NATO summit to show unity amid deeper cracks
Published: Jun 29, 2022 12:45 AM
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (right) and Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez deliver joint statements on the opening day of the NATO summit in Madrid, on June 28, 2022. Photo: AFP

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (right) and Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez deliver joint statements on the opening day of the NATO summit in Madrid, on June 28, 2022. Photo: AFP

The Biden administration this week ramped up efforts to mobilize its European allies in crafting long-term plans on prolonging the Russia-Ukraine conflict and dealing with China for the coming decade with the start of the NATO Summit in Madrid, to ensure Europe will follow the US' playbook and show the world the West is more unified than ever, Chinese analysts said. 

But will Europe completely follow the strategic plan the US has imposed on them? Will this Western unity prevail and will it stand the test of time? Chinese analysts believe that under the seemingly unprecedented unity was unbridgeable divide among NATO's 30 members on major issues including how to define China, how to respond to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the possible spillover of it, as well as how to deal with Turkey. 

They said that as the leader and coordinator of NATO, the US will try to consider the interests of different members, but the US-led alliance will sacrifice some members, noting that the Baltic region could be left vulnerable. 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated at a pre-summit press conference on Monday that the NATO Summit will be transformative, including a new Strategic Concept for a new security reality which will address China for the first time, including challenges that China "poses to our security, interests, and values." 

In response, Zhao Lijian, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said at Tuesday's media briefing that the concept is nothing more than "old wine in a new bottle," and has not changed the Cold War mentality of creating "imaginary enemies" and engaging in confrontation. 

The detailed Strategic Concept has yet to be revealed, but has divided the alliance into at least two different groups, with the US and UK trying to push for more forceful language in describing China, but France and Germany favor more "measured references," Reuters reported. 

One diplomat said a compromise was taking shape under which China would be described as a "systemic challenge," while including balancing language referring to a "willingness to work on areas of common interest" with Beijing, Reuters said. 

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo warned that "the last thing we should do is turn our backs to China the way we are turning our backs to Russia" on Monday, citing China is an important trading partner, the South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday.

Lü Xiang, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Tuesday that NATO will politically show hostility toward China under US pressure, but will not have any real actions, especially militarily, targeting China. 

Dealing with Russia alone has fueled a cost of living crisis in many NATO countries with residents taking to the streets in protest. How can the alliance tackle China, the world's second largest economy? analysts said. They believe the leaders of France and Germany, the backbone of the EU, will remain rational. 

Twenty-one members of NATO's 30 members are also EU members, and in 2021, China was the third largest partner for EU exports of goods and the largest partner for EU imports. 

Analysts said the US is trying to kidnap Europe for its China and Russia policy, but countries like France and Germany have been advocating Europe's strategic autonomy and hold views different from the US on the global economic and security order. 

NATO allies planned to discuss longer-term support to Ukraine, apart from offering fuel and anti-drone systems, to help modernize the Ukrainian armed forces, according to NATO. 

Analysts said that the US wanted its European allies to prolong the Russia-Ukraine conflict to weaken Russia, but European countries try to help end the Ukraine crisis through negotiations. 

Two days before Biden arrived in Europe, a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll showed that his approval rating fell to 36 percent, the lowest since late May. Only 18 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction, the poll said. 

Lü said Biden's Europe trip will not help in his midterm election. Donald Trump may run again in 2024, and if Trump wins, the best result for NATO would be the US becoming indifferent to NATO, and NATO would likely see the US withdraw or even try to disband the alliance. 

Russia-Ukraine conflict 

Analysts believe Russia has been moving ahead in its military operation against Ukraine, which makes NATO uneasy, and the possible spillover of the conflict is a far bigger challenge for NATO. 

The US and its allies have been transporting weapons to Ukraine through Poland, and more provocative moves may eventually irritate Russia so that the Russia-Ukraine conflict could spill over to Poland, Lü said, noting he believes NATO has no mature plan on whether to protect Poland. 

It seems that NATO's plan to protect the Baltic region, which is another possible spillover region for the conflict, is not ready yet. 

Bolstering the defense of the Baltic region is deemed as one of the most important decisions for NATO leaders to discuss during the summit, CNBC reported on Monday. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have repeatedly called on NATO for an urgent update to its so-called "tripwire" approach, the report said. 

Financial Times quoted Stoltenberg as saying that "we never share the details of operational plans," but said NATO has been able to protect countries bordering Russia for decades.

To better protect its eastern flank, NATO plans to increase its rapid reaction troops from 40,000 to 300,000, the report said. 

But NATO attaches more importance to the interests of its 12 founding members, so it's possible that NATO may sacrifice the three Baltic countries to protect the founding members in west Europe, Song Zhongping, a Chinese military expert and TV commentator, told the Global Times. 

If countries like Lithuania provoke Russia leading to Russia launching military operations, NATO would not send  military forces to help the three Baltic countries, but more likely through offering military assistance like what they did to Ukraine, Song said. 

It's not known whether any progress in Sweden and Finland's admission into NATO will be made during the summit, but Turkey has said it is willing to delay Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO for more than a year. 

Liu Zuokui, a research fellow on European studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes that Turkey has dug a hole in the supposedly united Western camp by voicing its dissatisfaction. 

Turkey's open opposition may damage the trust between Turkey and other NATO members, deepen the internal conflicts among the members and affect NATO's decision-making system, Liu said.