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China criticizes NATO for Russia-Ukraine war ‘enabler’ allegation

China lashed out at NATO on Thursday, accusing it of smearing the country after the Western alliance called it a “decisive enabler” of Russia’s war in Ukraine — the first time it has accused Beijing of involvement in the conflict.

China “cannot enable the largest war in Europe in recent history without this negatively impacting its interests and reputation,” NATO said in a communique Wednesday at its summit marking its 75th anniversary in Washington, D.C., hinting at unspecified consequences if Beijing continued its course. 

The communique called on China “to cease all material and political support to Russia’s war effort.” That included all “transfer of dual-use materials” — supplies that can be converted for war — “such as weapons components, equipment, and raw materials that serve as inputs for Russia’s defense sector,” it said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg later told reporters that this was “the strongest message NATO allies have ever sent on China’s contributions to Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine.”

NATO Annual Summit
President Joe Biden, speaking here at the NATO summit, has long urged Europe to take a tougher line on China.Yuri Gripas / Bloomberg via Getty Images

China’s response was swift and blunt.

NATO’s statement was “filled with Cold War mentality and belligerent rhetoric,” which was “provocative” and filled with “obvious lies and smears,” a spokesperson for China’s mission to the European Union said in a statement early Thursday. “We firmly reject and deplore these accusations and have lodged serious representations with NATO.”

Later, at a daily news briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian accused NATO of “malicious intent.”

The United States has for months accused China of supplying Russia with dual-use materials. Its European allies, most of whom are far more economically reliant on Beijing than Washington is, have been more hesitant to make that call.

This week’s communique, however, means that NATO as a whole has come into line with Washington’s view.

“Authoritarian leaders in Iran, North Korea and China all support Russia’s brutal war,” Stoltenberg said in a speech Tuesday opening the summit. “They all want NATO to fail, so the outcome of this war will shape global security for decades to come.”

President Biden And First Lady Host NATO Allies And Partners At White House
NATO leaders stand for a group photo during an arrival ceremony at the White House on Wednesday. Graeme Sloan / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Fabrice Pothier, former head of policy planning for two NATO secretaries-general, told NBC News that the communique represented a “sharpening” of the alliance’s previous criticism of China. “But the tension within NATO” remains, he added, in that “it falls short of putting a cost or pointing to any consequences in that behavior” by China.

There are other signs that some of the alliance’s members are increasingly of the view that — although it falls outside their Russia-focused remit — China is inextricably related to their mission because of its relationship with the Kremlin.

Czech President Petr Pavel warned the summit that Russian victory in Ukraine would “encourage China to be more assertive and aggressive.” He urged NATO members to support America in its « competition with China in all areas around the globe.”

Alongside the NATO members themselves, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea were all at the summit to “discuss the increasing connectivity” between Europe and Asia, a White House briefing note said. Most pressing is the “increasingly concerning military and economic relationship” among China, Russia and North Korea, the note added.

Beijing and Moscow have grown increasingly close in recent years, with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin declaring a “no-limits partnership” days after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. China claims that it takes a neutral position on the conflict, blaming the U.S. and NATO for provoking the invasion by ignoring Russia’s concerns about the alliance’s expansion.

Image: House Speaker Johnson Meets With Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky On Capitol Hill
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.Anna Rose Layden / Getty Images

The alliance has morphed in focus since 1949, when it was founded as a military and political bulwark against the then-Soviet Union. After that communist empire collapsed in 1991, NATO’s widening purview has had mixed results.

In 2003, its leading role in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion was its first foray outside Europe. Afghanistan descended into a quagmire of bloody insurgency and government corruption, before the Taliban took back control of the country in 2021.

A more successful example was in the former Yugoslavia, where NATO carried out a 78-day bombing campaign to stop the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević, which was committing atrocities in Kosovo.

Today, any expansion into Asia is still being debated within NATO.

Some allies, including Sweden, have even floated opening a liaison office in Tokyo. But French President Emmanuel Macron said in June last year that such a geographic expansion outside NATO’s backyard would be a “big mistake.”

For Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, the communique was not “an indication of NATO pivoting toward Asia, but rather dealing with problems that China is causing within its own vicinity,”

He added that it left “a lot of open questions, however, such as now there’s language recognizing China as a problem, what are the 32 members of NATO going to do to deal with that problem?”

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