The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) hopes to see a strengthened dialogue and closer ties with China and other international powers. “I would very much like to see a strengthened dialogue between China and NATO,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told Xinhua News Agency in an exclusive interview in Brussels at the headquarters of the trans-Atlantic alliance. “China has the largest population in the world and the second-largest economy. China is playing a still stronger role on the international scene, so I think we have a common interest in helping each other to ensure peace and stability in the world,” Rasmussen said.
He described as “historic” China’s attendance, along with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Japan, at a meeting at NATO headquarters Wednesday September 14th to discuss international efforts to fight piracy in the Indian Ocean. Over the past decade, NATO has increasingly sought to build a network of international relations, ranging from the “partnership for peace” program, which has been used to prepare countries from the former Soviet bloc for NATO membership, to military and political cooperation with countries in North Africa and the Middle East, and a looser dialogue on issues of security with Asian and Pacific nations. “I don’t consider China a threat to NATO or NATO allies. On the contrary, I think we could and should cooperate in order to maintain peace and stability,” Rasmussen said, adding that there were a series of “issues of common interests” for China and NATO to develop closer ties.
NATO officials have mentioned counter-terrorism, tackling the spread of weapons of mass destruction and rebuilding Afghanistan as areas where China and the Western alliance share common interests. Indicating wide differences on some thorny international issue between China and NATO, including the Libyan conflict, Rasmussen reiterated that the Atlantic alliance wants to build closer ties with Beijing.
During the interview, the top NATO diplomat also elaborated on the new framework of the alliance. The bombing campaign in Libya where the United States for the first time took a backseat in a mission spearheaded by European nations, could be a template for future NATO operations despite weaknesses in Europe’s military capabilities, Rasmussen said. “This model, in which European allies take on more responsibility, could serve as a framework also in the future,” he said.
Rasmussen also touched on some other issues, including NATO’s desire to build closer ties with other international powers, the prospect for transition in Afghanistan and the alliance’s controversial missile defense plans. The former Danish prime minister acknowledged criticism expressed recently by outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the Libyan operation had revealed shortfalls in Europe’s military muscles, despite the fact that warplanes from Britain, France and other European allies had taken a lead in the campaign against the forces of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. “The Libya operation is a positive story, about increased European responsibility within our alliance,” Rasmussen said, stressing “the operation has also made it visible that European allies are lacking some necessary and critical capabilities.” He listed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as key shortfalls in European arsenals, adding that he would “encourage” European governments to focus defense investment in those areas in the coming years.
In his farewell speech to European allies in June, Mr Gates issued a stark warning that the very existence of NATO could be put at risk due to mounting American discontent over Europe’s shrinking defense budgets and diminishing contribution to collective trans-Atlantic defense. Rasmussen recognized that the U.S. support, which included cruise missiles that took out Gaddafi’s air defences, mid-air refuelling and intelligence from pilotless aircraft, had been crucial to the Libyan mission, but he hoped that the fact that European nations had eventually led the mission to a successful conclusion would allay American concern about Europe’s commitment to security in its region.
With Qadhafi’s troops driven from Tripoli and rebels advancing on the former leader’s last strongholds, Rasmussen confirmed that NATO was looking to winding down its involvement in Libya. “We have stated that we stand ready to assist if our assistance is needed and we receive a request, but I don’t foresee a leading NATO role (in post-War Libya),” he said. Instead, NATO is looking for other international organizations, such as the United Nations, the European Union or the Arab League, to take center stage in helping the Libyan authorities in Libya’s reconstruction after military operations.
Rasmussen said he hopes an international “friends of Libya” meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York next week would give “clear recognition” that the anti-Gaddafi National Transitional Council is now the legitimate authority in Libya. “I would expect the international community to strengthen its commitment to the new leadership in Libya and reconfirm its readiness to assist the Libyan people in rebuilding Libyan society and assisting the Libyan people in a peaceful transition to democracy.” He added that NATO’s plans to hand over responsibility for security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014 remain on track despite signs of renewed Taliban strength such as this week’s attacks on the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul.
As NATO winds down its mission, he said, the Afghan authorities would need more support from neighbors such as China to build stability in the region. Rasmussen denied recent Indian media reports that NATO was discussing cooperation with New Delhi in the development of a defense shield to detect and destroy incoming ballistic missiles. Such negotiations were only ongoing with Russia, he said, adding that the alliance hopes to strike a deal with Moscow at a summit scheduled for next May in Chicago. “The NATO-based missile defense system is not directed against China or Russia or any other country, except for those actors that intend to attack our territory,” he said. “It is a defense system and we think we can make the whole system even more effective if we cooperate with Russia,” said Rasmussen.
Russia initially raised strong objections to the missile defense plan, which would install batteries of interceptor missiles and high-tech U.S. radar units in Eastern Europe. Moscow claimed such moves would undermine its nuclear deterrent, upset the balance of power and trigger a new arms race in Europe. The United States has modified the plan and NATO has sought to bring Russia on board and stressed that the missile shield could boost security for both sides by providing protection against an attack by terrorists or a rogue state.