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Maciej Sobieraj  1 lipca 2021

China finally in NATO’s gunsight. Conclusions from the NATO summit, which was to be groundbreaking

Maciej Sobieraj  1 lipca 2021
przeczytanie zajmie 8 min

Groundbreaking. According to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, this summit was supposed to be revolutionary. Several serious challenges for the Alliance were discussed, from Russia, through cybersecurity, to China. Beijing in particular was a new and important topic on the agenda. The previous strategic concept from 2010 did not mention China at all, which shows how much NATO failed to keep up with changes in international politics. During the Brussels summit, the NATO 2030 agenda was also adopted, setting new directions for the Alliance’s development, such as supporting technological development or combating global warming. But was the Brussels summit groundbreaking? What will be the consequences for Poland and Eastern Europe?

NATO Summits are key events not only because of the Alliance’s military might but also because they are held rarely – every 2.5 years on average. The one of June 14, 2021, was particularly important due to NATO’s ongoing development of the first strategic concept in 10 years and the strong tensions within the Alliance. Controversial statements in recent years about NATO’s brain death and the fact that some of the allies are not worth defending only added fuel to the fire before the meeting in Brussels. However, despite the summit’s positive mood (longed for by many) and some important items, it must be admitted that the summit was only yet another stage in a long process that involves preparing the Alliance for groundbreaking changes. Although the summit may have disappointed some expectations, some novelties undoubtedly distinguish it from the previous ones.

Chinese threat noted

The loudest and most recent message from the summit is China’s official appearance on the NATO agenda. The last Strategic Concept in 2010 did not mention Beijing even once. Importantly, China has not been placed on an equal footing with Russia as a rival. During the meeting with journalists, Stoltenberg put it very clearly, „We are not entering a new Cold War and China is neither our rival nor our opponent.”

The official statement is limited to describing China’s rise as a cause of new threats, and the PRC’s ambitions as a „systemic challenge.” This approach is very similar to the rhetoric of the European Commission, which defines the China as a partner, economic competitor, and systemic rival. Moreover, the document states that Beijing should be involved by NATO in discussions on security, arms control, and climate protection.

Where does the Alliance see the main threat from China? In cyberattacks conducted by Beijing, the use of the latest technologies to spread disinformation and China’s expansion of its nuclear arsenal, the scale of which is currently not limited by any treaty or international obligation.

Despite the recognition of the Chinese challenge and the US-China tensions, there is still no consensus as to targeting the China with the same heavy guns as there is regarding Russia, even if Washington would like that. Currently, NATO spread thin, trying to develop a policy that would reconcile the conflicting interests of its allies towards Beijing.

How the process of responding to China would continue will probably become clear officially already in 2022. It is then that we should also see NATO’s new strategic concept, which was announced at this year’s summit. Today’s position of the Alliance leaves a lot of room for further interpretation and disputes.

A new strategy and old disputes

During the Brussels summit, the NATO 2030 agenda, proposed by the Secretary-General, was also adopted entirely, setting new directions for the Alliance’s development, such as supporting technological development or combating global warming.

Moreover, the words of Jens Stoltenberg about dangerous cyber attacks carried out against NATO – such as the recent attack on the American Colonial Pipeline – were heard during the summit, and should be interpreted in line with Article 5 of the Treaty, which says that an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies. It is a breath of fresh air that shows the Alliance’s hitherto inflexible willingness to adapt to the rapidly changing reality.

During the one-day summit of 30 countries, the findings of previous years were also confirmed. It was made clear that the Kremlin is the biggest rival and that relations with Moscow are now at their worst since the Cold War. The need for further development of the defense potential of all countries and attachment to the doctrine of deterrence resonated again, which is manifested e.g. by the presence of allied troops on the Eastern Flank. Despite the controversial postulates of resetting relations with Russia regularly appearing in the West, there is no doubt that the current policy of strengthening NATO, which is of key importance for Poland, will be maintained.

It is worth mentioning that the summit did not lack significant provisions in the area of expenditure. It was considered necessary to increase all three existing budgets in the Alliance: military, civil and infrastructure. Accepting this point can be satisfying because it proves that the Allies are still able to agree on specific matters. This agenda item was adopted unanimously despite the initial resistance of France, whose skepticism towards NATO is well known.

More questions than answers

When we look at everything that happened on June 14 from a broader perspective, we see that NATO’s ambitions now have two aspects to them. On the one hand, it wants to further strengthen its efforts to deter Russia, that is, to continue its old ways, and on the other, to adapt to new challenges. Some of them, however, still require an answer.

The unresolved question is what NATO’s long-term relationship should look like with the European Union, which is also currently undergoing a process of strategic reflection while working on the European Compass. Moreover, we still haven’t heard any fresh ideas about how European countries want to deal with the American pivot in the Pacific. The US military involvement in Europe is slowly shrinking, both in terms of the number of troops and the funds spent e.g. under the European Deterrence Initiative.

Moreover, some of the demands already raised will require further clarification. Since cyberattacks were to be interpreted under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, what retaliation measures should each NATO member take? Should the disclosure of the sensitive correspondence of heads of state trigger the Alliance’s response, or is it reserved strictly for attacks targeting military targets and critical infrastructure?

Despite the many questions, it is worth maintaining a pinch of moderate optimism. Even if the Alliance did not discuss everything at the last summit, it certainly sent a clear message that it would not remain passive and does not undergo the „brain death” that President Macron spoke about two years ago. NATO is no longer in a deep political crisis – that is the main message from the June summit.

Today, while there are still disagreements looming on the horizon, the moods are different. Before the summit, the presidents of France and the USA posed smiling for yet another photo-op and talked a lot, and in a lively manner, during it. This thaw is also visible among the citizens of NATO countries. According to a report by the German Marshall Fund (GMF), support for the US involvement in the defense of Europe amounted to 69% in Germany in 2021 and 55% in France, and in 2020 it was 59% and 45%, respectively.

An ambiguous balance for Poland

The last NATO summit had a bittersweet taste for Warsaw. On the one hand, we should be pleased with our allies’ will to strengthen Russia’s deterrence, but we also cannot remain blind to what is happening behind the scenes. There, no one will pat us on the head anymore, praising us for spending 2% of our GDP on defense. NATO is increasingly aware of the imperfection of this commitment, and more and more countries are reaching or will soon reach this threshold. Furthermore, the United States – at least in official communications – is less and less willing to talk to us, even regarding issues vital to the Eastern Flank.

The bitter fact that President Biden met with the leaders of the Baltic states during the NATO summit before meeting Vladimir Putin, but did not invite the Polish president to these consultations, did not escape the attention in Poland. Furthermore, Biden’s security advisor, Jake Suvillan, presented the meeting as a dialogue with „the presidents of the Baltic states, who are a strong example of democratic governance on NATO’s Eastern Flank.”

It is a very clear signal for Poland – our problems with the rule of law, combined with internal shifts in American policy, affect not only our relations with our European allies but also with the USA, which Andrzej Kohut recently wrote about on the Jagiellonian Club website.

The scale of the problem is also shown in the above-mentioned GMF report. It shows that among our Allies from outside the Eastern Flank, the citizens of only 4 countries consider us reliable partners. This is how Poland was described by just over 50% of respondents in Canada, Spain, the USA and the United Kingdom. Of course, there would be more of these positive replies if the study included the opinion of e.g. Estonians or Romanians, but that would not change the fact that our Western allies often perceive us negatively (only Turkey has a worse reputation, according to the report). We must not shy away from the problem but must counteract it, instead, e.g. by effectively communicating our numerous activities that help build security for all of NATO.

To fight for its positive image, Poland should do what it has done well in the past – be actively involved in the Alliance’s policy. After all, this is what we did by participating in Afghanistan, joint exercises in Europe and beyond, consistently increasing our defense budget and being an active player on the Eastern Flank, where our soldiers are stationed to this day, including in Latvia and Romania.

We should show our readiness to discuss issues that are important not only to us but to them as well. We can understand and support the interests of other countries, as long as they recognize ours. Therefore, it is necessary to consider how Poland would be able to engage in the stabilization of the North African or Sahel region in return for increasing France’s involvement in Poland. This turn of events is by no means political fiction, as Estonia showed a few years ago. After joining the French intervention in the Sahel, it was the only one on the entire Eastern Flank to welcome French troops, which are now deterring Russia. Research in which more French than, say, Germans, perceive Poland as a reliable partner (41% to 32% of respondents, respectively) are also a certain incentive for such action.

Activity and openness to constructive dialogue give hope for improving Poland’s position in both NATO and the European Union. The latter, after all, is in the process of shaping its defense policy and it is worth striving for this process to take into account our interests as well, which I have already had the opportunity to write about on the Jagiellonian Club website. We will not succeed if we lock ourselves in our fortress and expect a miraculous solution, such as Donald Trump’s return to the White House. Constructive (but also not devoid of criticism) cooperation with the West is the only answer to the challenges that await us, also in terms of security.

Polish version is available here.

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Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.