America and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization arrived "late to the game" but now see clearly that China is a "risk", Kay Bailey Hutchison, the US envoy to Nato, said on Wednesday, citing Beijing's military build-up, its continued theft of intellectual property and its moves to stifle dissent in Hong Kong.
Her comments were the latest from a senior Trump administration official highlighting the intense US distrust towards China during the Xi Jinping era, and its persistent efforts to persuade allies to regard China and its Communist Party the same way.
"I think we've been late to the game. We have been late in assessing China as a risk," Hutchison said. "We either bring them in, as I said before, and give them every benefit of the doubt - but we are now, I would say, a little more clear-eyed."
Speaking to a virtual audience hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank, Hutchison said that the world had tried to give Beijing a chance to participate in the "rules-based order", but that it had shown it could not be trusted to play fairly.
She cited Beijing's moves to enforce the controversial national security law in Hong Kong and punish dissent in the city.
"You can't look at what has been happening in the crackdown on Hong Kong, and the violations of what China agreed," she said, referring to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, "and not realise that China is not playing by the rules that they agreed to."
Hutchison's comments followed similar remarks on Monday at an event sponsored by Politico made by Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who said that China's rise "is really changing the security environment we face".
And a new report commissioned by Nato on the future of the alliance said: "The scale of Chinese power and global reach poses acute challenges to open and democratic societies, particularly because of that country's trajectory to greater authoritarianism and an expansion of its territorial ambitions."
Carisa Nietsche, an associate fellow for the transatlantic security programme at the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) think tank, told the South China Morning Post that while Europe and the US are starting to converge on how they see China, "assertions that the entire alliance sees the risk clearly are wishful thinking".
"There is also an illiberal convergence too," Nietsche said. "Beijing has attempted to pick off Nato alliance members, such as Hungary and Turkey, who have leaders that share Xi's strongman leadership style and are strengthening their own grips on power in their countries."
Some members of the alliance may also be hesitant to take on China because they were concerned it would distract from Nato's dealings with Russia, said Andrew Small, a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund's Asia programme.
Nato "really lagged behind in basic analysis of China-related risks", he said. "There is a clear list of areas ... that should have been addressed by the alliance some time ago, and I think there has been a waking up to that in the period since the United States put it so firmly on the table."
In Washington, the Trump administration has been not alone in trying to convince US allies to take a harder line on China.
The annual defence budget bill, which passed the House of Representatives on Tuesday, would force the Pentagon to reconsider whether to send weapons or troops to allied countries overseas if those countries also use Chinese 5G communications technology.
Hutchison cited 5G as an area of concern she had about China's presence in Europe. She said that 25 of Nato's 30 member states had committed to the State Department's "Clean Network" initiative that avoids Chinese 5G technology.
While the Trump administration has raised the alarm about China, Donald Trump has also criticised Nato throughout his presidency, typically focusing on how much money the other member states pay.
"For four years, we've treated our friends as our foes, and that certainly has weakened the United States' political capital to convince allies to address the China challenge," said Nietsche.
Hutchison insisted that the European allies were in line with the US.
"I think Nato is on board with the position of what we're all trying to do," she said. "Everyone is aware now that we must do what is necessary to bring China in, but be prepared for a great power competition."
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