Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of the NATO alliance, lashed out on Wednesday against China, accusing the country of spreading the Kremlin’s wartime narrative, shoring up Russia’s heavily-sanctioned economy and attempting to bend the rules-based world order.
“China refuses to condemn Russia’s aggression, echoes Russia’s propaganda and props up Russia’s economy,” Stoltenberg said at the end of a meeting of NATO foreign affairs ministers.
Once again, the secretary general pointedly cautioned Beijing against delivering ammunition to Moscow, a scenario that Western officials believe would constitute a game-changer in the Ukraine war.
Beijing has strenuously denied the allegations but the ever-closer links between China and Russia, as showcased last month in a cordial face-to-face meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin, have put the alliance on edge.
“Any provision of lethal aid would be a historic mistake with profound implications,” Stoltenberg said.
“So far we have not been able to confirm any provision of lethal aid but this is something that we follow very closely.”
Stoltenberg repeatedly used the expression “severe consequences” to describe the potential retaliation that NATO might take against Beijing in case lethal aid is sent to Moscow but refused to explain what these consequences would mean in practice.
“There’s no reason to go into details but China knows that there will be severe consequences,” Stoltenberg said.
The secretary-general openly criticised China for its “assertive behaviour” in the South China Sea, its crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic movement, its state apparatus of mass surveillance, its disruptive actions in cyberspace and its continued threatening rhetoric against Taiwan.
He also raised concerns about China’s investment in long-range nuclear missiles and its participation in joint patrols alongside Russian forces.
But, Stoltenberg noted, in spite of the growing tensions and plethora of friction points, NATO still does not regard the country as an “adversary.”
“China’s assertive behaviour poses a challenge to our interests, our values, to our security,” Stoltenberg added.
The question of how to engage China in the resolution of the Ukraine war has beset Western allies since Vladimir Putin decided to launch the invasion.
Beijing has adopted a deliberately ambivalent position, calling for the cessation of hostilities but without naming Russia as the aggressor. Europe and the US see this standing as effectively taking Russia’s side and have urged Beijing to voice a forceful condemnation and uphold international law.
Several European leaders, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, have recently flown to Beijing in a bid to move Xi Jinping away from Vladimir Putin’s orbit, a diplomatic outreach that has so far yielded no concrete results.
The White House, by contrast, is pursuing a more aggressive Chine policy while Kyiv is trying to set up a phone call between President Volodymr Zelenskyy and President Xi, which is yet to happen.
Speaking on Wednesday, Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s foreign affairs minister, said NATO should not become an “anti-China bloc.”