NATO poised to call China “systemic challenge” in new strategic concept

Posted on : 2022-06-29 17:28 KST Modified on : 2022-06-29 17:28 KST
The strategic concept sets the strategic direction for the NATO alliance, and is being revised for the first time in 12 years
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at a press conference at the organization’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on June 27. (EPA/Yonhap News)
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at a press conference at the organization’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on June 27. (EPA/Yonhap News)

China will be mentioned for the first time in NATO’s strategic concept, which is being revised for the first time in 12 years. Considering that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol will be attending the summit at which that revision is formally adopted, South Korea is sending a strategic message to audiences at home and abroad that it has made a clear choice at a major inflection point while the international order is being reorganized with the US on one side and China and Russia on the other.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said during a press conference in Brussels, Belgium, on Monday that NATO’s new strategic blueprint will “address China for the first time” in addition to outlining “the challenges that Beijing poses to our security, interests, and values.”

NATO’s “strategic concept” is a key document that defines the military alliance’s values and objectives and prioritizes the security-related missions and tasks confronting the alliance.

NATO will be officially adopting the revised document during the summit, which is taking place in Madrid, Spain, on June 28-30. Yoon is currently in Madrid to attend the NATO summit.

South Korea’s presidential office quoted Yoon as saying during a meeting with aides on Tuesday that “Madrid is the place where Korea’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific and its global initiatives for peace and security intersect with NATO’s new 2022 strategic concept.”

The presidential office said that “NATO member states have invited Korea, as a major country in the Indo-Pacific region, because they regard it as a key strategic partner for the future, and we’ve come to Madrid to discuss forms of cooperation related to that.”

That’s thought to imply that Korea intends to participate in NATO’s containment of China and Russia.

NATO, which was established in response to the Soviet threat in 1949, at an early stage of the Cold War, has never before mentioned China in its strategic concept. Its decision to do so now, for the first time, appears to mean that China has become a factor big enough to impact security interests not only in the Indo-Pacific region but also in Europe. Perhaps for that reason, the US and China exchanged sharp words on Thursday over Korea attending the NATO summit.

NATO began to respond to the threat of China in 2020, after China’s rivalry with the US had intensified. European attitudes toward China started to change after the US defined China and Russia as “revisionist powers” and challengers to the US in its “National Security Strategy” report in December 2017.

During its summit in June last year, NATO said in a communique that “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security,” and the UK, France and Germany dispatched aircraft carriers and destroyers to the Far East.

Stoltenberg forewarned of this revision of NATO’s strategic concept when he said during an interview with the UK-based Financial Times last October that responding to China’s rise should be regarded as one of NATO’s chief objectives in the future.

Bloomberg quoted an anonymous official on Monday as saying that NATO will express its caution by using the term “systemic challenge” in its new strategic concept document rather than immediately labeling China as an “enemy.”

According to Bloomberg, the US wanted NATO to use an overtly critical term for China, but Germany and a few other European countries with close economic ties to China preferred toning down the language. The exact phrasing could change at the last minute during negotiations between member states.

For the first time, NATO will describe Russia, which invaded Ukraine in February, as “the most significant and direct threat to our security.” That’s quite a departure from 2010, when the NATO strategic concept described Russia as a “strategic partner.”

The reason for this change, Stoltenberg said, was Russia’s “brutal invasion of Ukraine,” which he described as “a blatant violation, not only of international rule, but also of all the documents and agreements we have signed with Russia to try to establish a framework for a meaningful dialogue with Russia.”

Mary Elise Sarotte, a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said that NATO and Russia are moving toward a Cold War-style relationship. She described NATO’s mention of China in its guiding document as “realistic,” recognizing that the rise of China can no longer be ignored. Nevertheless, NATO’s priority for the moment remains the immediate armed conflict in Ukraine, with China representing a competitor in the long term.

By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer; Kim Mi-na, staff reporter

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