Transcript: ‘China is coming closer to us’ — Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general

This is the edited transcript of a conversation between Jens Stoltenberg, Nato secretary-general, Roula Khalaf, Financial Times editor, and Henry Foy, FT European diplomatic correspondent, which took place on October 14 in Brussels.

Financial Times: The US economic and security focus is on China — and little else. But where does Nato fit in? Does Nato have to also pivot? If not, how do you maintain Nato’s relevance?

Jens Stoltenberg: If anything, the rise of China makes Nato more needed, more important, also for the United States. I’ve been many times in all my discussions with American politicians, Congress members and so on. The message is that they are concerned about the rise of China, but they also then realise that, if anything, it is a great advantage for the United States to have friends and allies. It’s good to have friends.

That was one of the main messages in my speech to the US Congress back in 2019. It was that in a more unpredictable or more uncertain world — and where the global balance of power is shifting — then for great power to have 29 friends and allies is a huge advantage. I feel that the United States understands that. So, it’s in the security interest of the United States to build alliances.

Nato’s not something that they do to be nice to Europe. Nato is in the interest of the United States, as it is in the interest of Europe to stand together with North America.

FT: But for the rest of Nato, the significance of what we’re referring to as the new cold war is completely different. The primary concern is still Russia.

JS: Of course, we are 30 allies and there are differences on many issues, including on analysis and assessments about China. At the same time, we have come a long way on China in Nato. The first time we mentioned China is in the communique, the statement from the Nato summit in London in December 2019. Before that, China was not mentioned in any policy document.

There is one sentence saying that the rise of China poses opportunities and challenges for Nato, which we have to address together.

That was a significant step for Nato. Then, this summer we actually agreed a lot of common language and I expect that when we meet in Madrid the rise of China, the impact of China and the shifting the balance of power has on Nato will be thoroughly addressed in the new strategic concept, among other topics. China is not mentioned in one single word in Nato’s current strategic concept.

FT: What do you mean by “thoroughly addressed”?

JS: I expect that China will be an important part of the strategic concept . . . China’s coming closer to us. The 5G discussion demonstrates that. In the beginning, most allies regarded 5G as a solely commercial issue. After discussions among allies at Nato, all allies realise that this is something that has security implications. This also happened just over the last couple of years. That was something that happened in Europe, in our own countries.

FT: Will China be elevated to one of or THE biggest challenge?

JS: No, because I’m very much against this kind of ranking effects and challenges because they are so different. Secondly, because we have all been very bad at predicting the next crisis before, so why should we be able to do that now?

We have to be prepared for the unforeseen, but to try to see the unforeseen I think is a very difficult task. So, hardly anyone predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, or 9/11, or the annexation of Crimea. These have been pivotal things for all of us. So, I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to look into the future, but that’s a very difficult task, regardless of whether you try to look into the security environment or [otherwise].

What we can predict is that the rise of China will impact our security. It already has. What is hard to predict is exactly in what way and what will be the next precise or concrete challenges we will be faced with. But Nato has come a long way in recognising that China matters for our security.

We don’t regard China as an enemy or an adversary. We strongly believe it’s necessary to engage with China. There are opportunities. The rise of China has been important to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It’s important for our economies. We need to engage with China on issues like climate change or arms control.

But at the same time, they now have the second largest defence budget in the world. They have the biggest navy in the world. They will soon have the biggest economy in the world. They coerce their neighbours. We see how they are behaving in the South China Sea and they actually bully countries which are not behaving as they want.

You have seen the way they have treated Canada, Australia and my own country, Norway, when the Norwegian Peace Prize committee awarded the Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident.

FT: And Lithuania.

JS: Yes, Lithuania. So, we need to find that balance between seeing the opportunities but also the challenges and prepare for both of them.

FT: What can Nato bring to the table?

JS: So, first of all, this is what we do together — North America and Europe. So, it’s not about we supporting the US. I don’t like this idea of pivot because that sounds like we’re moving away from something. The reality is that Nato is moving home to address global challenges. Nato is an alliance of North America and Europe, but this region faces global challenges. Terrorism, cyber, but also the rise of China.

So, when it comes to strengthening our collective defence that’s also about how to address the rise of China. When we, for instance, now make technology an important thing for Nato it’s about addressing almost all the challenges we see, but also including that China is investing heavily in new disruptive technologies . . . 

Part of what we do to strengthen Nato, part of this fundamental shift from focus outside, also combat operations out of area, to building security at home.

Also, I mentioned technology. China is coming closer to us . . . for instance, in Africa. We see them in the Arctic. We see them in cyber space. We see China investing heavily in critical infrastructure in our countries. Of course, the fact that they have more and more longer-range weapons that can reach all Nato allied countries . . . They are building many, many silos for long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles.

So, again, I think this whole idea of in a way distinguishing so much between China, Russia, either Asia-Pacific or Europe, it’s one big security environment and we have to address it all together. What we do on the readiness, on technology, on cyber, on resilience matters for all districts? We don’t put the label. It’s about strengthening our alliance to any potential threat.

FT: It must frustrating for you to hear Nato described as being in existential crisis, or — as some say — braindead. What is Nato’s relevance today?

JS: To protect all allies and, in uncertain times, it’s even more important to have strong international institutions like Nato. “One for all, all for one” has been the core message, the core policy of Nato for more than 70 years. But of course, the success of Nato is that we have changed when the world changed.

We have been the most successful alliance in history for two reasons. Our ability to stand together and to change. For 40 years, we did one thing and that was to deter the Soviet Union. I grew up in the Cold War and Norway bordered the Soviet Union and it was very well-defined.

Then actually, after the Cold War ended and then it was stated that either Nato has to go out of business or out of area. And we went out of area. Nato helped to end the two ethnic wars in the Balkans. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. That was not obvious in ’89, but we went in the mid-90s and then we did something we had never done before. It was the first time we had ever fired a shot, it was in the Balkans.

Then we changed Nato fundamentally. We helped to stabilise our closest neighbourhood and end two ethnic wars. Then 9/11 changed Nato totally again. Because since then we have been at the forefront fighting terrorism. Not only Afghanistan, but in Iraq and many other places. In the global coalition to defeat Daesh. Now, we are changing again.

FT: To what?

JS: We are reducing, we are scaling down what we do out of Nato territory. We are significantly scaling up what we do within our territory. Meaning we have since 2014 implemented the biggest reinforcement of our collective defence since the end of the Cold War.

For the first time in many years, all allies are investing more in defence. We have to remember that until 2014 all allies reduced defence spending. Now, for seven consecutive years allies have increased defence spending. That adds a lot to our collective defence. We have tripled the size of the Nato response force.

For the first time in our history, we have combat-ready troops in the eastern part of the alliance, in the Baltic countries and Poland. Then we invest in technology. We change our command structure. We do all of this. We have established cyber as a military domain alongside air, sea, land and space.

All of that is a fundamental shift for Nato, away from crisis management outside our borders to collective defence in Europe.

That collective defence responds to many threats and challenges. Because this whole idea that we either look to Russia, or to China, or to somewhere else, it’s the wrong way. Because it goes together. First of all, China and Russia work closely together. Second, when we invest more in technology, when we increase our collective defence and develop technology, that’s about both of them.

FT: Europeans are talking a lot more about strategic autonomy and building up European defence. Sometimes that sounds to me as something that would be parallel to Nato. Is it needed?

JS: There are many different interpretations of European defence. Since 2014, we have been able to lift Nato/EU co-operation to unprecedented levels. I strongly believe in Nato and the EU working together. We meet. I have a very close working relationship with President Ursula von der Leyen, with President Charles Michel, with a lot of European leaders. I participate regularly in different EU meetings, including with the EU Commission or the European Council and we invite them to Nato meetings.

We are working on cyber. We have a Nato presence in the Aegean Sea. In Kosovo, we are working more closely with the EU now than ever.

FT: So, you don’t consider this a concern?

JS: No, but it depends on what you mean by European defence . . . Any meaningful strengthening of European defence has to mean more defence spending. There is one institution that has pushed for more defence spending and that is Nato. The good news is that European allies are spending more.

FT: Isn’t there a problem that the French are building more French tanks, the Italians are building more Italian helicopters, the Poles are building more Polish rocket launchers and they don’t talk to each other unless Nato is there?

JS: But these are national defence budgets, so they are available for all kinds of operations and missions. But of course, European defence is about what European allies do and how much they invest. There’s no way you can have strong European defence without more European defence spending. That was a Nato decision in 2014. Nato has been not only welcoming, but actually actively pushing for that.

The other part of European defence I strongly welcome is of course new capabilities. Nato has precise capability targets where we agreed [on] so many planes, so many drones and so many battle tanks and so on. Of course, we urge all allies to meet those targets and we develop them together.

I also welcome EU defence efforts on capability developments and therefore, I suppose for instance, the European Defence Fund, PESCO. These are instruments to develop new nationally-owned capabilities.

You’re right, there are challenges. For instance, the United States, they have many battle tanks, but they have one type. In Europe, there are many fewer battle tanks and nine different types. So, of course, the cost per unit is so much higher. It’s the same for frigates, for planes, for armoured vehicles.

This is a message not only for me, but also from the European Union. They need to address the fragmentation of the European defence industry. Of course, whatever the EU can do to help us to increase defence spending, provide new capabilities and address the fragmentation of the European defence industry. Again, strongly support it and called for by Nato for years.

The good news is we are moving in the right direction. Nato and the EU are working together and we should not create any kind of contradiction, actually this is something we actually work on and address together.

What we should avoid is duplication and competition. Therefore, what we need is not new structures and increased demand for existing capabilities. We need more capabilities. More new capabilities. It doesn’t help in a way to just move around the same capabilities. But I have been assured many times by European leaders that they don’t want this.

FT: Do you trust them when they say that?

JS: There’s not any meaning in the EU competing with Nato because more than 90 per cent of the people living in the European Union, they live in a Nato country. So, I’m confident that European allies see the need for complementarity.

FT: But the problem eastern countries have with this talk of autonomy from [Emmanuel] Macron and others is that they ultimately don’t trust a Brussels Franco-German-led defence as much as they trust an American-led one.

JS: The whole idea with Nato is that we should all come and defend Latvia, Riga, or Lithuania, but of course the United States being the biggest ally will carry the biggest burden. But one of the reasons why we have deployed battle groups in the Baltic countries is that, of course, there are around a thousand in each battle group. But perhaps the most important thing is that they are multinational.

Nato is already there. One US-led, one UK, one Canadian-led and then one German. So, of course, that makes a huge difference and the idea is that we should all come to assist one ally under attack.

Of course, 80 per cent of Nato’s defence expenditures come from non-EU allies. That is how it is today. We would like European allies as EU members to invest more and that will of course change that ratio. We have been pushing for better burden share for a long time, but currently 80 per cent.

FT: What do you make of the debate over a European army?

JS: There are different interpretations of what that means. I’ve seen that Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and also Ursula von der Leyen when she was defence minister, she spoke not about a European army, but an army of the Europeans.

If this means more European soldiers, battleships, drones, fighter jets then it’s something we strongly welcome and urge. If it means new structures competing for the same capabilities then it will undermine our security. But I have been assured that is not the plan.

So, we don’t need new structures. What we need is additional new capabilities and the way to address that, to get that, is more spending and address the fragmentation of the European defence industry. I hope that PESCO and the European Defence Fund can do that . . . Let’s discuss the concrete proposals.

FT: What lessons did you draw for Nato from the Afghanistan withdrawal?

JS: We have started a lessons-learnt process at Nato. We had to be clear and honest and I will not prejudge that process . . . Of course, one lesson is that it is easier to start a military operation than to end it. So, there then has to be always a high threshold for any use of military force.

At the same time, we have to be prepared for situations in the future where we use military force outside of our territory, as we, for instance, did recently in the fight against Daesh. Nato allies, Nato as part of the global coalition, defeated or liberated the territory that was controlled by Isis in Iraq and Syria by the use of military force. There was no other option.

We should have a high threshold. We have to realise that if we go in with military force there is always a difficult challenge about how to end that operation. But the conclusion cannot be that we never use military force because as late as Iraq and Syria we saw the need.

Our main task was to fight terrorism and for 20 years we have prevented any terrorist attack being organised from Afghanistan. We degraded al-Qaeda and we will continue to stay vigilant to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for international terrorists. That was the main task — to fight terrorism.

Something we did together with the UN, the EU and allies was to try to build a democratic, stable Afghanistan. That was much harder, but then we need to learn some lessons together as a whole international community. Because when it comes to democratic reform, fighting corruption, we helped the international community to do that by providing security, but that was something we all did together.

FT: There was nothing that you could do about the US decision and timing of the withdrawal even if you disagreed, so aren’t there lessons there?

JS: We had close consultations on the decision to end our military mission in Afghanistan. We had three ministerial meetings. I chaired them. We had many ambassadorial meetings. Of course, there were different views, but because we all realised we were faced with a very hard and difficult dilemma, either to leave and risk the Taliban coming back — we were clear about that — or stay but then risk an open-ended military mission with more casualties.

FT: Europeans would have stayed?

JS: The reality was that I think we all realised the risks with both options, but when the United States — after consulting with allies — decided to end the US presence in Afghanistan it was obvious that also European allies also would come to the same conclusion. Partly because, of course, the US has the strongest and most capabilities . . . Of course, European allies and Canada have capabilities. But I think fundamentally more important was the political aspect . . . Politically, I regard it as absolutely unrealistic if I was a national decision maker to go to my parliament and my people and to say that the United States have left, they have ended their mission, we went in there to protect the United States — who invoked Article 5, the United States — they have now left.

FT: What should Nato be doing on climate change?

JS: We have decided to do is to make climate change an important task for Nato because climate change fuels conflicts. So, it increases competition over scarce resources . . . Climate change matters for our security therefore it matters for Nato.

We will help to reduce emissions from member states. We see that member states are investing in everything from biofuels for their jet planes to solar panels to power camps and equipment and many other energy-efficient vehicles and so on.

At the end of the day, nations have to decide the precise numbers. But of course, there is no way to reach net zero without including the military or armed forces.

In Paris, we agreed to include the different fuels and so on used by the military. The military is — at least in theory — part of the Paris Agreement. But what we need is actually proper systems for mapping military emissions . . . We are now in the process with the best experts to develop a system for mapping military emissions. The statistics have not been easily available.

In parallel with that . . . some work is done to also help to develop new and greener technologies. The important message is we need green technologies that are not undermining the effect or the strength of our military capabilities. We cannot have green battle tanks that are not moving fast enough, or jet planes that don’t reach a sufficient speed.

FT: What was your reaction to the Aukus deal that unnerved France so much?

JS: I understand that France is disappointed . . . But at the same time, this is an agreement which is not directed against Europe or Nato. Nato allies have agreed to work more closely with their Asia-Pacific partners on technology, on cyber, on maritime.

We should do so for many reasons. France is a key ally. As I said, they are part of the UK-led battle group in Estonia. They do air policing in the Baltic region. They spend 2 per cent [of their GDP] on defence. They have high-end capabilities. They have the willingness to deploy.

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