NATO Summit: China in the crosshairs

The NATO Summit in Madrid on 28-30 June took place against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. For all the talk about “unity”, the reality is that there is a deep rift between the US and the Germany-France axis. For the first time, the new NATO Strategic Concept document describes China as a “systemic challenge.” This is an official recognition of the relative decline of US imperialism and the threat posed by a rising power.

As always, the official statement of the Summit and the public declarations of the main participants were full of bravado and optimism. They all stressed one message: unity. “I think we can all agree that this has been a historic NATO Summit,” said US president Biden. “We are totally united,” said the British PM Boris Johnson who had joked about “showing our pecs” to Putin at the earlier G7 summit in Germany.  “We stand together in unity and solidarity and reaffirm the enduring transatlantic bond between our nations,” pompously declared the Summit’s official statement. 

Even Macron and Johnson, who have been at loggerheads over Ukraine for months, seemed to have found a new spirit of togetherness, with the British PM apparently agreeing to Macron’s proposal of a European Political Community. However, in this as in the other matters discussed, when you go beyond the headlines, the real picture emerges, and that is not one of unity, quite the opposite. 

Facing up to Russia in Europe

One of the central questions discussed at the NATO Summit and which also dominated the recent G7 meeting was of course the war in Ukraine. On that, there is no unity. Yes, all NATO countries are formally supporting Kyiv, but there are fundamental differences as to the underlying strategy. This was revealed starkly two weeks earlier by a series of visits by European dignitaries. 

Boris Zelensky Image Number 10Johnson acted as an agent of Washinton in Ukraine / Image: Number 10

First it was the turn of Scholz, Macron and Draghi to go to Kyiv. Behind the official statements of full support for Ukraine in the war against Russia, the reality of what was discussed behind closed doors was clear. Germany, France and Italy are pushing for negotiations to put an end to the war, even if that means territorial concessions to Russia. The reason is that Europe depends heavily on Russia for the supply of energy and Putin is skilfully using that as leverage.

In fact, at the earlier G7 meeting, the world’s powers could not even agree on a US proposal to cap the price of Russian oil. Germany was having none of that. 

The visit by this troika was then followed by a surprise visit by Boris Johnson, who left important commitments in Britain, where he was facing a damaging electoral defeat in two parliamentary by-elections, and hurried to Kyiv. What was the reason for his visit? It is clear as daylight that he wanted to undo any damage that could have been done by the European trio. He wanted to make sure there was no vacillation on Zelensky's part. The message was clear: the war against the Russian invasion must go on at all costs and we will support you; and Russia cannot be allowed to emerge victorious as that would be a serious blow to the prestige of US imperialism. In this, Johnson was acting as an agent of Washington (although, even in the US, there are growing concerns about the course of the war), as well as a cheerleader for the hawks in Poland and the Baltic states.

No amount of chest-beating NATO statements, nor strategic concept formulations can paper over these cracks, which are based on the material impact of the war on the EU countries, and particularly Germany.

The war in Ukraine has been used in order to push for rearmament in Europe and to solidify NATO’s push towards the east, the very strategy which Russia was responding to when it invaded Ukraine in February. 

On the eve of the Madrid summit, NATO’s general secretary Stoltenberg announced that the number of troops the alliance would have in a state of “high readiness” would be increased from 40,000 to 300,000, in a move he described as “the biggest overhaul of our collective defence and deterrence since the Cold War.” In fact, a lot of this was again designed to generate some positive headlines, to make the alliance look strong. When one looks at the details, however, it becomes clear that the move was a bit more modest. 

There was no clear breakdown of the 300,000 headline figure among the different NATO members in Europe, who were taken by surprise at the announcement. A NATO official, speaking anonymously to the Washington Post said the figure of 300,000 was “theoretical for the moment”: “The concept has not been fully worked up yet, we will have to do more to build up the model before we can work out what national commitments can be.” The number is derived from “forces in various tiers of readiness,” said one senior diplomat to Politico. The whole idea is certainly not mentioned in the official Summit Declaration agreed by NATO members in Madrid.

The actual decision that was taken, a modest but significant one, is to increase the number of permanent NATO troops deployed to the Baltic States and Poland. They originally requested a ten-fold increase in NATO troops (from 5,000 to 50,000), the establishment of permanent bases as well as the deployment of air and maritime defence systems. The final commitment fell short of that. The number of troops is going to be increased from battle group to brigade size (from 3,000 to 5,000 troops) in each of the countries. But later it emerged that this was going to be done on a “rotational basis”, that is, the actual number of troops at any one time would barely increase. The US will also establish a permanent command centre in Poland. 

This is not to say that NATO does not want to make a show of strength in facing up to Russia, but it reveals the limits of what it is able to do in terms of commitments, which will cost money, a lot of money, in the medium and long term. The question of NATO’s budget has been for some years a sore point between the US and its European allies, with Washington exerting constant pressure for them to bear a bigger share of the cost. The long-agreed target of defence spending equal to 2 percent of GDP has not yet been achieved by a majority of NATO members (19 out of 29). These include Germany, Italy, Canada and France. 

The US still bears the brunt of NATO military spending, with its defence expenditure three times larger than the rest of NATO countries put together. The war in Ukraine is being used in several countries, particularly in Germany, to approve a substantial increase in military spending. At a time of economic crisis, this can become the focus of class struggle as working people start to ask why there is money for weapons but none for healthcare, education, housing, etc. 

Meanwhile, Lithuania is playing a dangerous game by imposing sanctions on Russian transport to the Kaliningrad enclave, a very sensitive matter. While Lithuania pretends to be simply implementing agreed EU sanctions on Russian trade to the letter, the Germans are putting pressure on Lithuania to drop the stance. Let us not forget that Lithuania was already forced by Germany to drop its belligerent stance towards China. Last year, the Baltic country decided to offend the Chinese by opening an office of commercial interests for Taiwan. Beijing used its leverage on Germany to put an end to that by warning that if the decision to name the office after “Taiwan” was not reversed, then German companies doing business in Lithuania would be sanctioned in China. German companies were then forced to announce they would withdraw from Lithuania and the small Baltic country ended up offering a public apology to China. 

Such is the nature of things in the “rules-based world” of imperialism. That little incident revealed a lot about the nature of China, an emerging imperialist power that takes the question of Taiwan very seriously, but also about the divisions between Germany and the US when it comes to relations with China and Russia. These divisions have a material basis and are rooted in the interests of German capital, its foreign investments and sources of energy. 

Selling out the Kurds…

Of course, the big highlight of the Summit was the Finnish and Swedish membership applications, which in the end received the green light from Turkey. This was the result of a humiliating agreement in which the Nordic countries committed themselves to clamp down on Kurdish organisations and Turkish opposition in their own countries, to extradite those Turkey considers a threat and to lift the arms export ban on Turkey. For all the talk of human rights and democratic values, the accession of Sweden and Finland was achieved by a process of haggling with Erdogan, a process in which the democratic rights of the Kurds (in Turkey and Syria) were offered up as so much loose change on the altar of NATO enlargement. These are the real values of an organisation like NATO.

Turkey Scand Agreement Image NATOThe Nordic countries committed themselves to clamp down on Kurdish organisations and Turkish opposition in their own countries / Image: NATO

Additionally, Erdogan received guarantees from the US that Turkey will be included in the enhanced F16 fighter jet programme, from which it had previously been removed as a punishment for purchasing Russian air defence systems. The whole unedifying spectacle might not even be over. Immediately after the summit, as the Swedish delegation was still in the air, flying back home, Erdogan insisted that it had been agreed that 73 political opponents of his were going to be extradited. This was designed both to humiliate and embarrass the Swedish government in public and as a way for Turkey to show the leverage it has. The Swedes protested that they had to follow their own legal system and could not offer any guarantees, to which Erdogan responded that unless his demands were fulfilled he would not even bother putting the proposal for NATO enlargement for the approval of the Turkish parliament. Watch this space. 

Whatever the outcome of this NATO enlargement, the kind of deals made between the two nice, democratic, peace-loving neutral Nordic countries and Turkey, should dispel any illusions anyone may have had about whether the Alliance is backing Ukraine because it cares about the national sovereignty and democratic rights of small nations bullied by larger neighbours. The sell-out of the Kurds, particularly those in Syria, is made more scandalous because of the fact that not so long ago they were allies of the US in the fight against ISIS. Once they had served their purpose as boots on the ground, which Washington was reluctant to deploy, they were discarded like a used tissue. 

…and killing migrants

In a similarly disgusting move, Spain insisted that migration had to be mentioned in the new Strategic Concept as a threat and related to the defence of NATO’s southern flank. This was particularly callous as the Summit was taking place days after up to 37 migrants were killed while trying to cross the militarised fence, which separates the Spanish enclave of Melilla from Morocco. The migrants died by suffocation, and falling from the 10m high fence, all of which was caused or aggravated by the intervention of the Moroccan and Spanish police guarding the border. 

Sanchez NATO Image NATOPedro Sanchez's Spanish government insisted that migration had to be mentioned as a threat / Image: NATO

Of course, the document conveniently ignores key questions when it talks about migration as a threat to be monitored. The people who are forced to migrate and attempt to enter fortress Europe are fleeing wars and devastation, in many cases caused by NATO intervention. Others are escaping from hunger and poverty caused by imperialist powers which are members of NATO. The alliance is unable to deal with the question and so it turns migration into a security concern, a matter of defending “every inch of Allied territory”. 

This is a Spanish government, let’s not forget, presided over by the “Socialist” Pedro Sánchez, in an alliance with Unidas Podemos (UP), the coalition including the Communist Party. A gentleman’s agreement was reached in order to prevent embarrassment. Leading figures of both Podemos and the Communist Party attended the anti-NATO summit protests, but generally both organisations had agreed to keep a low profile. As with many other things, UP is allowed to protest publicly - not too much though - against decisions taken by the government of which they are a part, but without ever breaking with it.  

China: a challenge to NATO?

As well as the war in Ukraine, the NATO summit also discussed China, which for the first time was mentioned in the new Strategic Concept as a “systemic challenge to Euro-Atlantic security”. It is worth quoting the Concept document in full: 

Xi Jingping Image UN GenevaChina was mentionaed as a “systemic challenge to Euro-Atlantic security” / Image: UN Geneva

“The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values. The PRC employs a broad range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up. The PRC’s malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation target Allies and harm Alliance security. The PRC seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains. It uses its economic leverage to create strategic dependencies and enhance its influence. It strives to subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains. The deepening strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut the rules-based international order run counter to our values and interests.” 

As a response to these “challenges” allegedly posed by China, NATO “will boost our shared awareness, enhance our resilience and preparedness, and protect against the PRC’s coercive tactics and efforts to divide the Alliance. We will stand up for our shared values and the rules-based international order, including freedom of navigation.”

This statement is very significant. It does not say that China is an enemy of NATO, but it comes as close to it as possible without using the word. The document, which is supposed to guide NATO strategy for the next 10 years, was adopted at a Summit in which a number of countries in the Pacific had been invited: South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. This, in itself, is a very provocative move. None of these countries are in the North Atlantic, and NATO has been insisting it is a “purely defensive alliance” concerned with the mutual defence of its members. Even the Madrid summit declaration repeats these platitudes: “NATO is a defensive Alliance and poses no threat to any country. NATO remains the foundation of our collective defence and the essential forum for security consultations and decisions among Allies.” 

This is a complete lie, of course. NATO is a military alliance aimed at defending the interests of US imperialism across the world. It was created to face the USSR-dominated Warsaw Pact after WWII, and after the collapse of Stalinism it was meant to ensure Washington’s “new world order”. The countries which are members of NATO have participated in imperialist wars of aggression across the world, and NATO itself has launched imperialist wars on Serbia, Afghanistan and Libya, countries which clearly had not attacked any NATO member countries. 

If one reads NATO’s approved Strategy Concept carefully, what emerges is the real nature of the conflict between the US and China. China stands accused of using “its economic leverage to create strategic dependencies and enhance its influence”. That is a very good description of imperialism, and one that describes perfectly well the behaviour of Western imperialist powers in NATO. What role do the IMF and World Bank play, but to use economic leverage to create dependence and enhance the influence of the US and European powers? 

When NATO complains about Russia and China “undercutting the rules-based international order”, what they are really saying is “they will not play by the rules we have imposed”. In fact, there is no such thing as a “rules-based order”. The United States, as the most powerful imperialist country on earth, uses “rules” to their advantage when they suit them, and breaks them when they don’t! The first Gulf War in 1991, was carried out under the banner of the United Nations (with the Soviet Union voting in favour and China abstaining). The second Gulf War in 2003 was carried out by a US-led “coalition of the willing” as they couldn’t get the United Nations Security Council to back it. 

International law is just a fraud. The United States and other NATO powers have a long tradition of violating national sovereignty, the inviolable borders of countries, etc. Washington regularly organises military interventions, coups, removes governments, threatens others, breaking all existing rules. We are not just talking about the long distant past, but also in recent times. So far, China, which is now being described as a “systemic challenge” has done none of these things. Not because China is a more benevolent state, but rather because it is an emerging imperialist power, which is just flexing its muscles and is not yet in a position to carry out such actions. 

At bottom the question is as follows. China is a capitalist country. One which has developed powerful interests and imperialist ambitions. It uses its financial clout to secure markets, spheres of influence, sources of raw materials and energy. It does so openly. Its Road and Belt initiative has been publicly announced and promoted for years. The problem is that the imperialist interests of China enter into conflict with the imperialist interests of the United States, and since NATO is an instrument for US imperialist domination over its allies, it becomes a matter for the “North Atlantic” Treaty Organisation. 

In fact, the question of China was also discussed at the G7 Summit in Germany, which preceded the NATO gathering. There, an attempt was made to hatch a plan to compete with China on her own terms, by launching a $600bn infrastructure plan. In fact, when one looks at the details, this is not a new plan. What Biden proposed a year ago under the name of “Build Back Better World”, has now been renamed the “Partnership for Global Infrastructure,” after his domestic agenda floundered. 

Of course, we need to have a sense of proportion. The US is still the most powerful imperialist country on earth and its military spending is three times that of China, and equal to the combined spending of the 10 following countries in the ranking. The US has a particularly powerful position through its financial institutions and the domination of the dollar as a world reserve currency. Its decline is only relative to its previous position. Nevertheless, it is clear that it regards China as a dangerous rival and competitor, for markets, sources of raw materials, fields of investment and spheres of influence. 

On the other hand, China is an emerging imperialist power, still feeling its way. It mainly uses the economic leverage of investment and trade to achieve its aims. It only has one military base abroad, in Djibouti, strategically located in the Gulf of Aden, a key passage between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. There is talk of the Chinese building a military facility at the Ream Military base in Cambodia. Some of the harbours the Chinese are building along shipping routes from the Indian Ocean towards Europe are said to be capable of dual civilian/military use. 

However, the development of China is coming up against certain limits. While its GDP is second only to the US, China is a much more populous country with enormous regional disparities. While the productivity of labour on the Eastern seabed is quite advanced, having adopted the most advanced technologies and in some areas surpassed the US, there are also vast expanses of backwardness in the interior. China’s economy is also heavily dependent on exports at a time when the world economy is retreating into trade wars and protectionism. The extraordinary annual rates of growth it achieved up until recently can no longer be sustained, as its economy is facing a classic crisis of overproduction. 

What we are talking about, therefore, is an inter-imperialist struggle, between an old imperialist power in relative decline and a young emerging imperialist power struggling to establish its position. The US considers this its main threat and has for some time stressed the policy of a “pivot to Asia”. While squaring up to Russia in Ukraine, it realises that Putin would not be able to assert his interests so boldly if he did not have the backing of China. At the same time China is watching closely the developments in Ukraine and pondering what lessons can be learnt for her own interests in relation to Taiwan. 

Even on the question of China, the interests of Washington are not exactly the same as those of Berlin-Brussels-Paris. The US has imposed tariff barriers on China, but European companies are taking advantage of that. Barely a week had passed since the Madrid Summit and European company Airbus announced it had signed a deal for the sale of aeroplanes to Chinese carriers worth $37bn, the largest ever one-day deal in aviation history. The deal was made to the detriment of US aircraft maker Boeing which complained bitterly: "It is disappointing that geopolitical differences continued to constrain US aircraft exports." The Chinese state-owned Global Times responded with an editorial piece entitled: “Boeing is disappointed? It’s not China’s fault”. The article went on to advise Washington that “political manipulation cannot triumph over the law of the market after all”. You have to love the irony. NATO accuses China of being a threat to the “rules-based international order”, and China retorts that it is the US which is breaking the laws of the market by imposing protectionist tariffs! 

Earlier this year, France signed a deal with China for joint infrastructure projects worth $1.7bn in countries in Africa, SE Asia and Eastern Europe. That does not seem like a particularly large amount, but this is the fourth round of such agreements between the two countries. Paris is probably trying to work with China as it fears being completely muscled out of French-speaking Africa, a traditional sphere of influence of French imperialism. 

How can deals like these be explained in the light of NATO’s declaration of China as a “systemic challenge”? The truth is that although the EU (dominated by German capital) is not in a position to defy US imperialism, it nevertheless has its own distinct imperialist interests. 

For all the smiles, group pictures and joint statements, for all the talk about unity, the truth is that NATO partners are far from united. They are not united when it comes to the war in Ukraine. They are not united regarding China. Imperialism is also the division and redivision of the world among imperialist powers, particularly when new ones emerge and old ones decline. This is the source of all sorts of conflicts. A direct war between the main powers is ruled out for now, because of the existence of nuclear weapons. Therefore, the conflict between different imperialist powers expresses itself in different ways: trade wars, diplomatic incidents and yes, “small” local wars, like the one in Ukraine and several others going on in Africa. In the general scheme of things these are “small” wars, but still tens of thousands die and millions are displaced. 

At Madrid’s NATO summit Western imperialism put on a facade of unity, but in reality they are more divided than ever.