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NATO Formally Adds a Rising China to its Focus For the First Time

Updated: May 23, 2023

By James Carstensen | December 4, 2019 | 4:24pm EST

President Trump sits alongside NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg during a summit working lunch. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Berlin ( – For the first time in its 70-year history, NATO has formally recognized the growing influence of China as part of its agenda.

“The rise of China has security implications for all allies,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said ahead of the two-day summit in London.

“China has the second largest defense budget in the world. They recently displayed a lot of new, modern capabilities, including long-range missiles able to reach all of Europe and the United States, hypersonic missiles, gliders,” Stoltenberg said.

He added that NATO allies must find ways to encourage China to participate in arms control arrangements.

China’s defense spending has remained relatively consistent in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but in actual dollars has steadily risen since 2008, reaching $239.2  billion in 2018, according to International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) data.

The IISS estimated there could be an additional 33 percent of unreported spending, when defense procurement and research are taken into account.

Stoltenberg also addressed concerns over the involvement of Chinese tech companies, such as Huawei, in the expansion of 5G infrastructure in Europe. The U.S. has urged European nations to avoid deals with Huawei over fears it could share sensitive data with government agencies in China.

“China’s coming closer to us – in the Arctic, in Africa, investing heavily in our infrastructure, in Europe, in cyberspace,” he said. “So, so we just have to understand that this has implications for NATO.”

The NATO summit declaration released on Wednesday afternoon was notably less detailed than Stoltenberg’s remarks, but does establish grounds for the alliance to begin discussing a common policy on China.

“We recognize that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance,” said the 960-word “London Declaration.”

It did not elaborate, beyond an indirect reference to Chinese tech companies – a reference to “the security of our communications, including 5G, recognizing the need to rely on secure and resilient systems.”

Shaoyu Yuan, an expert on Chinese and East Asian studies at Rutgers University, said China was undoubtedly on the rise, but that does not mean it poses a threat.

“NATO including China in its agenda is definitely not an overreaction, it is understandable and justified,” he said by email, but added that the country’s power is limited by profound and systemic problems in its military, economy and society.

“In reality, not only China’s navy, but also its army and air force are haunted by corruption brought by the one-party system, and their weapons are still substantially inferior to American and Western equivalents,” he said. Yuan noted that the Chinese defense budget and equipment pale in comparison to the U.S.

“China is perhaps more powerful than some of the countries combined in Europe,” Yuan said. “However, in this case, the U.S. is with Europe. If China is nothing compared to the U.S., it certainly cannot compare with NATO.”

Political divisions in NATO have been under the spotlight of late, following disparaging comments by French President Emmanuel Macron over the lack of a unified response to Turkey’s military offensive in Syria. Turkey, a NATO ally, invaded to push back Syrian Kurdish forces which had previous fought alongside Western partners against ISIS.

Germany responded to that criticism by proposing an expert working group to resolve “political divisions” within NATO, but allies at the summit were evidently unable to agree on the issue. Wednesday’s declaration simply invited Stoltenberg to propose a “forward-looking reflection process” in future.

Dennis Hickey, a professor of political science at Missouri State University, said adding China to its agenda would not provide the “glue” needed to hold NATO together and set its divisions aside.

“I doubt that any reasonable person considers China a threat that could even remotely be compared to the USSR in its heyday,” he said, referring to NATO’s Cold War foe.

However, Hickey echoed Stoltenberg’s comments that, with China’s growing economic, military and political power in mind, it ought to be included in future arms control negotiations, particularly relating to nuclear missiles.

“China is indeed a major player,” he said. “It has earned a place at the table.”

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