“We do not seek conflict with China; on the contrary, we want to avoid it,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Romania. “We don’t want a new Cold War; we’re not looking to decouple our economies. We’re simply looking to be clear-eyed about some of the challenges that China poses and … to make sure that, in addressing those challenges, we’re doing it with others.”
Blinken and other foreign ministers across the trans-Atlantic alliance spent much of their time in Bucharest preoccupied with the war in neighboring Ukraine. Yet Western leaders have acknowledged a growing unease about China in recent years, one underscored from afar by “a new joint aerial patrol in the Asia-Pacific region” of Russian and Chinese bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
“The air task force composed of Tu-95MS strategic missile-carrying bombers of the Russian Aerospace Forces and Hong-6K strategic bombers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army conducted an aerial patrol over the waters of the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea,” the Russian Defense Ministry said Wednesday. “For the first time in the history of aerial patrolling, Russian aircraft landed at an airfield in the People’s Republic of China and Chinese planes landed at an airfield on the territory of the Russian Federation.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping‘s relationship was dramatized most notably through a meeting of the two leaders at the Beijing Olympics just weeks before Putin launched his campaign to overthrow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Xi and Putin called then for a “transformation of the global governance architecture and world order,” and Chinese officials provided rhetorical support to Putin over the last year, while U.S. and other Western officials have worked to deter China from sending weaponry to Russia.
“We do not see China as an adversary. We will continue to engage with China when it is in our interests, not least to convey our united position on Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a Wednesday press conference. “Today, ministers considered China’s ambitious military developments, its technological advances, and its growing cyber and hybrid activities.”
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made that point more forcefully this week by forcing a Chinese state-owned nuclear company to abandon its role in a British power plant project.
“Let’s be clear, the so-called golden era is over, along with the naive idea that trade would lead to social and political reform,” Sunak said Monday. “But nor should we rely on simplistic Cold War rhetoric. We recognize China poses a systemic challenge to our values and interests, a challenge that grows more acute as it moves toward even greater authoritarianism.”
That language echoed the European Union’s characterization of China as a “systemic rival” to the West, a formation first unfurled in 2019, although it did not stop EU leaders from attempting to finalize a major investment deal with China the following year.
“What I’ve seen, not only at NATO but also, for example, with the European Union, as well as in other parts of the world, is a growing convergence in the approach to the challenges that China poses,” Blinken said. “This is not about taking NATO to Asia or, in the parlance of NATO, acting out-of-area. This is about some of the challenges that China poses in-area to countries that are members of NATO and making sure that, for example, we’re building resilience around our infrastructure.”