Nato leaders are to issue a wide-ranging warning to China in a sign of rising fears in western capitals about the impact of Beijing’s growing military and economic might on Euro-Atlantic security.
China’s activities including disinformation, military co-operation with Russia and rapid expansion of its nuclear weapons arsenal present “systemic challenges” to the “rules-based international order”, according to the communique from a summit of the military alliance in Brussels on Monday.
The strength of the statement shows how far relations between many western nations and Beijing have deteriorated in the 18 months since Nato countries closed their last summit with a cautious statement about the “opportunities and challenges” presented by China.
The tough language comes as Nato leaders plotted how to modernise the 72-year-old military alliance originally set up by North American and European powers to combat the Soviet Union.
“China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security,” said the communique, which has been seen by the Financial Times and is due to be released later on Monday.
“We call on China to uphold its international commitments and to act responsibly in the international system, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains, in keeping with its role as a major power.”
The communique raises concerns about China’s “coercive policies”, its accumulation of nuclear warheads and sophisticated delivery systems, and its participation in Russia military exercises in the Euro-Atlantic area. The 30 country Nato group — which has its own internal divisions over China policy — also says it will aim for “constructive dialogue” with Beijing “where possible”.
The Nato broadside reflects an attempt by President Joe Biden’s administration to use his first European trip to mobilise allies to push back against China. Beijing hit back at criticism by the G7 club of rich democracies at a summit this weekend, accusing the group of “sinister intentions” and “artificially creating confrontation and friction”.
The Nato gathering in Brussels comes amid debate over how the cold war-era pact will modernise itself, as it prepares to pull out of Afghanistan after almost two decades.
The summit would “sharpen” the 30-member grouping’s “technological edge”, said Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general. “This is about how to reinforce our collective defence, how to strengthen our resilience and sharpen our technological edge,” Stoltenberg told reporters at the alliance’s headquarters on the outskirts of the Belgian capital.
The heads of state and government are expected to sign off on a confidential cyber defence strategy, which includes extending existing powers to invoke Nato’s “Article 5” principle of collective defence in cases of cyber attacks, Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, told reporters.
“[This] will upgrade the defence, political and intelligence dimensions of cyber across the alliance,” Sullivan said. “And in the communiqué that will be released, there will be a strong commitment to Nato’s emphasis on cyber deterrence and collective defence.”
Speaking ahead of the summit, UK prime minister Boris Johnson emphasised the importance of allies investing in better cyber defences in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, when hostile states were accused of carrying out cyber attacks on allies’ health systems.
“Nato owes it to the billion people we keep safe every day to continually adapt and evolve to meet new challenges and face down emerging threats,” Johnson said.
Nato leaders were also expected to push through measures to strengthen their collective response to attacks on satellites and to build capabilities in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, officials added. Nato countries have become increasingly preoccupied with widening theatres for potential conflict, from disinformation warfare to the growing activities of China and Russia in outer space.
As well as confronting external threats, Nato faces some chronic internal divisions, notably between Turkey and some member states such as France in the eastern Mediterranean.