BRUSSELS – China and its increasingly sophisticated and far-flung military sit atop U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper's list of international security worries, but in Europe a bigger concern is closer to home: Russia.
The Trump administration has been trying since 2018 to reorient its defense strategy toward China, with reduced focus, when possible, on Russia and the years-long insurgency wars in the greater Middle East. Russia remains a U.S. worry, but Esper and other administration officials want the allies to see China as Washington does – as a far more capable adversary.
China was not on the formal agenda when Esper met with allies at NATO headquarters Wednesday and Thursday, but he made a point of publicly expressing American concerns.
“I've raised it every time I've been here, about the ‘great power’ competition with China and Russia — but China in particular,” he told reporters.
NATO's emphasis on Russia over China reflects the alliance's 71-year history. Throughout that time, it has been focused mainly on Russia and the former Soviet Union. And NATO nations — especially those on Russia's eastern flank — have grown warier of Moscow since its takeover of Crimea in 2014 and its incursion into eastern Ukraine.
More recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin has trumpeted his nation's pioneering development of futuristic weaponry, calling into question the effectiveness of U.S. defenses and raising the possibility of a new arms race.
European allies have also been uneasy with President Donald Trump's approach to Russia. Trump's warm words for Putin, his resistance to accepting intelligence findings of Russian interference in U.S. elections and his desire to withdraw U.S. troops from areas, like Syria, where Moscow could fill the vacuum have caused distress within NATO. Trump's decision to delay military aid to Ukraine last year was at the core of impeachment proceedings that ended in the president's acquittal.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, sees Europe as slow to respond to threats posed by China. It worries that China's economic engine is driving it to greater international influence, not just on the military front but also in global trade, in space and in technological advances. Russia, by contrast, is seen by the U.S. administration as a second-rate power, albeit with a huge nuclear force.
Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, recently touched on this China-Russia distinction in describing the administration's interest in nuclear arms control talks that include China as well as Russia. Trump has said his priority is an arms control deal that would include China for the first time, though China has not publicly expressed an interest in such negotiations.
“Candidly speaking, the Chinese are better prepared to have an arms race and to do what they want than the Russians ever were,” O'Brien said at the Atlantic Council this week.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered his own beware-of-China message during a recent trip to Europe and Central Asia. He denounced China’s human rights record, criticized its aggressive trade practices and urged his hosts to be wary of Chinese investment and influence. He warned that China's tech giant Hauwei poses a risk as countries develop next-generation, high-speed wireless networks.
The Trump administration has cast Huawei as a de facto arm of the Chinese government that could enable global espionage through its 5G networks. Huawei has denied these allegations.
Esper told reporters Thursday that “NATO allies must carefully consider the long-term risks of the economic and commercial choices they make.”
“At the end of the day, Chinese telecom firms have a legal obligation to provide ‘technical support and assistance’ to the Communist Party, and that concerns us deeply,” he said.
NATO hasn't completely ignored China. Last December, for the first time, NATO leaders agreed they must as a group consider the implications for their security of China's rise to economic and military prominence.
“We recognize that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an alliance," the leaders said in a statement.
But they have said and done little about China since. Instead, at this week's NATO defense ministers meeting, competition with Russia was high on the agenda, including talks aimed at fashioning a NATO response to Moscow's deployment of nuclear-capable cruise missiles within reach of many allied countries. That deployment was the Trump administration's stated rationale for withdrawing last year from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty.
Moscow also says it has begun deploying a hypersonic glide vehicle, called the Avangard, that poses new challenges for the U.S. as well as Europe because of the weapon's greater capacity for evading missile defenses. Russia also has announced intentions to deploy a nuclear-powered cruise missile, known in the West as Skyfall, that could be nuclear armed and that Moscow says will have nearly unlimited range.
The Trump administration remains committed to Europe's defense, as evidenced by U.S. participation this month in a NATO-led exercise, “Defender Europe 20,” the largest deployment of U.S.-based forces to Europe in 25 years. But in the 2021 budget presented to Congress this week, the Pentagon proposed cutting spending on its European Deterrence Initiative, meant to demonstrate U.S. resolve, to $4.5 billion from this year's $6 billion.
The allies also are concerned about the possibility that the Trump administration will not take Moscow up on its offer to extend the New START treaty, which governs the number of U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons, before it expires next February. In addition, some European officials have questioned the wisdom of an American decision to deploy a submarine-launched missile armed with a lower-yield nuclear warhead. Washington argues that it counters a Russian strategy for the potential use of battlefield nuclear weapons in Europe.
Europe and North America aren't NATO's only areas of interest. The organization has been contributing troops and other resources to the U.S.-led conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, and it also has conducted combat air operations in Libya.
In his review of Wednesday's first rounds of discussions among defense ministers, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said they had agreed to explore what more the alliance can do to combat extremists in the Mideast and North Africa. They also discussed the war in Afghanistan.
He made no mention of China.
Associated Press reporter Lorne Cook contributed to this report.