ideological lines, abandon the Cold War mentality and zero-sum game approach, and stop spreading disinformation and provocative statements against China. . Since NATO is positioning China as a ‘systemic challenge’, we have to be very alert and respond in a coordinated manner,” he said.
Earlier this week, the major democratic economies of the Group of Seven (G7) included harsh language on China in their own statement, released days after the launch of an infrastructure investment plan to counter the initiative Chinese “Belt and Road”.
European leaders have grown increasingly suspicious of China in recent years and those views have hardened in recent months as Beijing has repeatedly refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and strengthened its ties with the Kremlin.
“We are witnessing a deepening of the strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing. And China’s growing assertiveness and coercive policies have security implications for Allies and our partners,” the NATO Secretary General said on Wednesday. , Jens Stoltenberg, at a press conference.
“China is not our adversary. But we must be lucid about the serious challenges this represents,” he said.
Differences still exist between countries in the bloc on how to deal with China, observers say. Some NATO members want to ensure that the focus remains firmly on Russia, while the United States – by far the most powerful member of the bloc – has singled out China as the “longest-term challenge”. more serious for the international order”.
But developments this week, which show China higher than ever on the agendas of these bodies, signal a growing alignment between the United States and its partners.
They also mark a significant setback for Beijing, which has tried to drive a wedge between US and EU positions on China, observers say.
“The combination of the kind of language used by the G7 and (the formal inclusion of China) in NATO strategic documents is indeed a blow to (China), and something they would have hoped for and wished we could prevent,” Andrew Small said. , senior transatlantic researcher of the Asia program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“This is an exceptionally strong time in terms of transatlantic cooperation and it translates for China in a way that they are very concerned about,” he said.
China’s concerns were clear this week as its foreign ministry pushed back on the NATO designation at regular press briefings.
“China pursues an independent foreign policy of peace. It does not interfere in other countries’ internal affairs or their export ideology, much less engage in long-arm jurisdiction, economic coercion or unilateral sanctions. How could China be called a “systemic challenge”? said ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Tuesday.
“We solemnly urge NATO to immediately stop issuing false and provocative statements against China,” he said, adding that NATO should “stop seeking to disrupt Asia and the whole world after having disturbed Europe”.
But this rhetoric – accusing NATO of “disruption” in Europe – is part of what is driving a change in the European outlook, analysts say, as Beijing has refused to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, including the killing civilians, while actively blaming the United States. and NATO for provoking Moscow.
China “aligned very quickly and very clearly – at least in words, not so much in deeds – with Russia”, while transatlantic partners came together against Russia and in support of Ukraine following of the invasion, said Pepijn Bergsen, a research fellow with the Europe program at the Chatham House think tank in London.
The contrast between the two helped drive a “democracies versus autocracies” narrative in Europe, he said, adding that domestic politics also played a role.
“In Eastern and Central Europe, where Russia is seen by far as the number one security threat, relations (with China) had already begun to crumble, but the fact that China aligns itself so clearly with Russia accelerated the change,” Bergsen said. said.
China, for its part, appears to have underestimated the extent to which its position would affect its relationship with Europe, a relationship that was already fragile in the wake of European concerns over alleged human rights abuses. in Xinjiang, the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong and China. Lithuania’s economic focus on the Baltic nation’s relationship with Taiwan.
This miscalculation was highlighted during a terse summit between China and European Union leaders in April, during which China focused on talking points about deepening their relationship. and their economic cooperation, while EU officials were determined to push China to work with them to broker peace in Ukraine. China has claimed neutrality and that it supports peace, but has taken no concrete steps in this direction.
Growing concerns over China from the G7 – made up of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US – were reflected in the bloc’s joint statement, published on Tuesday after a summit in German Bavaria.
The document, which mentioned China a dozen times – up from four references in the G7 leaders’ statement a year earlier – touched on areas of cooperation, but focused on calling on China to improve its record. in terms of human rights and respects international rules.
And in a mark of how Russia has shaped the bloc’s view on China, the group called on Beijing to “pressure” Moscow to comply with United Nations resolutions and stop its military aggression. The statement follows what Washington called the “official launch” on Sunday of a $600 billion G7 infrastructure investment initiative, first announced last year.
The campaign, which the EU said would ‘demonstrate the power of development finance when it reflects democratic values’, was an apparent attempt to counter China’s flagship Belt and Road initiative, which critics say Beijing has used to strengthen its global influence.
At NATO, the recently adopted strategy document states that China “uses a wide range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and its military reinforcement”.
It also points to a “deep strategic partnership” between Russia and China and says their “mutually reinforcing attempts” to undermine the rules-based international order “go against” NATO values.
The language, which also saw Russia go from a “strategic partner” in the 2010 document to “the most significant and direct threat” in the current iteration, is a clear reinforcement of the position of the NATO.
This is important, not least because in recent years, as NATO statements have begun to refer to China, some members and observers have expressed concern that taking a too strong stance could lead to China an enemy.
Others have viewed China as outside the region’s core security interests.
Following a NATO meeting last June, where leaders called China a security challenge, French President Emmanuel Macron downplayed the move, saying “China is not in the North Atlantic”.
Some of those concerns still exist, and inside the bloc there remain differences of opinion on how to handle China, observers say.
In Europe, such debates even extend to the emerging “autocracies versus democracies” narrative promoted by the United States, according to Pierre Haroche, European security researcher at the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM, Paris).
“Do you want to solidify the ‘dragon-bear monster’ to show that there is a clear ideological ‘cold war’ between democracies and autocracies, because it’s convenient in terms of storytelling? Or is it a (better) strategy to say that the two (China and Russia) are very different actors… who could even, in the future, oppose each other? said Haroche, summing up the argument.
But while differences may exist between member states, it is clear that NATO is thinking bigger at this year’s summit, with the historic inclusion of leaders from New Zealand, Australia, South Korea and from Japan.
The move was met with anger in China, where officials have long argued that NATO is seeking to expand its presence in the Indo-Pacific, which Beijing considers its own neighborhood.
“Cold War sewage cannot be allowed to flow into the Pacific Ocean – that should be the general consensus in the Asia-Pacific region,” said an editorial in the Communist Party-affiliated nationalist tabloid Global Times on Tuesday. .
But observers have characterized this not so much as an expansion of NATO into the Indo-Pacific, but rather as an attempt to strengthen relations between, in the words of the NATO secretariat, “countries sharing the same ideas”.
These democracies across the Pacific, like their European counterparts, may now view the threats they face as more connected, according to Small of the German Marshall Fund.
“There’s much more of a feeling emerging from all of this, conditioned by the challenge from China, by the challenge from Russia, that democratic allies need to be more effectively coordinated,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story gave the wrong month for the EU-China summit. It was in April.
This story has been updated with new developments.