Hong Kong (CNN) – As leaders of major Western democracies and their allies met in two back-to-back summits this week in Europe, their focus was clear: keeping pressure on Russia as its brutal assault on Ukraine enters its fifth month.
But another country was also pulled into the spotlight in those meetings: China. And Beijing is not happy about it.
For the first time, China was included in NATO’s “Strategic Concept,” adopted at the bloc’s summit in Madrid on Wednesday. The document, last updated in 2010, lays out the security challenges facing the alliance while outlining a course of action, and now says China’s ambitions and “coercive policies” challenge the allies’ interests, security and values.
The new language has prompted China to accuse NATO of being a “Cold War remnant.”
“The Strategic Concept claims that other countries pose challenges, but it is NATO that is creating problems around the world,” China’s Mission to the EU said in a statement Wednesday.
“We urge NATO to stop provoking confrontation by drawing ideological lines, abandon the Cold War mentality and zero-sum game approach, and stop spreading disinformation and provocative statements against China. Since NATO positions China as a “systemic challenge,” we have to pay close attention and respond in a coordinated way,” it said.
Earlier this week, the Group of Seven (G7) major democratic economies included tough language on China in their own communique, released days after launching an infrastructure investment plan to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
European leaders have grown increasingly wary of China in recent years and those views have hardened over the past few months as Beijing has repeatedly refused to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and bolstered its ties with the Kremlin.
“We see a deepening strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing. And China’s growing assertiveness and its coercive policies have consequences for the security of Allies and our partners,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a news conference Wednesday.
“China is not our adversary. But we must be clear-eyed about the serious challenges it represents,” he said.
Differences still exist between countries in the bloc on how to treat China, observers say. Some NATO members want to ensure the focus remains squarely on Russia, while the United States — by far the block’s most powerful member — has pegged China as the “most serious long-term challenge to the international order.”
But the developments this week, which show China to be higher on these bodies’ agendas than ever before, signal an increasing alignment between the US and its partners.
They also mark a significant setback for Beijing, which has tried to drive a wedge between the American and European stances on China, observers say.
“The combination of the kind of language used by the G7 and (China’s formal inclusion) in NATO strategic documents is indeed a blow for (China), and something that they would have hoped and wished to be able to prevent,” said Andrew Small, a senior transatlantic fellow in the Asia Program at The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“It’s an exceptionally strong period in terms of transatlantic cooperation and that translates for China in ways that they’re very concerned about,” he said.
China’s concerns have been clear this week, as its Foreign Ministry pushed back on the NATO designation in regular scheduled press briefings.
“China pursues an independent foreign policy of peace. It does not interfere in other countries’ internal affairs or export ideology, still less engage in long-arm jurisdiction, economic coercion or unilateral sanctions. How could China be labeled a ‘systemic challenge’?” ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday.
“We solemnly urge NATO to immediately stop spreading false and provocative statements against China,” he said, adding that NATO should “stop seeking to disrupt Asia and the whole world after it has disrupted Europe.”
But that rhetoric — blaming NATO for “disruption” in Europe — is part of what is driving a shift in European perspectives, analysts say, as Beijing has refused to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, including the killing of civilians, while actively blaming the US and NATO for provoking Moscow.
China “very quickly and very clearly lined itself up — at least in words, not so much in deeds — with Russia,” while transatlantic partners came together against Russia and in support of Ukraine in the wake of the invasion, said Pepijn Bergsen, a research fellow in the Europe Program at the Chatham House think tank in London.
The contrast between the two has helped drive an emerging “democracies versus autocracies” narrative in Europe, he said, adding that internal politics also play a role.
“In Eastern and Central Europe, where Russia is regarded as by far the number one security threat, relations (with China) had already been starting to fray, but the fact that China so clearly lined up with Russia has accelerated a shift,” Bergsen said.
China, for its part, appears to have underestimated the extent to which its stance would reverberate through its relationship with Europe, one that was already on shaky ground following European concerns over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong and China’s economic targeting of Lithuania over the Baltic nation’s relations with Taiwan.
That miscalculation was on show in a terse summit between China and European Union leaders in April, where China focused on talking points around deepening their relations and economic cooperation, while EU officials were bent on pushing China to work with it toward brokering peace in Ukraine. China has claimed neutrality and that it supports peace, but has made no concrete steps in that direction.
Rising concerns about China from the G7 — made up of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the US — were reflected in the bloc’s joint communique, released Tuesday after a summit in German Bavaria.
The document, which mentioned China around a dozen times — versus four references in the G7 leaders’ statement a year earlier — touched on areas of cooperation, but focused on calling on China to improve its human rights record and abide by international rules.
And in a mark of how Russia has shaped the bloc’s view on China, the group called on Beijing to “press” Moscow to comply with United Nations resolutions and stop its military aggression. The statement followed what Washington called the “formal launch” on Sunday of a $600 billion G7 infrastructure investment initiative, first announced last year.
The drive, which the EU said would “demonstrate the power of development finance when it reflects democratic values,” was an apparent bid to counter China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative, which critics say Beijing has used to build its global influence.
At NATO, the newly adopted strategy document says China “employs a broad range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up.”
It also points to a “deepening strategic partnership” between Russia and China and says their “mutually reinforcing attempts” to undercut the rules-based international order “run counter” to NATO values.
The language, which also saw Russia move from a “strategic partner” in the 2010 document to “the most significant and direct threat” in the current iteration, is a clear bolstering of NATO’s stance.
That’s significant not least of all because in recent years, as NATO statements began to reference China, some members and observers raised concerns that taking too firm a stance risked turning China into an enemy.
Others have seen China as outside the region’s key security interests.
Following a NATO meeting last June, in which leaders characterized China as a security challenge, French President Emmanuel Macron downplayed the move with a quip that “China is not in the North Atlantic.”
Some of those concerns still exist, and inside the bloc there remain differences in views on how to handle China, observers say.
Within Europe, such debates even extend to the emerging “autocracies versus democracies” narrative being promoted by the US, according to Pierre Haroche, a research fellow in European security at the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM, Paris).
“Do you want to solidify the ‘dragon-bear monster’ to show that there is a clear ideological ‘Cold War’ between democracies and autocracies, because that’s convenient in terms of the narrative? Or is it (a better) strategy to say that the two (China and Russia) are very different actors … who might even, in the future, oppose one another?” said Haroche, summarizing the argument.
But even as differences may exist between member states, it’s clear that NATO is thinking bigger at this year’s summit, with the historic inclusion of leaders from New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, and Japan.
The move was met with ire in China, where officials have long argued that NATO was seeking to expand its presence into the Indo-Pacific, which Beijing views as its own neighborhood.
“The sewage of the Cold War cannot be allowed to flow into the Pacific Ocean – this should be the general consensus in the Asia-Pacific region,” a Tuesday editorial from the Communist Party-affiliated nationalist tabloid Global Times said.
But observers have characterized this not so much as an expansion of NATO into the Indo-Pacific, but rather a bid to strengthen relations between, in the NATO secretariat’s words, “like-minded countries.”
Those democracies across the Pacific, like their counterparts in Europe, may now be seeing the threats they face as more connected, according to The German Marshall Fund’s Small.
“There is much more of a sense emerging from all of this, conditioned by the China challenge, by the Russia challenge, that the democratic allies have to be more effectively coordinated,” he said.
Correction: A previous version of this story gave the incorrect month for the EU-China summit. It was April.
This story has been updated with new developments.