LONDON, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Seventy years since its Cold War-era founding as a transatlantic alliance focused on Moscow, NATO is expanding its gaze toward the increasingly muscular challenge posed by China.
But it’s unclear, even to diplomats within the 29-member military alliance, whether NATO is up to the task — especially at a time of intense internal divisions and acrimony that were on full display at this week’s summit.
The United States is leading the charge for a greater focus on China and is confident in a receptive audience in much of Europe, where concerns are mounting about Beijing’s growing economic leverage, in particular.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, in an interview with Reuters, said there was an increasing understanding in Europe about the challenges posed by China’s rapidly expanding military might, which includes everything from hypersonic weaponry to aircraft carriers. “China is a strategic challenge for us and we need to get ahead of that,” Esper said.
“That doesn’t mean that China right now is an enemy. But we need to help shape that together as an alliance. And we need to be prepared in case things do turn out in a way we prefer they not.”
In a sign of the NATO push, the allies will approve at the summit a new strategy to monitor China’s growing military activity.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted in London that China was the world’s second-largest defense spender, after the United States.
“It’s not about moving NATO into the South China Sea, but it’s about taking into account the fact that China is coming to closer to us,” Stoltenberg said, pointing to Chinese activity in the Arctic, Africa and heavy investments in European infrastructure.
The United States, in particular, wants European allies to ban equipment from Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei, saying its gear could be used by Beijing for spying.
Huawei, which denies Washington’s allegations, said in October that half of the 65 commercial deals that it had signed were with European customers building 5G mobile phone networks.
One NATO diplomat said there was broad agreement that China was “part of our strategic environment” but cautioned about the limits of European unity on the push.
“Some allies would be tempted to please Trump and present China as NATO’s next adversary, but most Europeans know this does not represent their national interest,” the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Another diplomat cautioned that China would not become NATO’s adversary.
“China is not the new Russia. This is not about declaring China as the new enemy,” the diplomat said.
“China is the rising power of the 21st century.”
Derek Chollet, a former senior Pentagon official during the Obama administration, said European officials increasingly share the U.S. view of China as a strategic challenge but he questioned the extent to which Beijing would become a NATO focus.
“No question there is an opportunity,” said Chollet, who is now at the German Marshall Fund think-tank.
“It is unlikely, however, to ever be a core NATO task.”
Part of the China plan at NATO is based around seven baseline requirements on which NATO allies must asses the risks. These include the risks of consequences of Chinese ownership of communications and NATO plans to restore communications in case of disruption.
It also includes ensuring NATO has ownership of strategic weapons and infrastructure and what NATO’s maritime posture should be vis-à-vis China.
The push comes amid broader strains within the alliance, with a French president who calls it “brain dead,” a Turkish leader who is buying Russian weapons and an American president who has described allies who spend too little on defense as “delinquent.”
Esper, in his comments to Reuters, played down the divisions in NATO.
“I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t some degree of disunity from one member or another. It’s not unusual,” Esper said ahead of the talks in London.
“If it’s a little heightened this time around, I think (it’s) because we’re going through a transition ... to make sure the alliance is focused on the future.” (Reporting by Phil Stewart Editing by Peter Graff)