Nato leaders designated China as presenting “systemic challenges” in a communiqué issued after a one-day summit in Brussels on June 14, as US President Joe Biden continued his tour through Europe to meet with other Western leaders to put the US back on the map following the lack of engagement during the Trump years.
Biden arrived from the G7 summit in the UK and is due to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 16. He is attempting to enter that meeting with the solid backing of Western nations to bring about an end to the instability that has marred international relations in recent years.
Biden also had a one-on-one meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for whom Biden's defeat of Donald Trump in the US election was a blow. Erdogan, forced to recognise the reality that the Oval Office is now occupied by a man who has referred to him as an "autocrat", has been reaching out to Washington in an effort to remake relations between Turkey and the US. Turkey's economy is in a debilitated state, thus Erdogan badly needed a 'win' from his meeting with Biden to secure a shot in the arm for Turkish markets. But nothing telling was uttered by either Erdogan or Biden after their exchange. The Turkish lira slid 1% against the dollar even as Erdogan, addressing reporters, tried to put a positive spin on the outcome of the head to head.
The upcoming summit between Putin and Biden later this week was another item on the agenda during the Brussels summit. Biden said that he had overwhelming support from the other western leaders for his early meeting with Putin.
“I’ve met him. In the areas we don't agree to make it clear where the red lines are. I’ve met him. He is bright. He is tough. And he is what they call a worthy adversary,” Biden said at a press conference.
China overshadows summit
But the Russia problem has been thrown into the shadow of the China difficulties as Biden seems to be refocusing US policy to counter China’s rise rather than grapple with the Kremlin. Biden urged his fellow Nato leaders to stand up to China's authoritarianism and growing military might.
Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also met with Biden and took up the baton. He said China's growing military presence from the Baltics to Africa meant nuclear-armed Nato had to be prepared.
Stoltenberg said that the meeting would be a pivotal moment for the Alliance and a time to “open a new chapter in our transatlantic relations.” Stoltenberg laid out a full agenda for the meeting, including Nato’s relations with Russia, which he said were “at [their] lowest point since the Cold War because of Russia’s pattern of aggressive behaviour”, as well as China, which offers opportunities but “also poses some challenges to our security”.
"China is coming closer to us. We see them in cyberspace, we see China in Africa, but we also see China investing heavily in our own critical infrastructure," he said, in a reference to ports and telecoms networks. "We need to respond together as an alliance."
China was not happy about being the focus of the summit, although Putin was probably somewhat relieved that the opprobrium has shifted from Moscow to Beijing somewhat.
China's embassy in London said it was resolutely opposed to mentions of Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan that it said distorted the facts and exposed the "sinister intentions of a few countries such as the United States".
"China's reputation must not be slandered," the embassy said on June 14.
Biden also told European allies that the alliance's mutual defence pact was a "sacred obligation" for the US. Biden went out of his way to reaffirm the US commitment to Nato’s Article V that guarantees the mutual protection of all the bloc's members – something that his predecessor Trump was reluctant to do.
"I want all Europe to know that the United States is there," said Biden. "Nato is critically important to us.”
Turkey is tricky
Apart from the US, Turkey has the largest standing army signed up to Nato, but what Ankara's role in Nato will be moving ahead is yet to be ascertained. Biden will almost certainly have advised Erdogan that Turkey's acquisition of Russian S-400 missile defence systems that pose a threat to the security and performance data of Nato military hardware such as the world's most advanced fighter plane, the F-35, remains intolerable to Washington, but there is no indication that Erdogan would risk upsetting Putin by attempting to return or sideline the systems, even though his air force, in need of an upgrade, has taken a bad hit with the US cancellation of Turkish orders for scores of the F-35s.
Some analysts have even speculated that Erdogan, faced with getting little from Biden, who like Europe is also dismayed by his abysmal human rights record, might give up on the US and EU relationships and attempt to move much closer to the Kremlin. But Turkey is at a critical juncture of Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia and serves as a buffer against migrants who would otherwise arrive in Europe in their hundreds of thousands, and the Biden administration and the European bloc would think very hard before choosing not to accommodate Erdogan in some way.
After his encounter with Erdogan, a leader whom he chose not to place a call to in the first months of his administration, Biden said he had a “positive and productive meeting”. He expressed confidence that his administration would make “real progress” in improving US-Turkish relations.
For his part, Erdogan said that Turkey and the US have no bilateral problems that cannot be solved, even while he gave no indication of progress on the biggest stalemate, Turkey’s purchase of the Russian missile systems. Calling the meeting “productive and sincere” and emphasising his long years of friendship with the US leader, Erdogan said the discussion stressed the need for better dialogue, set a positive tone for the future and covered co-operation in areas such as Syria.
“We see that there is a strong will to start an efficient co-operation period based on mutual respect in every area,” he added.
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, at her last summit of the alliance before she steps down in September, described Biden's arrival as the opening of a new chapter. She also said that it was important to deal with China as a potential threat, while keeping things in perspective.
"If you look at the cyber threats and the hybrid threats, if you look at the co-operation between Russia and China, you cannot simply ignore China," Merkel told reporters. "But one must not overrate it, either – we need to find the right balance.”
Biden said both Russia and China were not acting "in a way that is consistent with what we had hoped".
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was unhappy that he was not invited to the Nato summit, as he continues his campaign to get the allies to commit to a definite schedule for Ukraine’s ambition to join the military alliance.
Ukraine was explicitly mentioned in the G7 communiqué that ended on June 14 with many of the same attendees, with the collected leaders reiterating their support for the country and its sovereignty.
Ukraine was almost certainly discussed at the Nato summit, although there is still no commitment to allowing it to join the alliance, a move that remains a red line for Russia.
Zelenskiy said on June 14 that he wanted a clear “yes” or “no” from Biden on giving Ukraine a plan to join Nato.
In a joint interview with Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse, Zelenskiy said he had received assurances that Biden would not use Ukraine as a bargaining tool in his meeting with Putin this week.
But Biden has already thrown Ukraine under the bus to an extent by conceding to Germany’s demands that the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline be completed. It will allow the Russian gas transit business directed west to entirely bypass Ukraine and cost it some $2bn in transit revenues a year as a result.
Biden was asked if Ukraine will be allowed to join Nato in future at the press conference and fudged the answer. "Depends on whether they meet the criteria. The fact is, they still have to clean up corruption...school’s out on that question,” Biden replied.
The same line was floated by German lawmakers two weeks ago: Ukraine will be allowed to apply for membership once it meets the “criteria” and specifically deals with its corruption problem.
However, these “criteria” are not spelled out or defined in any way other than “deal with the outstanding problems.” Zelenskiy has been calling for something more specific: the country's inclusion in the Nato Membership Action Plan (MAP), where the criteria to join the alliance are spelled out in detail and monitored.
Zelenskiy welcomed Biden’s comments but read more into them than they offered.
“Commend @Nato partners' understanding of all the risks and challenges we face. Nato leaders confirmed that will become a member of the Alliance & the #MAP is an integral part of the membership process. Deserves due appreciation of its role in ensuring Euro-Atlantic security,” Zelenskiy said in a tweet.
Previously, following a call between Biden and Zelenskiy last week, the White House had to ask Bankova to tone down a similar tweet that suggested Biden had promised Ukraine membership in Nato during the call.
"Commend @NATO partners' understanding of all the risks and challenges we face," he wrote. "NATO leaders confirmed that will become a member of the Alliance,” Zelenskiy had initially tweeted.
Biden then said at a press conference following the conversation that Nato would stand behind Ukraine's "sovereignty and territorial integrity," but didn't mention the country joining the alliance. It quickly became clear that Ukraine had overstated what happened by not including when the country might be admitted.
Nevertheless, Biden has thrown his weight behind Ukraine’s struggle against Russia, albeit on more informal terms and with caveats.
"We will do all that we can to put Ukraine in the position to be able to continue to resist Russian physical aggression," he said during the June 14 press conference. "And it will not just depend on me, whether or not we conclude that Ukraine can become part of Nato, it will depend on the alliance and how they vote."