US Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his first official European engagement on Tuesday to talk up America’s renewed embrace of the transatlantic alliance, a day after Western nations engaged in a fiery, coordinated exchange of sanctions with China.
Addressing his Nato counterparts, his message was clear – and in stark contrast to the previous US administration.
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“Whether it is tackling some of the new challenges like climate or the cyber realm, the rise of autocratic states and the challenges that they pose, we have a profound interest in doing it together, doing it collectively, relying on collective security, and that’s what Nato is all about,” Blinken said, adding that Nato should be “focused on some of the challenges that China poses to the rules-based international order”.
While issues closer to European borders, such as Russian aggression, are set to dominate the EU talks, China is unlikely to be far from concerns.
“Considering recent events between the EU and China, I’d say that China will be a main point of discussion between the US and other allies,” said Meia Nouwens, senior fellow for Chinese defence policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Speaking after Tuesday’s meeting, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the foreign ministers had discussed “establishing minimum standards among allies for critical infrastructure, such as telecoms and energy supplies”.
Ministers also sought to build “new partnerships” with Asia-Pacific nations including Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea to “address the consequences of the rise of China”, Stoltenberg said.
Blinken is in Europe fresh from a bruising encounter with Beijing’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Alaska last week.
In an unconventional sight, the foreign policy chiefs traded barbs in front of the media.
Rather than clearing the air, though, ties have become even testier in the days since.
On Monday, Britain, Canada, the EU and the United States teamed up to slap sanctions on Chinese officials over suspected human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
This was seen as a clear sign that the new Biden administration plans to use its alliances to counter an increasingly assertive China.
In a statement accompanying the US sanctions, Blinken said that the US “is committed to playing a strong leadership role in global efforts to combat serious human rights abuse, through the Global Magnitsky sanctions programme and similar efforts”.
The Financial Times reported that Blinken and his European Union counterpart Josep Borrell are to relaunch a strategic dialogue about China on Wednesday, just months after the bloc and Beijing agreed to a broad investment treaty.
“Recent developments between the EU and China will only push cooperation on addressing the challenges posed by China higher up the transatlantic agenda, and reaffirm the case for unity within the alliance on how individual allies approach China,” Nouwens said.
China reacted swiftly to European sanctions, banning 10 European individuals and four entities and associated individuals from entering China, including Hong Kong and Macau. Among those sanctioned was the EU Council’s Political and Security Committee, comprising all 27 member states’ ambassadors to Brussels, their families and staff.
After a “long and intense” meeting with EU foreign ministers, Borrell said, China’s response was unacceptable.
“There will be no change in the EU’s determination to defend human rights and to respond to serious violations and abuses, irrespective of where they are committed,” he said.
David Sassoli, president of the European Parliament, said that Beijing’s embargoes on five members of the parliament as well as on its human rights subcommittee “will have consequences”.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte tweeted that the Chinese ambassador to the Netherlands would be summoned to explain sanctions on Dutch MEP Sjoerd Sjoerdsma. “This will be taken up further in a European context,” Rutte said.
Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmes added her voice to the chorus.
“Belgium strongly rejects the announcement of the Chinese authorities to sanction EU entities and especially EU MPs – including one Belgian MP – in response to measures adopted in defence of human rights, a core tenet of EU policies. We will follow this up with our EU counterparts,” Wilmes said.
In Beijing on Tuesday, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accused the EU of hypocrisy. “The EU cannot talk about cooperation on one hand and impose sanctions to harm China’s rights and benefits on another. This is unreasonable and would lead to nowhere,” she said.
While Blinken was in Brussels, his Moscow counterpart Sergei Lavrov was in Beijing, drumming up support for an alliance that would help the pair withstand Western sanctions.
“The risks of sanctions should be reduced by strengthening the self-reliance of the science and technology industry, [and] promoting settlement by local and other international currencies that can replace the US dollar so as to gradually move away from the Western-controlled international payment system,” Lavrov said.
Nato has become more focused on the perceived China threat in recent years.
Last week, Stoltenberg told the European Parliament that if the West intended to deal with a “more aggressive” and “threatening” China, it needed to quickly repair an alliance that had decayed under former US president Donald Trump’s watch.
“If you’re concerned about the rise of China, the military and economic strength of China, that makes it even more important that we stand together, Europe and North America in Nato,” Stoltenberg said.
Pierre Morcos, a visiting fellow at the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said that China presented “a novel and complex challenge for Nato”.
“Contrary to Russia, it does not pose a direct military threat to Nato. But Chinese activities and policies are affecting Euro-Atlantic security in areas such as cybersecurity, telecommunications or disinformation,” he said.
“Nato can serve as a forum for allies to share intelligence and develop a shared assessment of the challenges posed by China, including in its cooperation with Russia,” Morcos said.
But Chinese analysts played down the prospects for the Nato meeting.
Lu Xiang, senior fellow on US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that Blinken’s comments may have been of some comfort to Nato but “I doubt they could form a complete joint foreign policy from it”.
“Most Nato members have no real conflicting interests with China. They may express or take some action under the US pressure, but [are] unlikely to go too far,” Lu said.
Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan University’s Centre for American Studies, said that Nato’s main target remained Russia.
“Although they are trying to add in the China topics, I think that in general it won’t do very much,” Wu said. “On China, Nato could make gesture statements and symbolic moves, rather than having substantial impact.”
Additional reporting by Liu Zhen
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