Wed, December 01, 2021


NATO expands focus to China, a win for Biden in his first trip to the battered alliance

BRUSSELS - NATO leaders on Monday agreed to pivot their alliance to a more confrontational stance toward China, a landmark shift as President Joe Biden sought to boost and reorient the organization after the eruptions and conflict that marked the Trump era.

For the alliance's battered leaders, it was already victory enough that they were meeting with a U.S. president who was not threatening to pull out of NATO on the spot. And at a closed-door meeting that was the first NATO summit since former president Donald Trump left office, leaders mostly set aside remaining divisions to embrace each other after coming through four turbulent years.

Almost all the leaders used their brief speaking time to declare delight that the United States "was back," according to two officials who listened to the discussions, a possible sign that Biden's first foreign trip as president may be succeeding in reassuring shaky European allies - or at least that expectations were low.

The meeting "was like the first day back at school, seeing all your old friends again," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told fellow leaders, according to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

The discussion was a sharp expansion of the defense alliance's efforts to confront Beijing after China has for years played almost no part in the group's activities. Allies agreed that "China's stated ambitions and assertive behavior present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order."

"I think that there is a growing recognition over the last couple of years that we have new challenges," Biden said during a sit-down discussion with Stoltenberg. "And we have Russia that is not acting in a way that is consistent with what we had hoped, and as well as China," Biden said. He added that members of the Group of Seven had "stepped up as well," an apparent reference to a new willingness among the economic club to criticize some aspects of Chinese behavior.

After the meeting, Stoltenberg said it was an achievement for the alliance to start pivoting toward China. "It's not about moving NATO to Asia," he said. But, he added, "we need to address the challenges that the rise of China poses to our security even though many allies have a lot of economic ties with China."

The notion of shifting NATO's attention at least somewhat to China extends the theme of Biden's European trip, after he also tried to sharpen China-related discussions at the Group of Seven summit in Britain. Biden has repeatedly cast the existential struggle of the current generation as one between democracies and autocracies such as China and Russia, and he reiterated that concern at a news conference Monday in Britain before departing for Brussels.

"I pointed out we have to prove to the world and to our own people that democracy can still prevail against the challenges of our time," Biden said in a news conference late Monday. "This is going to be looked at 25 years from now as whether or not we stepped up to the challenge."

Although the NATO leaders signed off on the sharper language on China, disagreements remained about the best role for a group that has traditionally focused on Russia and direct threats to NATO countries, such as terrorism.

Just a few years ago, talk about Beijing at NATO was nearly nonexistent. Even to raise the issue in NATO hallways was taboo, with some members wary that doing so would push relations with the country into a Cold War-era framework of superpower rivalry.

But China has become more aggressive on the world stage and Washington has become more hawkish toward Beijing. Trump pushed the organization to be more confrontational. Biden has continued the effort, and even accelerated it.

Advocates of the sharper approach say that China is active in the Arctic and that the country is increasingly exploiting its technological and economic power to undermine democracies.

"China is increasing its expansion, its influence around the world, and it's increasingly running up against NATO," Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday at a forum organized by the German Marshall Fund that ran alongside the summit. "We need to make sure that as an alliance, even though we're much more Atlantic than Pacific, we are aware of the global influences the Chinese have."

But not every NATO country is fully on board with confronting China more forcefully. Some such as Hungary have friendly relations with China and seek investments from Beijing. Others such as Germany and other big European powers fall in the middle, believing there is a balance between the need to work with Beijing to fight climate change and the need to rein in its global ambitions. Still others worry that too much focus on China could distract from the alliance's historic central mission of defending against Russia.

At the G-7 summit, too, the question of how vigorously to call out China remained a point of division, with Germany, Italy and Japan expressing some reluctance to go as far as the Biden administration hoped.

The sharpest discussions inside the meeting were actually with French President Emmanuel Macron, who in 2019 declared the "brain-death" of NATO under Trump. Macron took a tough line against increasing funding for NATO's central operations, which are a rounding error compared to the overall defense spending of the alliance. Other countries had hoped this could be a symbolic way to move beyond the divisions of the Trump era. They eventually agreed to increase the budget - but to put off a decision on the final figures until later.

Afterward, Macron shrugged off the fight, saying that leaders had acknowledged his push for Europe's "strategic autonomy," and that in the end, "that's enough for me."

In a statement Sunday as the summit wound down, Trump criticized the alliance, arguing the United Sates was getting a bad deal.

"So much USA money has been given away to the 'Club,' as President Macron of France likes to call it, and to NATO, despite the fact that those countries have taken economic advantage of the United States for many years-until I came along," Trump wrote. "Not fair to America, or the American taxpayer!"

Still, the moment of good feelings was even joined by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of his first meeting with the new U.S. president, which was set to be Biden's first tough discussion of his inaugural international tour as the occupant of the Oval Office. Erdogan, who can be combative at NATO summits, was mild-mannered on Monday, opting for a friendlier approach, according to the officials who listened to the discussion, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about what happened behind closed doors.

The two leaders met for well over an hour, in a smaller setting and then a larger one. The Turkish government released photos of the men bumping elbows, seeming in good humor, and when reporters were briefly ushered into the room at the end of their discussion, Biden called it "a very good meeting."

During the presidential campaign Biden called Erdogan an "autocrat," and Ankara has been disruptive at NATO and elsewhere. The meeting could serve as a preview of sorts for Biden's meeting Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the final stop of his eight-day, three-country trip.

Leaders agreed that the treaty's Article 5 provision - which states that an attack on one allied nation is an attack on all - could be applied to cyber and ransomware attacks.

"The notion is that if someone gets hit by a massive cyberattack, and they need technical or intelligence support from another ally to be able to deal with it, they could invoke Article 5 to be able to get that," Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, told reporters on Sunday ahead of the meeting.

It is a growing challenge for the Biden administration, which has threatened to retaliate against attacks from cybercriminal collectives in Russia, but has so far announced no concrete consequences. In May, one such attack on a major U.S. oil pipeline disrupted fuel supplies in parts of the country, and another attack at the end of the month temporarily forced the world's largest meat producer to shut down all of its U.S. beef plants.

Leaders also discussed the pullout from Afghanistan, mostly falling in line behind Biden's decision to withdraw troops despite some reservations there was little consultation in advance.

"I believe - and I've said this my whole career and the four years I was out, when I decided to run for president again - that NATO is - Article 5, we take as a sacred obligation," Biden said as he sat with Stoltenberg on Monday, a memorial to the Sept. 11 attacks behind them.

"And I constantly remind Americans that when America was attacked for the first time on its shores since what happened back in the beginning of World War II, NATO stepped up. NATO stepped up and they honored Article 5."

Stoltenberg sought to put the best face on the withdrawal Monday, acknowledging it "was not an easy decision." Some analysts say it is only a matter of time before the country is recaptured by the Taliban.

The departure "entails risks, no doubt about that," Stoltenberg said. "The alternative, to stay, was also an option that entailed risks for more violence, more casualties, and even perhaps the need to increase the number of NATO troops."

Before the day of meetings kicked off, Biden and Stoltenberg briefly met for a confab that was not announced on the president's public schedule, where Biden repeated the sentiment that, as he seeks to reassure allies in the post-Trump era, has become something of a mantra on his first foreign sojourn.

"I just want all of Europe to know that the United States is there," Biden said. "The United States is there."

Published : June 15, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Michael Birnbaum, Anne Gearan, Ashley Parker