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China steps up anti-NATO rhetoric ahead of Madrid summit, citing ‘Cold War’ ethos

China is stepping up anti-NATO rhetoric ahead of the military alliance’s summit next week, calling it a “product of the Cold War” dominated by the United States, while an envoy of leader Xi Jinping is hoping to convince European leaders the country doesn’t back the Russian invasion of Ukraine, analysts said.

“NATO is a product of the Cold War and the world’s biggest military alliance dominated by the U.S.,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told journalists in Beijing on June 23, three days ahead of the summit in Madrid.

“It is a tool for the US to maintain its hegemony and influence Europe’s security landscape [which] is clearly against the trend of our times,” he said in comments reported in the English edition of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) newspaper, the People’s Daily.

Wang cast doubt on NATO’s core purpose as a defensive organization, saying it had “willfully waged wars against sovereign countries that left a large number of civilians dead and tens of millions displaced.”

“NATO has already disrupted stability in Europe. It should not try to do the same to the Asia-Pacific and the whole world,” Wang said.

Wang’s comments came after Zhang Heqing, cultural counselor at the Chinese embassy in Pakistan, commented on a video of tens of thousands of people demonstrating in Brussels against the cost-of-living crisis on June 20, claiming it was a protest against NATO.

“Tens of thousands of protesters marched in #Brussels chanting “Stop #NATO” on June 20, expressing anger at the rising living costs & condemning NATO countries’ rush to arm #Ukraine,” Zhang wrote, quote-tweeting the nationalistic Global Times newspaper.

‘Political warfare’ and ‘disinformation’

Teresa Fallon, director of Belgium’s Center for Russian, Europe and Asian Studies, said the march had had nothing to do with NATO.

“The protests had nothing at all to do with NATO, but Beijing is using this form of political warfare or disinformation in the run-up to the NATO summit which takes place next week,” Fallon told RFA.

“This type of clunky propaganda nevertheless may be believed by some people,” she said, adding that China shares its view of NATO with its ally Russia.

The stepped-up rhetoric appears somewhat at odds with apparent attempts by the CCP under Xi Jinping to mollify European leaders, sending special envoy Wu Hongbo to meet with key figures ahead of the NATO summit.

“Dispatching his special envoy to Europe for a three-week charm tour was just one of many acts of high-stakes damage control ahead of the 20th CCP Congress this autumn,” Atlantic Council president Frederick Kempe wrote in a commentary for CNBC ahead of the summit.

“Xi’s economy is dangerously slowing, financing for his Belt and Road Initiative has tanked, his zero-Covid policy is flailing, and his continued support of Russian President Vladimir Putin hangs like a cloud over his claim of being the world’s premier national-sovereignty champion as Russia’s war on Ukraine grinds on,” Kempe wrote.

“Xi’s taking no chances ahead of one of his party’s most important gatherings, a meeting designed to assure his continued rule and his place in history,” the article said, citing recent meetings between Wu and European business leaders as evidence of a more conciliatory approach by Xi.

Fallon agreed.

“I would say that there is a disillusionment across the board with China,” she said. “Beijing is attempting a diplomatic dance where they try to convince Europeans that they really aren’t supporting Russia.”

“In reality, they are talking out of both sides of their mouth, trying to tell the Europeans one thing, while at the same time supporting Russia,” she said, adding that Beijing is the biggest customer for Russian energy, and those sales contribute to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s war coffers.

Problems at home

Craig Singleton, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, said Beijing’s current foreign policy is largely driven by pressing problems at home.

“Global public opinion of China sits at record lows and Chinese leader Xi Jinping refuses to leave the country to meet with other world leaders,” Singleton told RFA. “Making matters worse is that China’s economy, long in decline, is really now in freefall on account of Xi’s financial mismanagement.”

“This most recent outreach to EU capitals is reflective of growing recognition in Beijing that its wolf-warrior tactics have undermined China’s economic position with Europe, one of China’s most important trading partners, and that China needs the European market and European consumers to help get itself out of its current economic mess,” he said.

While Germany’s current government had sent a number of “mixed signals” about its views on China since taking office, Berlin would likely ultimately rethink its relationship with Beijing, as it has already done with Moscow since the invasion of Ukraine, Singleton said.

“China’s attempts to reset its relationship will be seen in Europe as insincere and likely leading to a continued erosion of the relationship,” he added.

“Making matters worse is that European frustrations with China’s equivocations on Russia and Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, [so] anger is growing against China from lots of European capitals, and there is no indication that China is rethinking its support for Russia’s invasion,” he said.

Singleton said the growing willingness of European countries to enhance trade and investment ties with democratic Taiwan in recent months “will almost certainly irritate Beijing,” and lead it to lash out in ways that were inimical to its own foreign policy goals in Europe.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.