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Austin at NATO to discuss China and Afghanistan, as defense ministers reimagine the alliance’s goals

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin looks on at the start of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels on Oct. 21. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin headed into the first in-person meeting of NATO’s defense ministers since the start of the pandemic — and since the end of the Afghanistan war — with China on his mind.

The two-day confab, which concludes Friday, is taking place with an eye toward next year, when member nations will convene in Madrid with the goal of outlining their common strategic objectives. NATO has not adopted a “strategic concept,” as the document is known, since 2010 — and in that one, China wasn’t even addressed.

None of this year’s ministerial sessions were explicitly dedicated to discussing the rise of China, which Austin has called the “pacing threat” for the U.S. military. But the secretary planned to raise the issue during several meetings here, according to senior defense officials, including in discussions about the future of NATO’s deterrence and defense initiatives, and meeting new targets for common funding.

China was discussed at length Thursday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters, noting that agreements the alliance struck regarding artificial intelligence and weapons systems are “relevant to the challenges posed by the rise of China.”

Stoltenberg did not offer many details about the decisions he said were made regarding a strategy for contending with artificial intelligence, or the commitments made by member nations to underwrite a focused plan for defense technology innovation.

Where he did offer details was with respect to Russia, NATO’s oldest and most enduring adversary. Regarding Russia, NATO ministers agreed to implement what he called “a balanced package of political and military measures,” including fifth-generation jets, adapted exercises and intelligence activities, and improvements to air and missile defenses — but no further deployments of new land-based nuclear missiles in Europe.

Austin traveled to Romania, Ukraine and Georgia this week in advance of the conference, to highlight “the importance of deepening cooperation among our Black Sea allies and partners to deter and defend against Russian malign activities in the region,” he said during a news conference in Bucharest.

Austin has yet to speak with the news media about the NATO conference; he is scheduled to take questions Friday, after the ministers meet to discuss ongoing threats posed by the Islamic State terrorist network.

But the most dominant topic on the NATO agenda has been what the partnership should look like now that the Afghanistan war has concluded. The matter took center stage at the conference Thursday.

The Biden administration has faced criticism at home and abroad for the chaotic withdrawal from the 20-year war. The military’s pledge that it retains an “over the horizon” capability to conduct surveillance and operations against any emerging terrorist threats from outside the country also has been met with skepticism.

In the past several weeks, there have been reports that certain NATO states were dissatisfied with the way the United States conducted the exit, complaining that there was not sufficient coordination with the partners that collaborated on the mission for the past two decades.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Stoltenberg batted down suggestions of discord or that the United States was not forthcoming with allies.

“After extensive consultations among all allies, we agreed together to end our military presence in Afghanistan,” Stoltenberg said, adding that the focus now should be on “lessons learned.”

He also noted that NATO ministers have agreed to new capability targets — and to exploit their individual and collective “capabilities to strike from over the horizon, against terrorist threats” emanating from Afghanistan going forward.

Nevertheless, there are other tensions among traditionally close allies that will need to be addressed during this year’s conference. Last month, France briefly recalled its ambassador to the United States over the way the Biden administration sealed a submarine deal with Britain and Australia, which effectively killed a similar deal that Australia had been negotiating with France. Austin met one-on-one with the French defense minister, Florence Parly, on Thursday afternoon.