China’s former leader, Deng Xiaoping, famously used an old proverb to describe the country’s foreign policy after the end of the Cold War: “Hide our strength, bide our time.” Those days are long gone.
China now faces a world that increasingly views its economic and military might as a threat that must be confronted, as NATO’s leaders made clear in their summit in Brussels.
While China poses virtually no direct military threat to Europe, which is NATO’s home field, it can now flex its military power in ways that were unimaginable only a few years ago — not only in Asia, but also globally.
Chinese officials reacted to NATO’s declaration with anger and scorn, accusing the alliance of recycling outdated Cold War strategies. A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry warned on Tuesday that forming cliques and forcing countries to choose sides were strategies doomed to fail.
Even as NATO leaders met in Brussels, the American aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan and several other warships moved into the disputed waters of the South China Sea, with the group’s commander, Rear Adm. Will Pennington, vowing to protect “international law and rules-based order,” wording that echoed NATO’s communiqué. Hours later, 28 Chinese fighter jets and other aircraft — the largest fleet in years — conducted their own show of force over waters south of Taiwan, the island democracy that China claims as its own.
Only days before, the Group of 7 leaders, meeting in Cornwall, England, had for the first time issued a statement on Taiwan, calling for China to support peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait following a series of menacing Chinese military operations like those on Tuesday.
The declarations by the Group of 7 and NATO are in part the fruition of President Biden’s strategy to build a coalition of like-minded nations to confront China over its activities.
Though largely symbolic, for now, they have for Beijing deepened a sense of crisis in relations with the United States that now threatens to expand to Europe. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and senior diplomats have tried to thwart such an alliance from coalescing with a series of meetings and video conferences with European leaders in recent months.
Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said on Tuesday that Mr. Biden had been remarkably successful at rallying allies after the disarray of the Trump years and shoring up the American position in the world by improving the initially chaotic American response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“All of these mean one thing: making China suffer setbacks and traumas as comprehensively and deeply as possible,” he said.
In its communiqué, NATO stopped short of declaring China a threat, as it has Russia under President Vladimir V. Putin, and even called for deepening cooperation on issues like climate change. At the same time, it noted that China has moved steadily closer to its neighbor, joining the Russians in military training exercises and operations, including in the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas.
The NATO leaders cited China’s rising military spending, its modernizing nuclear arsenal, “advances in the space domain” and cyberwarfare and asymmetric activities, including the spread of disinformation. They indicated that China’s military might and “assertive behavior” posed challenges to the security interests of the alliance’s 30 member states in Europe and North America.
“China is coming closer to us,” NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said in closing remarks at the summit of the alliance’s leaders.
Little of what NATO warned about China is new.
The Pentagon has since 2000 published annual reports on China’s growing military capabilities that have detailed the steady advances it has made across its armed services. In some areas, the latest report said, it has already surpassed the American military, by far the most powerful and best funded. Those include naval, air and missile forces that have for the first time in modern history given China the ability to project power far beyond its immediate territorial waters.
What has changed, in a relatively short period, are views about the threat that China poses.
NATO barely mentioned China in its last summit in 2019 but has now thrust it up to the top of the alliance’s security agenda, a reflection about the growing ambivalence over China’s rise.
Since Mr. Biden’s election, tensions like these have intensified, especially over Taiwan.
The military balance between China and Taiwan has tilted dramatically in Beijing’s favor as the country has built up its capabilities, including naval and air power, as well as amphibious assault ships that it now uses in exercises simulating an invasion.
That has led analysts inside and outside China to speculate that Mr. Xi, China’s leader, is contemplating a military move to conquer the island. Adm. Philip S. Davidson, then leading the American Indo-Pacific Command, warned Congress in March that China could try within the next six years.
Not all countries in NATO or the Group of 7 share Mr. Biden’s zeal to isolate China, differences that became clear in comments by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Emmanuel Macron of France and others. “NATO is an organization that concerns the North Atlantic,” Mr. Macron said, as reported by Politico. “China has little to do with the North Atlantic.”
Chinese officials maintain that the country remains committed to peaceful development and international cooperation through the United Nations. They blame the United States and others for trying to thwart its inevitable rise as a global power.
The foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, on Tuesday accused NATO of hypocrisy, noting that the alliance’s collective military spending far outpaced China’s. He also criticized NATO members’ role in wars from Iraq to Syria. “NATO’s history is full of notorious misdeeds,” he said.
He and others also cited what was perhaps the lowest point in China’s relations with the West before now: the NATO airstrike in 1999 that badly damaged the Chinese embassy in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, during the war over Kosovo. The United States said the bombing, which killed three, was a tragic mistake.
“China will not present ‘systemic challenges’ to anyone,” China’s mission to the European Union in Brussels said in a statement, posted on Weibo, a popular social media site, “but if someone wants to pose ‘systemic challenges’ to us, we will not remain indifferent.”
China’s protests ignore or underestimate the impact the country’s actions have had on its standing, which has plummeted in many countries in recent years, including those that are NATO members.
Deadly clashes along its border with India in 2020 have badly soured relations that had been on the upswing. China has also carved away slices of disputed territory with tiny Bhutan. Its swarming of “fishing” vessels at rests and islets in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines could push that country back more closely into an alliance with the United States that had been fraying under President Rodrigo Duterte.
Mr. Xi seemed to sense a problem with China’s reputation late last month when he lectured party leaders on the need to create “a credible, lovable and respectable image” of the country. His prescription, though, was to be more aggressive in pushing back against criticism.
One example of that came when Li Yang, China’s consul general in Rio de Janeiro, turned a photo on Twitter of a herd of sleeping elephants in southern China into a bizarre warning. He said that “some Western politicians” wanted to suppress China and then used a Maoist-era aphorism. “They will only encounter shotguns in China!!!” (The post was latter deleted.)
Keith Bradsher contributed reporting and Claire Fu contributed research.