The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) recently targeted China in a strongly worded warning, declaring that the nation poses a constant security challenge, is trying to undermine world order, and is working on nuclear missile development at a worrisome pace.
Hitting back at the statement, the Chinese mission to the European Union on Tuesday denounced the NATO statement that declared Beijing a "security challenge," saying China is actually a force for peace but will defend itself if threatened.
In a joint statement at the close of their summit, NATO members vowed to address a range of traditional and evolving security challenges, including several posed by China.
"In the age of global competition Europe and North America must stand up against authoritarian regimes like Russia and China," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a speech, rounding up the summit.
The exchange came a day after the Chinese embassy in Britain hit back at the G7 for "political manipulation" after the group criticised China's human rights record.
What is NATO?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an alliance of European and North American countries formed after World War II as a bulwark against Russian aggression, as per The Associated Press. Its original members were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
It originally had 12 members, but now has 30 - made up of European countries and the US and Canada, according to the BBC.
Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO's first Secretary-General had famously said the Alliance's purpose was "to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down".
According to The Time, the military alliance was intended to rebuild Europe from the rubble of World War II and to act as a buffer against Soviet aggression.
In the past, NATO has said that its policy toward Russia is based on two pillars: strong military deterrence and dialogue. But high-level meetings between the two historic foes are rare.
NATO's official website says that for more than two decades, it had worked to build a partnership with Russia, developing dialogue and practical cooperation in areas of common interest. However, practical cooperation has been suspended since 2014 in response to Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, but political and military channels of communication remain open.
In early March 2014, tensions increased between NATO and Russia as a result of the Ukrainian crisis and Russia's move to annex Crimea. The organisation urged Russia to stop its actions and said it supported Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty.
On 1 April 2014, NATO issued a statement by NATO foreign ministers that announced it had "decided to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between NATO and Russia".
Already in recent years, member nations like the United States and its allies have deployed troops and equipment in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland to try to reassure those members neighboring Russia that their partners will ride to the rescue should they come under attack.
Top NATO brass insists that the military exercises, involving some 9,000 troops from 20 nations, are not aimed at Russia specifically, but they focus on the Black Sea region, where Russia stands accused of blocking the free navigation of ships.
President Joe Biden used his first appearance at a NATO summit since taking office to call on Russian President Vladimir Putin to step back from provocative actions targeting the US and its allies on Monday. NATO leaders joined the United States in formally accusing Moscow and Beijing of malign actions.
Biden's sharp words for Russia and his friendly interactions with NATO allies marked a sharp shift in tone from the past four years and highlighted the renewed US commitment to the 30-country alliance that was frequently maligned by predecessor Donald Trump. Former president Donald Trump attacked NATO on a regular basis, questioning both the relevancy and the effectiveness of the decades-old alliance and even threatened to pull the US out of the alliance.
Biden said that in his extensive talks with NATO leaders about his planned meeting with Putin on Wednesday (16 June), all were supportive of his plans to press the Russian leader to halt Russian-originated cyber attacks against the West, end the violent stifling of political dissidents and stop interfering in elections outside its borders.
Focus shift from Russia to China
So why is the military alliance, which is known for its anti-Russain stance, now focusing on China too? The new Brussels communique states plainly that the NATO nations "will engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the alliance."
The language on China was the most hotly watched topic ahead of the summit " as NATO under pressure from Washington increasingly directed more attention to Beijing.
Military tensions have increased over the past year between China and rival powers including the United States and India, with flashpoints like the Himalayan border, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
China's military budget " the second largest in the world after the US, though still less than a third of Washington's -- is set to increase by 6.8 percent in 2021, the finance ministry announced in March.
Beijing has also poured billions into its space programme in a bid to make up ground on pioneers Russia and the United States.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the allies would seek to cooperate with China on global issues like climate change " but decried Beijing's increasingly assertive stance on other issues.
Why is NATO focusing on China?
According to the summit's communiquÃ© (concluding statement), China's "stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security".
The references to China represent a victory for President Joe Biden, who was attending his first NATO summit as president, as per CNBC. 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.
At Biden's urging, NATO leaders agreed to work together against the "systemic challenges" posed by China's aggressive policies as the alliance fleshed out its nascent approach to Beijing.
China's increasingly assertive actions in building a nuclear arsenal as well as space and cyber warfare capabilities threaten the international order, they said in a statement.
Stoltenberg said the allies would seek to cooperate with China on global issues like climate change, as European capitals wanted. But, in a nod to Washington's growing concern, he warned: "China's growing influence and international policies present challenges to Alliance security", reports AFP.
However, NATO's pivot to China, as opposed to a laser focus on Russia, is not necessarily a welcome change for everyone. There were differences among the allies about how forcefully to criticize Beijing.
Germany, France urge caution as allies shift focus to China
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said NATO's decision to name China as a threat "shouldn't be overstated" because Beijing, like Russia, is also a partner in some areas. China is Germany's top trading partner, and she said it is important to "find the right balance."
While France's President Emmanuel Macron urged the alliance not to let China distract it from what he saw as more pressing issues facing NATO, including the fight against terrorism and security issues related to Russia. "I think it is very important not to scatter our efforts and not to have biases in our relation to China," Macron said.
Even NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday said there is no new Cold War with China but the western allies will have to adapt to the challenge of Beijing's rise.
"We're not entering a new Cold War and China is not our adversary, not our enemy," Stoltenberg told reports after a NATO leaders' summit. "But we need to address together, as the alliance, the challenges that the rise of China poses to our security."
Nato has also become increasingly concerned about the growing military capabilities of China, which it sees as a threat to the security and democratic values of its members, reports BBC. In recent years, the alliance has also grown wary of China's activities in Africa, where it has set up army bases
With inputs from agencies