NATO’s Vilnius summit steps up focus on the


Before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, NATO’s main source of fame in recent years was as a perennial target of Donald Trump’s invective.

“Here’s the problem with NATO: it’s obsolete,” Trump told a campaign rally in 2016, adding: “[I] don’t know that much about it, but I learn quickly.”

As United States president, Trump repeatedly lambasted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization members over their defence spending and privately told aides he wanted to withdraw from NATO, which was formed in 1949 as an alliance against the Soviet Union.

Trump’s onslaught left the organisation, which had struggled for relevance since the end of the Cold War, under intense pressure. Without the US, which now has 100,000 troops in Europe and an estimated 100 nuclear weapons at six bases across the continent, Europe’s security blanket would be in tatters.

Jens Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway who has been NATO secretary-general since 2014, was in the unenviable position of needing to try to placate Trump. At a summit in Brussels in 2018, he urged NATO members to increase defence spending, and he then began to find a common cause with the White House over its other major foreign policy irritation: China.

White House officials wanted NATO to respond to “Chinese strategic competition”, warning the US might stop co-operating with NATO members if they adopted Chinese technology that could be vulnerable to espionage.

The demands split NATO members: some backed Washington’s calls to label China an emerging rival, others, including eastern European countries that wanted to keep the alliance’s focus on Russia, were more cautious.

In 2019, at a summit in London, Stoltenberg united the organisation’s 29 members in a historical call. For the first time, NATO’s summit declaration raised concerns about China’s “growing influence and international policies”.

Stoltenberg insisted – he still does – that the alliance did not see China as an enemy and was not planning on “moving NATO into the South China Sea”, but he said China needed to be viewed as a potential threat.

“The rise of China is fundamentally changing the global balance of power,” he said. “NATO has to address the consequences, the security consequences.”

Yet, it is fair to say NATO’s historic shift towards China and the Indo-Pacific, and its call for co-operation with Pacific allies such as Australia, attracted little public attention at the time. Outside the theatrics of Trump’s attacks, NATO, to most observers, was at risk of becoming a Cold War relic.

And then, suddenly, on February 24 last year, everything changed.

A primary motivation for the Russian president’s decision to send up to 200,000 soldiers into Ukraine was to prevent NATO gaining a foothold in Ukraine. Putin had long railed against NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe and demanded that NATO remove its forces from there and the Baltic States. But this objective – like so many other features of Putin’s ill-fated war – has been a cataclysmic failure.

Russia’s invasion plunged Europe into its biggest military conflict since World War II, uniting the US and Europe in a bid to block Putin and deter future aggression. And so NATO was thrust out of obsolescence (even Trump leapt in to take credit for NATO’s existence, saying “There would be no NATO if I didn’t act strongly and swiftly.”).

The war prompted Sweden and Finland, which had previously maintained military neutrality, to apply to join the alliance. Finland joined in April; Sweden is now also set to join after Türkiye’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was urging Sweden to crack down on Kurdish militants, this week withdrew his objections.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who attended the NATO summit in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, this week, has also urged the alliance to accelerate his country’s application to join. NATO on Tuesday refused to put a time line on Ukraine’s membership bid, which would risk a ferocious response from Moscow – including the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons – and would require NATO countries to come to Ukraine’s defence and directly engage with Russian troops.

But Putin’s war has not only reinvigorated NATO – it has also added to the alliance’s concerns about China. Days before the invasion, Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, where the two leaders committed to a “no-limits friendship”. Xi then refused to condemn the war, criticised the sanctions against Russia and declined to speak to Zelensky until April this year, despite repeated talks with Putin.

For NATO, this disappointing response from Beijing added to the sense that the war is part of a broader conflict between democracies and authoritarians.

Stoltenberg has warned China is “watching closely to see the price Russia pays” and to determine the cost of waging its own military offensive, presumably against Taiwan.

“What is happening in Europe today could happen in Asia tomorrow,” he told the Munich Security Conference in February.

And so, last year, NATO invited the leaders of Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand to participate in a summit for the first time. The four are all staunch backers of Ukraine, which warranted their invitation. But NATO also wanted to send a message about its growing concerns about China. At the summit, in Madrid, NATO went further than its 2019 declaration and presented China as a strategic challenge, saying Beijing’s “coercive policies” challenge the Western bloc’s “interests, security and values”.

The four Indo-Pacific leaders, including Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, again attended this week’s summit in Vilnius.

Welcoming Albanese, Stoltenberg said: “What happens in Europe matters for the Pacific. This is demonstrated by the ongoing war in Ukraine, which has global ramifications.”

But NATO’s growing focus on the Indo-Pacific region has prompted pushback. French President Emmanuel Macron, who has previously warned that “China has little to do with the North Atlantic”, reportedly opposed a proposal to open an office in Japan, which would have marked NATO’s first presence in Asia.

And former Australian prime minister Paul Keating released a statement before the Vilnius summit, describing Stoltenberg as a “supreme fool” for seeking to deepen ties with Australia and other Indo-Pacific partners. Keating, who has lashed out at the Albanese government’s approach to China and repeatedly claimed that Beijing does not threaten Australia or the existing world order, said Stoltenberg had been doing the bidding of the US to try to ensure China was “superintended by the West and strategically circumscribed”.

In Berlin on Monday, Albanese defended Stoltenberg – describing him as a “friend of Australia” – and would not respond directly to Keating’s comments. He then travelled to the NATO summit in Vilnius, which, as in the heady days of the Cold War, was at the centre of the world’s attention.

As Putin’s war drags on, NATO is far from obsolete. And Albanese clearly believes Australia can benefit by shifting NATO’s attention eastwards and encouraging it to draw global lessons from the war in Ukraine.

Arriving in Vilnius, Albanese gave a brief statement to reporters. “In today’s interconnected and globalised world, what occurs in NATO countries also has an impact on the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

“Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion … is a reminder of why we need to be engaged and to shape the future rather than allow it to shape us. And that is why Australia is here.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
July 15, 2023 as “NATO’s Vilnius summit steps up focus on the Indo-Pacific”.

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