Nato’s chief has warned that China is “multiplying the threats to open societies and individual freedoms”, as he urged like-minded countries to join the military alliance to stand up against “bullying and coercion”.
Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of the transatlantic security alliance, said on Monday that the Covid-19 pandemic had “magnified existing tensions and trends when it comes to our security”. China’s emergence as the world’s second-largest military spender demands a “more global approach” from the 30-country Nato group, he added.
His remarks reflect how China has been rising up the agenda of the 71-year-old alliance, which was set up during the cold war as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. President Donald Trump’s US — which has lambasted European Nato allies for failing to spend more on their militaries — has been seeking international support for a tougher approach to China.
Mr Stoltenberg said: “The rise of China is fundamentally shifting the global balance of power, heating up the race for economic and technological supremacy, multiplying the threats to open societies and individual freedoms, and increasing the competition over our values and our way of life.”
“They’re coming closer to us in cyber space, we see them in the Arctic, in Africa, we see them investing in our critical infrastructure,” Mr Stoltenberg said of China, at an event hosted by two think-tanks, the Atlantic Council and the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “And they’re working more and more together with Russia. All of this has a security consequence for Nato allies.”
Asked if China was now Nato’s “new enemy”, Mr Stoltenberg insisted Beijing was not an adversary. But he pointed out that Nato leaders had in December agreed for the first time in the alliance’s history to address the security impact of China’s rise, including its development of missiles that could reach countries allied to Nato.
He also sought to play down Nato’s own internal tensions, after reports that the US planned to pull out almost 10,000 troops based in Germany.
The UK — which announced a new security review last month into Huawei’s role in delivering 5G networks — has already indicated that it will be re-evaluating trade ties with Beijing in light of the virus crisis. In a rare public intervention Jeremy Fleming, director of the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ, said last week that the pandemic had put China’s rise “front and centre” in people’s minds.
Mr Stoltenberg said Nato needed to work “even more closely” with countries such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea to protect global institutions and set norms for outer space, cyber space, new technologies and global arms control. Together they should “ultimately . . . stand up for a world built on freedom and democracy, not on bullying and coercion”, he added.
China’s handling of the pandemic has intensified existing tensions with countries inside and outside Nato. Beijing denies accusations that it suppressed information in the crucial early stages of the virus and then spread misinformation to hide its origins in Wuhan province. US agencies warned last month that Beijing was refocusing espionage efforts towards stealing research on coronavirus treatments and vaccines by hacking US health institutions.
Mr Stoltenberg was launching a review process designed at shoring up Nato’s future after spats involving Mr Trump, who branded the alliance “obsolete” during his campaign for office, and President Emmanuel Macron of France. The French leader said Nato was suffering “brain death” because of a lack of strategic co-ordination between the US and other allies over the invasion last year of northern Syria by fellow member Turkey.
Mr Stoltenberg declined to comment on media reports of Washington’s plans for the German troop withdrawal. The news has caused dismay among German politicians, although Berlin says it has had no official confirmation from the US.
“So far, we only know what is in the press,” said Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, defence minister. “It is a fact that the presence in Germany of soldiers from the United States serves the overall security of the Nato alliance, thus also American security.”
John Ullyot, spokesman for the US National Security Council, said Washington had “no announcements at this time” on the matter. He added that Mr Trump “continually reassesses the best posture for the United States military forces and our presence overseas”.
“The US remains committed to working with our strong ally Germany to ensure our mutual defence, as well as on many other important issues,” Mr Ullyot said.