Fu Tian | China News Service | Visual China Group | Getty Images
“What we see is that the rising power of China is shifting the global balance of power and the rises of China — the economic rise, the military rise — provides some opportunities but also some serious challenges,” Jens Stoltenberg told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble in London on Monday.
He said that while NATO would not get involved in an area like the South China Sea, China was engaging in economic and military projects closer to Europe.
The South China Sea is an area that is subject to various territorial disputes between China and other nations who claim sovereignty to some or all of the islands in the region.
“There’s no way that NATO will move into the South China Sea but we have to address the fact that China is coming closer to us, investing heavily in infrastructure,” Stoltenberg said.
“We see them in Africa, we see them in the Arctic, we see them in cyber space and China now has the second-largest defense budget in the world.”
“So of course, this has some consequences for NATO,” he added. The military alliance is about to hold its 70th anniversary summit this week on the outskirts of the U.K. capital.
NATO was set up in 1949 as a collective defense response to the perceived threat then posed by the Soviet Union. After several decades of cordial relations with Russia following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, relations are now tense again with its old foe after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
One expert told CNBC that NATO’s discussions on China, which take place against a backdrop of fractious economic relations between Washington and Beijing and debates among Western states about the security concerns posed by Chinese provision of 5G technology, could cause more tension within the alliance.
“Though discussion on the implications for NATO of China’s rise is important and welcome, it brings with it a risk of deepening rather than healing political divides,” Sarah Raine, consulting senior fellow for geopolitics and strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told CNBC Friday.
“More than a few allies will quickly become uncomfortable with any public messaging that paints China only in terms of the challenge it poses, for example, to member state efforts to protect the resilience of their critical infrastructure.”
Stoltenberg noted that China had recently displayed “a lot of new modern military capabilities, including intercontinental long-range missiles that can reach Europe and North America ... So we need — and we will do this at our meeting in London — to address together how to respond to the rise of China.”
NATO’s secretary general insisted that the military alliance did not want to “create new adversaries” and said that “as long as NATO allies stand together, we are strong and we are safe ... We are by far the strongest military power in the world,” he said.