WATFORD, England (Reuters) - Seventy years since its Cold War-era founding as a transatlantic alliance focused on Moscow, NATO is expanding its gaze toward the increasingly muscular challenge posed by China.
But it is unclear, even to diplomats within the 29-member military alliance, whether NATO is up to the task - especially at a time of intense internal divisions and acrimony that were on full display heading into this week’s summit.
In a statement issued after they met on the outskirts of London on Wednesday, NATO leaders said: “We recognize that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.”
The United States is leading the charge for a greater focus on China and is confident of a receptive audience in much of Europe, where concerns are mounting about Beijing’s growing economic leverage, in particular.
In a shift in tone earlier this year, the European Commission, the European Union’s executive, described China as a “systemic rival” and urged the bloc to be more assertive after years of welcoming Chinese investment virtually unhindered.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in an interview with Reuters, said there was an increasing understanding in Europe about the challenges posed by China’s rapidly expanding military might, which includes everything from hypersonic weaponry to aircraft carriers.
“China is a strategic challenge for us and we need to get ahead of that,” Esper said.
“That doesn’t mean that China right now is an enemy. But we need to help shape that together as an alliance. And we need to be prepared in case things do turn out in a way we prefer they not.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted ahead of the alliance’s summit that China was the world’s second-largest defense spender, after the United States.
“It’s not about moving NATO into the South China Sea, but it’s about taking into account the fact that China is coming to closer to us,” he said, pointing to Chinese activity in the Arctic, Africa and heavy investments in European infrastructure.
The United States, in particular, wants European allies to ban equipment from Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei, saying its gear could be used by Beijing for spying.
Huawei, which denies Washington’s allegations, said in October that half of the 65 commercial deals that it had signed were with European customers building 5G mobile phone networks.
The NATO leaders said in their communique that they were committed to ensuring their countries had secure 5G communications, without mentioning Huawei.
Trump, however, referred directly to Huawei as “a security danger”, telling a news conference he had assurances from Italy and other countries that they would not pursue deals with the company.
One NATO diplomat said there was broad agreement that China was “part of our strategic environment” but cautioned about the limits of European unity on the push.
“Some allies would be tempted to please Trump and present China as NATO’s next adversary, but most Europeans know this does not represent their national interest,” the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another diplomat cautioned that China would not become NATO’s adversary.
“China is not the new Russia. This is not about declaring China as the new enemy,” the diplomat said. “China is the rising power of the 21st century.”
Derek Chollet, a former senior Pentagon official during the Obama administration, said European officials increasingly share the U.S. view of China as a strategic challenge but questioned the extent to which Beijing would become a NATO focus.
“No question there is an opportunity,” said Chollet, who is now at the German Marshall Fund think-tank. “It is unlikely, however, to ever be a core NATO task.”
Part of the China plan at NATO is based around seven baseline requirements on which NATO allies must assess the risks. These include the risks of consequences of Chinese ownership of communications and NATO plans to restore communications in case of disruption.
It also includes ensuring NATO has ownership of strategic weapons and infrastructure and what NATO’s maritime posture should be vis-à-vis China.
Additional reporting by John Chalmers; Editing by Alex Richardson