NATO Allies must seek cooperation with China wherever possible, but should gird themselves for the Asian giant to be increasingly assertive, and even aggressive, in terms of military and economic power, parliamentarians from the 30 member nations and some 20 partners were warned Friday.
China’s rise has been at the heart of much debate at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s 66th Annual Session, and legislators are set to adopt on Monday a draft resolution laying out a “transatlantic strategy” for managing the West’s increasingly testy ties with Beijing.
The fundamental concern, lawmakers were told, is that China rejects the liberal democratic values that underpin NATO democracies and remains entirely willing to export its own brand of authoritarianism to the region and wider world.
“The Alliance is at a crossroads. Are we to step aside, and ignore China’s potential threat to our democratic community? Or are we to step up and assert ourselves with respect to China’s increasing encroachments?” said US Congressman Gerald E. Connolly, who drafted the resolution and an accompanying report.
The UK’s Lord Jopling homed in on the new security law in Hong Kong, the crackdown on free speech, and the consolidation of power around President Xi Jinping as evidence that Beijing does not intend to abide by liberal norms.
Further evidence is apparent in China’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, which included silencing whistle-blowers, concealing information about the disease, the use of propaganda to shift the blame, and the opportunistic advancement of its interests among its neighbourhood.
“We must overcome our occasional differences when dealing with China to protect and promote the values on which our Alliance is based,” Jopling said as he presented a separate report in the Committee on the Civil Dimension of Security.
“At the same time, NATO must not reject and exclude China entirely,” he said, underlining the need to “collectively engage with China where possible to constructively resolve disagreements, without compromising our liberal values.”
China has the world’s second biggest economy, offering substantial trade and business benefits, but it also has the second biggest defence budget and has been developing and deploying hi-tech weapons, including intercontinental ballistic missiles and hypersonic arms.
As NATO allies encourage the United States to extend the soon to expire strategic arms reduction treaty, New START, with Russia, China has been reluctant to engage in any talks that it suspects might restrict its military programmes.
Allies are also deeply concerned by Beijing’s assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, its disregard for international maritime law, as well as the crackdown Beijing has ordered in Hong Kong and its oppression of the Uyghur and Tibetan minorities.
The draft resolution recommends aligning NATO’s priority-setting Strategic Concept in a way that addresses concerns about China. It urges Allies to share information about Chinese activities and undertake a joint assessment about the security implications.
It encourages constructive NATO cooperation with China and boosting the ongoing NATO-China political and military dialogue to include matters like military transparency, freedom of navigation, emergency response and disaster management.
The text also appeals to Allies to bolster their defences against Chinese disinformation campaigns like the one recently waged during the coronavirus pandemic, cyberattacks as well as to give priority to human rights in their approach to China and hold Beijing accountable for any abuses.
The draft report by Connolly also highlights concern about China’s investment in infrastructure such as ports, motorways and rail systems in some NATO member countries.
“Chinese companies have poured money into Europe, acquiring naval facilities and other critical infrastructure, which could hamper NATO’s operations,” Connolly warned. Some Allies are also vulnerable because they rely on global supply chains controlled by China.
In the Economics and Security Committee, debate focused on a draft report by Norwegian legislator Christian Tybring-Gjedde on China’s Belt and Road initiative; the huge infrastructure programme that is a cornerstone of Beijing’s strategic ambitions.
The project is helping China to boost its exports and expand into new markets as well as helping the country to build a currency set to rival the US dollar and the euro.
Through the BRI, China “has for example secured greater port access, and this is likely to enhance Beijing’s capacity to project maritime power. Likewise, China’s commercial satellite objectives cannot be separated from its military ambitions,” Tybring-Gjedde said.
He warned that the project “risks making participating countries more financially, economically, and strategically dependent,” and that includes NATO Allies.