The US is pushing European allies to take a harder stance towards Beijing as it tries to leverage its leadership on Ukraine to gain more support from Nato countries for its efforts to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.
According to people briefed on conversations between the US and its Nato allies, Washington has in recent weeks lobbied members of the transatlantic alliance to toughen up their language on China and to start working on concrete action to restrain Beijing.
US president Joe Biden identified countering China as his main foreign policy goal at the start of his administration, but his efforts have been complicated by the focus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
But with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion in its 10th month, Washington was making a concerted effort to push China back up Nato’s agenda, the people said.
They said the US was trying to leverage the action it had been taking on Ukraine — including being the largest supplier of weapons and aid for Kyiv — into more concrete support for its policies in the Indo-Pacific region.
“The shift from the Americans on this has been noticeable,” said one of the people, all of whom declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the matter. “It’s really quite clear that they have decided now is the time to move on this.”
Asked about the push, a senior US official noted that Nato agreed on a new “strategic concept” in June that “addressed the systemic challenges” posed by China. “Our conversations on these issues continue,” the official added.
Referring to the 30 Nato allies endorsing the new concept at a summit in Madrid in June, a US state department official said Nato foreign ministers would “address ways to strengthen our resilience and the challenges posed by the PRC [People’s Republic of China]” at their ministerial meeting in Bucharest, Romania, this week.
“We deeply value and encourage a united European approach to China,” the official added.
Coordinating Nato members’ approaches to China is high on the list of topics to be discussed at the two-day meeting, which starts on Tuesday.
“What we have begun doing across the Nato alliance is to think about ways in which the alliance can address that challenge [from China] in concrete terms,” Julianne Smith, US ambassador to Nato, said on Monday.
“Allies [will] look to implement what they signed up to,” she added, “to move from what we call assessing the problem to addressing the problem.”
The ministers will discuss a new report on China, designed to harden the stance of the alliance, which in June identified Beijing as a “challenge” to its “interests, security and values” for the first time.
The report will address China’s military development, efforts to exert influence on Nato members and third countries, and Beijing’s relationship with Moscow, officials said.
But many European allies are anxious the discussions might distract from what they view as the more pressing need to cement unwavering support for Ukraine.
In addition, while the EU is also assessing ways to toughen up its trade relations with China, the vast majority of Nato countries including Germany and France are reluctant to fully align their China postures with that of Washington.
“Let’s say that the United States has a certain tendency to be prescriptive, not just on China but about everything,” said a senior EU official, who suggested Europe would ultimately align closer to the US position. “Will we become, let’s say, completely isolated and in the middle between China and the United States? I don’t think so.”
While Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has forced the White House to step up its commitment to European defence, the US has made clear that this is a temporary respite from a long-term shift to countering China as its main strategic defence and security policy.
Last month, the Biden administration released its national security strategy, which made clear that China was the security priority over Russia, despite the latter’s “immediate and ongoing” threat.
Canada on Sunday announced its first Indo-Pacific strategy, outlining new spending to deal with a “disruptive” China.
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said last week that Beijing was “not an adversary” but stressed the alliance had to respond to China’s military modernisation, collaboration with Russia and attempts to “control critical infrastructure in Europe”.
“So all of this makes it necessary for allies to address this together,” he told reporters. “And that’s exactly what we will do, when we meet in Bucharest.”
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington