Report

NATO Chief Rebukes China Over Coronavirus Disinformation

Stoltenberg says state-backed disinformation campaigns are making the health crisis worse.

U.S. President Donald Trump with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at a NATO meeting in London.
U.S. President Donald Trump with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg during a NATO summit in London on Dec. 4, 2019. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
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The top leader of NATO criticized China and other government actors for sowing disinformation in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, warning that disinformation campaigns could exacerbate the global health crisis.

“The disinformation campaigns we have seen—they are also supported by government actors, including China—try to divide us and try to undermine our resolve,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with Foreign Policy. “It can make the health crisis more serious, because it can mislead people into what works and doesn’t work in dealing with the health crisis.”

Stoltenberg joins a chorus of other Western leaders who have criticized Chinese and Russian-backed disinformation campaigns since the outbreak of the pandemic that has infected over 2 million people and killed over 150 worldwide. 

It’s one aspect of the growing tensions between the United States and China that has put its allies and partners in Europe in a tight spot, grappling with competing security and economic ties even before the pandemic hit. Italy, for example, has faced scrutiny over cozying up to Beijing by signing onto its massive Belt and Road economic project last year, and the Trump administration criticized the United Kingdom for partnering with the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to build its 5G infrastructure. Even as Beijing funneled sorely needed medical supplies to Italy, one of the European countries hit hardest by the pandemic, Chinese state-run media outlets began falsely suggesting the virus originated in Italy, not China. 

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

U.S. President Donald Trump, as usual, is leading the charge in a strikingly different tone than other Western leaders, lurching between slamming Beijing for spreading what he called the “Chinese virus” and later praising bilateral cooperation on tackling the pandemic. “America is under attack—not just by an invisible virus, but by the Chinese,” read one Trump election campaign notice blasted to his supporters last month. 

But as the pandemic drags on, more Western leaders are piling on in their own, more diplomatic way. “Let’s not be so naive as to say it’s been much better at handling this,” French President Emmanuel Macron said of China in an interview with the Financial Times. “We don’t know. There are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about.”

The NATO chief was cautious to avoid speaking about China’s initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak, saying his top focus was ensuring the trans-Atlantic alliance’s military capabilities were on hand to help governments respond to the virus. “There will be a time for lessons learned and to look into how the world ended at where we are now. I would be a bit careful about assessing the health aspects of this crisis at this stage,” he said.

For weeks the Trump administration hammered China for botching the initial response to the virus, leading to behind-the-scenes rows with foreign governments at the United Nations and G-7 meetings. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed their foreign partners to label the coronavirus the “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus.” Some European governments feared that such a move could needlessly provoke Beijing, and public health experts feared it would stoke xenophobic backlash against Chinese citizens and people of Chinese descent. 

U.S. officials have since backed down from that fight, but they continue to call on China for a full accounting of how the virus spread, believing Beijing is still hiding valuable information on the coronavirus that could help the international response. Trump has also called for cutting U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, the global U.N. body leading the pandemic response, after accusing it of being too pro-China. 

The rapid spread of the coronavirus brought the global economy to a standstill and jolted NATO and European Union countries. Their militaries were quickly called up to respond, even as they canceled big-ticket military exercises aimed at shoring up deterrence against Russia.

Some security experts worry that the knock-on economic impacts of the coronavirus will impact the alliance’s long-standing push for its members to increase defense spending to up to 2 percent of GDP by 2024—a key priority and source of tension between the Trump administration and its NATO allies. Defense spending in Europe atrophied in the decades after the Cold War but began turning around after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. 

Stoltenberg said allies can’t afford to skirt defense spending commitments during the coming economic downturn. “The challenge is that the threats we saw before the COVID-19 crisis, the potential terrorist threats, a more resurgent Russia, cyberthreats, but also the shifting global balance of power with the likes of China—all these challenges are still there,” he said. “They don’t go away because of the COVID crisis.”

“We don’t have the luxury to say that we either address the health crisis or security challenges. We need to be able to do both at the same time,” he added.

This week, defense ministers from the 30-member NATO alliance met by secure video conference to discuss how to coordinate a response to the pandemic, including coordinating the delivery of medical supplies across the alliance. NATO members’ military cargo planes were enlisted to ferry sorely needed supplies to and from European countries being hit by the outbreak (including a shipment of over 100 tons of medical supplies and equipment from Shenzhen, China, to the Czech Republic earlier this month).

They also discussed how to counter the influx of propaganda and conspiracy theories pouring out of state-run news outlets and social media accounts linked to Russia and China, which reached a fever pitch in recent weeks.

In response to the pandemic, NATO has pared down previously scheduled military exercises, including a series of exercises called Defender Europe 2020, billed as the alliance’s largest since the end of the Cold War.

Stoltenberg insists the cancellation of war games has not affected the NATO militaries’ operational readiness. “We are able to maintain operational readiness even though we have adapted and canceled some exercises,” he said. “Of course, if we were to cancel every exercise for many, many years it will in the long run undermine our operational readiness. But we have well-trained, well-equipped, well-prepared, high-readiness forces today.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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