NATO members unite to face evolving threats from Russia and China

Key Points
  • NATO members vowed to address a range of traditional and hybrid security challenges, including several posed by China, in a joint statement released Monday at the close of the summit.
  • The alliance pledged to maintain its military presence in Eastern Europe and defend the smaller member states there.
  • President Joe Biden and the security assurances he provided were warmly welcomed by NATO members after four tense years of Donald Trump's presidency.
U.S. President Joe Biden attends a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a NATO summit, at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, June 14, 2021.
Stephanie Lecocq | Reuters

WASHINGTON  —  NATO members vowed to address a range of traditional and evolving security challenges, including several posed by China, in a joint statement released Monday at the close of their summit.

"China's growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance," the statement, known as a communique, said. "We will engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the Alliance."

The references to China represent a victory for President Joe Biden, who was attending his first NATO summit as president.

Biden arrived at the summit intent upon rallying NATO's 30 member-strong alliance behind a security policy that confronts both new threats, like cyberwarfare and China, as well as traditional threats, like Russia's military incursions into Eastern Europe.

But Beijing's ambitious military buildup also received mention in the communique.

"China is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal with more warheads and a larger number of sophisticated delivery systems to establish a nuclear triad," the communique said. 

Biden has said his administration will stand "shoulder to shoulder" with America's closest allies, breaking sharply from his predecessor's "America First" policy.

President Donald Trump attacked NATO on a regular basis, questioning both the relevancy and the effectiveness of the decades-old alliance.

By contrast, Biden is outspoken in his belief that NATO is a cornerstone of global stability and a crucial player in confronting these evolving threats.

Yet NATO's pivot to China, as opposed to a laser focus on Russia, is not necessarily a welcome change for everyone.

Some of NATO's smallest members, many located in Eastern Europe, believe that deterrence against Russian aggression should be the chief concern of the alliance's security efforts.

Biden met with the leaders of several Balkan nations on Monday morning, as well as with Poland's president, Andrzej Duda. The U.S. military maintains a significant presence in Poland that is widely viewed as a major deterrent to Russia.

In response to the threat of hybrid warfare that Russia poses, NATO member states opened the door to potentially invoking Article 5, the mutual defense agreement, in cases of destabilizing disinformation attacks against "political institutions" and "public opinion."

To date, Article 5 has only been invoked once — in defense of the United States in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"We are enhancing our situational awareness and expanding the tools at our disposal to counter hybrid threats, including disinformation campaigns, by developing comprehensive preventive and response options," the communique states.

Russia's disinformation campaigns have hit Europe hard, notably ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum, during the 2017 protests in Catalonia, and before the 2019 European Parliament elections.

On Tuesday, Biden will travel to Geneva for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Biden is expected to raise many of the topics addressed in the NATO communique.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, attend the Tsinghua Universitys ceremony, at Friendship Palace on April 26, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Kenzaburo Fukuhara | Getty Images

A broader power struggle

Throughout his visit to Europe, Biden has framed the competition between Western democracies and both Russia and China as more than simply an economic or a military rivalry.

To the president, it is a battle over which system of governance will emerge as the world's great power, Chinese-style authoritarianism or Western democracy and capitalism.

Both Moscow and Beijing regularly ignore the international rules and norms that govern trade, security, defense, labor and human rights. This constitutes a serious threat to NATO and to developing countries around the world.

In some ways, Biden's approach to China is not that different from Trump's.

Tensions between Beijing and Washington soared under the Trump administration, fueled by a trade war and barriers preventing Chinese technology companies from doing business in the United States.

But Biden has said his approach to China would differ from his predecessor's in that he would work more closely with allies in order to mount pushback against Beijing.

"We will confront China's economic abuses," Biden said in a recent speech. "But we're also ready to work with Beijing when it's in America's interest to do so. We'll compete from a position of strength by building back better at home and working with our allies and partners."

Biden's message has been warmly welcomed by NATO member leaders, following four years under Trump during which the United States was a thorn in the side of the alliance.

Trump repeatedly attacked NATO during his presidency, accusing it of being irrelevant and impotent. He even threatened to pull the United States out of the alliance.