Still, a NATO diplomat confided in my colleague Michael Birnbaum, “There’s a 50-50 chance that this goes south.”
Perhaps the pessimism is unwarranted. Seven decades after NATO’s founding, its 29 member states account for about half of the world’s military spending and close to half of the world’s GDP. By any calculation, it’s a formidable alliance. But differences within the bloc are becoming pronounced. French President Emmanuel Macron, for one, wants to see NATO shift away from being a Cold War-era bulwark against Russia to a more nimble security organization geared to countering terrorism.
Since coming to power, Trump has also taken a different tack, calling into question the necessity of the alliance, raging over the inadequacy of European defense spending and scrapping a key nuclear treaty with Moscow that helped shield Europe. Yet, this week, he’s expected to emphasize the need for NATO to take on a new adversary and rising 21st-century superpower — China. In the run-up to the summit, U.S. officials pointed to China as a “very strong competitor” that needs to be effectively brought to heel.
European politicians have also recognized that the alliance has to reckon with Beijing. “China is set to become the subject of the 21st century on both sides of the Atlantic,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a speech in Washington in April. “China is a challenge on almost every topic. It is important to gain a better understanding of what that implies for NATO.”
NATO officials are also getting more vocal about how China fits into the bloc’s strategic deliberations. In an interview with CNBC on Monday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said China was “shifting the global balance of power” and presenting Western policymakers with “some opportunities but also some serious challenges.” He added that the alliance — a transatlantic pact — was not focused on engaging China in its own Pacific backyard but elsewhere in the world.
“There’s no way that NATO will move into the South China Sea, but we have to address the fact that China is coming closer to us, investing heavily in infrastructure,” Stoltenberg said. “We see them in Africa, we see them in the Arctic, we see them in cyberspace, and China now has the second-largest defense budget in the world.”
That may be music to the Trump administration’s ears, which sees itself at the start of a decades-long, high-tech contest with Beijing. With varying success, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has clamored for European nations to resist Chinese investments in the continent’s digital infrastructure, particularly in the development of 5G wireless networks that will underlie a whole new world of advanced technologies, including artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and smart grids.
“With so much on the line, it’s urgent that trustworthy companies build these 21st-century information arteries,” Pompeo wrote in an op-ed for Politico Europe. “Specifically, it’s critical that European countries not give control of their critical infrastructure to Chinese tech giants like Huawei, or ZTE.”
The Chinese are predictably unimpressed by suggestions of a confrontation with NATO. “European nations are now faced with two options: blindly following the U.S. or cooperating with China despite U.S. preaching,” noted an editorial in Global Times, a strident English-language Chinese state mouthpiece. “Making this choice will only turn Europe … into a U.S. puppet. Is this a scenario the once strongest continent wants to see? And if European countries shut their door on China’s 5G technology, will they be able to bear the potential losses?”
Analysts in Washington aren’t reading too much into the current atmospherics. In a briefing call with reporters, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution said that Trump has “acted so unilaterally” in his tariff showdowns with China and Europe that it’s “hard to imagine” any substantial strategic decisions being forged through a multilateral body such as NATO.
Then there are a range of internal disagreements on the continent, where a number of countries have already become beachheads for significant Chinese investment and influence. “I think the question isn’t so much whether or not NATO as an alliance has the internal coherence to face China with a united front, but if Europe as a whole has that coherence, and, what is NATO’s role here?” Rachel Rizzo, adjunct fellow at the Center for New American Security, told Today’s WorldView. “Obviously, China is a growing challenge and so it’s wise for the alliance to discuss how it might play a role in Europe’s future strategy, but I think NATO leaders are cognizant of the fact that they shouldn’t go out in search of monsters to destroy.”