NATO Nations Grow More Receptive to U.S. Pleas to Confront China
BUCHAREST, Romania — For years now, the United States has been trying to pivot its foreign policy focus to Asia, to face a potential threat from a more powerful China, and to get its NATO and European allies to take the challenge posed by the Chinese Communist Party more seriously.
Other crises have always gotten in the way. Still, gradually, the Europeans have come to see the dangers themselves, to their own industries, infrastructures and ports, particularly after the war in Ukraine so painfully demonstrated the vulnerabilities of their dependence on Russia for energy.
With that recent experience fresh in mind, NATO foreign ministers at a meeting in Bucharest have engaged in their most concerted effort yet to grapple with the China challenge, despite their preoccupation with the war in Ukraine.
Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, said Thursday that NATO had agreed to take further concrete steps to address the growing strategic challenge from China, including trying to coordinate export controls on technology and security reviews of Chinese investments.
The secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, said that the discussions had a special focus on how to reduce “our dependencies on other authoritarian regimes, not least China, for our supply chains, technology or infrastructure.”
While continuing to trade and engage with China, he said, “we have to be aware of our dependencies, reduce our vulnerabilities and manage the risks.”
Mr. Blinken acknowledged that “the relationship for all of us is complex, as well as incredibly consequential.” China is the world’s second-largest economy and one of the biggest trading partners for many of the alliance countries, and there has been frequent disagreement among them in recent years on the level of security and economic threat posed by China and how to address that.
A senior State Department official said the United States hoped to persuade the other nations that they had to be more cautious on Chinese investments and operations on infrastructure projects, including ports, and on trade involving technology.
But some European and Asian officials and companies have disagreed with the aggressive approach on commerce taken by the United States, including sweeping export controls on critical semiconductor technology issued by President Biden in October.
There are also strains with the European Union and Asian allies over the protectionist impact of Mr. Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, with its rich subsidies for green technologies, which will be an important topic when President Emmanuel Macron of France visits Washington for a state visit beginning on Wednesday.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded as a Cold War-era military alliance designed to contain Russian aggression, and key member states with major trade ties with China, like Germany and France, are especially concerned that NATO not stray from its main focus on trans-Atlantic security. Better, they say, to leave concerns like climate and trade to other agencies and institutions like the European Union, which is not a military alliance.
Some European officials are concerned that America’s security needs in the Indo-Pacific region, including over the de facto independent island of Taiwan, which the Chinese Communist Party aims to rule, will distract the alliance from the Ukraine war and the long-term strategic challenge of Russia.
Mr. Blinken tried to address that point directly. “This is not about taking NATO to Asia or, in the parlance of NATO, acting out of area,” he said. “This is about some of the challenges that China poses in-area to countries that are members of NATO and making sure that, for example, we’re building resilience around our infrastructure.”
In the two-day Bucharest meeting, NATO accepted an annual report of strategic concerns about China, which is not a public document but helps inform the investments and ambitions of member nations.
The discussion on China marked a shift toward a harder line on the challenges and threats it represents, especially among foreign ministers from previously more ambivalent countries, like Italy, Belgium, Spain and Portugal, some of whom called for less talk and more action to build a China strategy.
Areas of concern included investment screening to protect key industries, infrastructure, cyber, technology and intellectual property, especially as countries are feeling the reach of China domestically and fear the West may be falling behind in important areas like artificial intelligence.
The focus has been on resilience, with some members concentrating on maritime security, some on energy security, some on export controls and others on cybersecurity and disinformation.
These are discussions clearly encouraged by the Biden administration, but they fall on more fertile ground now. At the same time, nations emphasized that there is no intention of seeing China as an adversary, like Russia, or of NATO getting involved militarily in the Indo-Pacific.
There was also discussion of the challenges Xi Jinping, the leader of China, is currently facing, with widespread demonstrations over “zero-COVID” rules and restrictions, not to speak of the threat to economic growth from the lockdowns.
In his concluding news conference, Mr. Stoltenberg said that while NATO is an alliance of Europe and North America, “the challenges we face are global.” China is not an adversary, he said, and “we will continue to engage with China when it is in our interests, not least to convey our united position on Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine.”
China is Russia’s most powerful strategic partner and has aligned with it on the war. In his meeting with Mr. Biden this month in Bali, Indonesia, Mr. Xi did not show any inclination of putting distance between him and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Among the NATO allies of the United States, Britain has been among the most outspoken on potential threats from China. The British government said on Tuesday that it was acquiring a 50 percent stake in a new nuclear power project northeast of London, Sizewell C, a move that forces out China General Nuclear, which had owned 20 percent. EDF, a French company, has decreased its investment to 50 percent from 80 percent.
James Cleverly, the British foreign secretary, said that the discussion on China among NATO countries “demonstrates that there is real thought that’s gone on in capital cities” on the challenge Beijing presents to NATO and the European-Atlantic alliance, as well as “what NATO needs to consider with regards to Asia Pacific.”
He listed issues ranging from China’s repression in Hong Kong and against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang to its crackdown on recent protests against Covid restrictions. He added that “we also need to recognize that on a number of issues,” including climate change and carbon emissions, “we must work with China,” while “highlighting the areas where we fundamentally disagree.”
NATO made China a priority in its “strategic concept” last year, at the urging of the Biden administration, but it defined China as a “challenge” rather than a “threat,” a distinction allies like France and Germany insisted upon.
Yet when leaders like Mr. Stoltenberg, Mr. Blinken and Mr. Cleverly talk of China’s potential, they tend to speak of threats like espionage, key infrastructure, access to rare earth minerals and Beijing’s rapidly increasing military and nuclear capabilities.
Mr. Cleverly said “the precise language that you might want to use is secondary to the fact that we highlight” China’s unacceptable behavior.
In recent months, American officials have quietly pushed European partners on a range of commercial issues involving China. The United States has cautioned Germany against allowing a Chinese state-owned shipping company, Cosco, to take a controlling stake in a port terminal in Hamburg. In 2016, Cosco acquired a 51 percent stake in the major port of Piraeus, Greece, a NATO country, and began operating it after no other companies made competitive offers. Germany agreed to limit the Cosco stake in the Hamburg port to 24.9 percent.
American officials have struggled to get Dutch officials and a major Dutch technology company, ASML, to end sales of an important semiconductor manufacturing tool, deep ultraviolent lithography systems, to China. At the urging of U.S. officials, the company has already agreed to stop exports to China of a more advanced lithography system. That diplomacy is also part of difficult three-way negotiations the Biden administration is having with the Netherlands and Japan over sales of semiconductor manufacturing equipment to China.