Democracy Is the 'Only Leverage' West Has Against China, Former NATO Chief Says

Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has expressed to Newsweek that democratic ideals are the only leverage that the United States and its Western allies have when it comes to pressuring a powerful China to restrict its growing nuclear capabilities.

"The only leverage we have vis-à-vis China is if all the world's democracies could really unite and stand together and make a formal and informal alliance of democracies," Rasmussen said. "Together, the world's free societies represent almost 60% of the world economy. That's a formidable force that will create respect if we can unite, and I think that's the only leverage we have."

Rasmussen served as NATO chief from 2009 through 2014, and before that as prime minister of Denmark from 2001 to 2009. He founded the Alliance of Democracies Foundation in 2017, and today he hopes that achieving such a coalition will be the goal of the upcoming Summit for Democracy that President Joe Biden has planned to hold next month.

"That should be the theme of the Biden summit on December 9-10 on democracy, and this is clearly the theme of my foundation," Rasmussen said. "I think it should be a focal point on all efforts in a campaign for democracy from now, on because we don't have many of the leverages."

The summit comes at a time when NATO perceives China as a top challenger on the international stage. At the same time, last month's total collapse in the Cold War-era pacts relations with Russia threatened to further bring Beijing and Moscow together.

China, 100th, Anniversary, Communist Party, Xi, Jinping
A large screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping during the art performance celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Founding of the Communist Party of China on June 28 in Beijing, China, ahead of the 100th anniversary of the party founding on July 1. Final preparations for events to mark the anniversary are underway in the Chinese capital. In the course of some seven decades since taking power, China's Communists have amassed the world's largest army and soon-to-be top economy. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Over the past two decades and especially in recent years, China and Russia have formed an increasingly tight strategic partnership that Rasmussen called "a real concern," especially when it comes to further integration of the nuclear-armed militaries of the two nations.

While Russia leads by far in terms of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and overall nuclear warheads, China has swiftly amassed a range of nuclear-capable weapons of its own, including medium and intermediate-range weapons.

Those weapons had long been banned for the U.S. and Russia as a result of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the two nations. The INF was scrapped by the administration of former President Donald Trump in 2019, and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin soon followed suit.

But rather than continue to roll back non-proliferation measures, Rasmussen said the U.S. and allied nations "should put much more pressure on China is to engage in global disarmament and arms control schemes."

"China is a rising military power, and it's illogical to make deals between Russia and the U.S. alone," he added. "We need also to include China, which, by the way, is a much stronger military power than Russia."

Since coming to power in 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping has pursued a mass military modernization program that has incorporated nearly every aspect of the People's Liberation Army, the world's largest standing armed forces, a campaign fueled by the country's rapid economic rise.

Beijing has repeatedly resisted calls to join the kinds of bilateral or multilateral arms control measures adopted by Moscow and Washington, arguing they remained uniquely responsible to take such actions due to their far larger arsenals. But that has not kept China from criticizing the U.S. for walking away from decades-old treaties such as the INF and the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty.

"The U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty and the INF Treaty, continuously advances its global anti-ballistic missile systems, citing the so-call threat from China and Russia as an excuse, and seeks to deploy land-based intermediate-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific and Europe," China's Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Geng Shuang said during last month's U.N. General Assembly debate.

"These moves negatively affect the strategic trust among major countries, threaten regional security and impede multilateral arms control process," he added.

Geng affirmed China's commitments to other arms control agreements it has adhered to, including the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and said Beijing would continue to be a force for good in the world.

"No matter how the international landscape may change, China will stay firmly on the path of peaceful development, resolutely uphold the multilateral international order, and actively promote international arms control and disarmament process," Geng said.

"China will always be a builder of world peace, contributor to global development, defender of international order, and provider of public goods," he added. "China is committed to making further contributions to building a community with a shared future for mankind."

But the U.S. has accused China of geopolitical aggression and human rights abuses, and Beijing has accused Washington of building geopolitical blocs based on Cold War models and attempting to interfere in the internal affairs of the People's Republic.

And while China and Russia have so far denied any intentions to form a proper alliance of their own, the two have increasingly adopted united stances, including on the concept of the Summit for Democracy.

Johnson, Macron, Merkel, Biden, G20
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Joe Biden pose for the media prior to a meeting at the La Nuvola conference center for the G20 summit on October 30 in Rome, Italy. The four leaders represent the most powerful nations of NATO transatlantic alliance, and all save for Germany are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, where China and Russia also have permanent seats as top world powers. Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty Images

Commenting on the upcoming gathering, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said they would "make clear our positions and expound correct views on democracy, development and human rights to the international community," according to a readout of the pair's meeting Saturday on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome.

"Wang Yi emphasized that, democracy is a common value of mankind and a right of people in all countries, rather than an exclusive privilege of a few countries," according to the readout. "Forcing other countries to accept a unilaterally recognized so-called 'democracy' will only be counterproductive. It is a typical move against democracy to label other countries as 'authoritarian' just because they choose different paths to achieve democracy."

Lavrov, for his part, remarked on "intensive contacts" between their two countries, something he said "is evidence of the unprecedented level and quality of relations between the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China."

Then, on Monday, he also issued criticism of Biden's plan to rally democratic countries.

"The 'summit for democracy' pursues the aim of classifying people and countries into democratic and undemocratic ones," Lavrov said during an interview with the Rossiya-24 outlet. "The way I see it, the Americans wish to achieve the maximum loyalty, to create an impression there is a mass Washington-led movement."

Lavrov said that it "would be amusing to see who specifically has been invited and in what capacity," saying he was "nearly certain that there will be attempts to lure in some of our strategic partners and allies." He expressed hope "they will demonstrate commitment to their obligations that exist on other platforms, and not at some artificially and unofficially convened one-time summits."

The Biden administration has yet to release an official list of invitees for the Summit for Democracy, but Lavrov said neither Moscow nor Beijing would be included.

Last week, referring to the Summit, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters that the U.S. would "have a chance together with many of our democratic partners from around the world to share experiences, to learn from one another, and to do what we can to beat back the tide of authoritarianism, of repression, wherever it exists."