NATO allies are discussing reclaiming some Chinese-owned infrastructure in Europe

NATO officials are discussing taking action to reclaim some Chinese-owned infrastructure projects in Europe should a wider conflict with Russia break out in the east of the continent, three officials involved in the discussions told CNN.

A decade ago, when Europe was still crawling out of the economic crater caused by the global financial crisis, the promise of infrastructure funding from Chinese-owned investment firms seemed like a major windfall.

Now, with the largest land war being waged in Europe since World War II – and the West warning of Beijing’s support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – NATO countries now see those investments as a liability, with allies beginning to discuss ways to reclaim some of those projects, the officials said.

The fear, according to one US official, is that Beijing could use the infrastructure it owns in Europe to provide material assistance to Russia if the conflict were to expand. The goal, officials said, is to figure out a path forward well in advance of any potential conflict.

The discussions reflect an increasing focus on China by the NATO alliance. The joint declaration released Wednesday by the 32 leaders, at the Washington 75th anniversary summit, strongly called out Beijing’s support for Moscow, in a move seen as a sign of progress by members eager to take a tougher stance against Beijing after such a reference was omitted in 2023.

“The deepening strategic partnership between Russia and the PRC and their mutually reinforcing attempts to undercut and reshape the rules-based international order,” the declaration states, “are a cause for profound concern.”

The discussions on taking action on infrastructure, according to three officials involved in them, are still in their early stages and have seen varying levels of involvement among the NATO member countries. One NATO diplomat suggested the US, which is spearheading the discussions, would need to pursue the discussions on a bilateral basis to secure the necessary support.

From rail lines connecting Eastern Europe to China, to ports located in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, China has funded tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure investments under its Belt & Road Initiative, which European nations began signing onto in 2013.

A NATO official said that if a war erupted, the infrastructure “would almost certainly be nationalized, or nations would temporarily assume operating control, under emergency security measures. China can sue them in court after the fact.”

US officials see a precedent for such takeovers or sales in moves by European nations to force Russia to sell assets in the wake of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. For more than a year, Finland repeatedly blocked the business of Helsinki Shipyard – a producer of ice-breaking ships once owned by a Russian entity – until Russia in late 2023 sold the company to an entity based in Canada.

A senior US official says the discussions have expanded beyond low-tech to include high-tech interests as well, like quantum computing, semiconductors, and telecom infrastructure.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that the Ukraine war could be the reason that European and Asian nations have become clear-eyed about their security being tied to one another.

“Maybe this was crystallized by Ukraine, when Prime Minister Kishida of Japan said that what’s happening in Europe today could be happening in East Asia tomorrow. When Russia committed its aggression, its renewed aggression against Ukraine, and Japan stood up, South Korea stood up, Australia, New Zealand, this was a reflection of that recognition that these challenges are linked,” Blinken said at the NATO forum.

But while most NATO member states have expressed some level of concern about Chinese-owned infrastructure, two officials involved in the discussions tell CNN that France in particular has sought to shift the discussions on infrastructure to the European Union, which has authority on other economic matters.

Tension from France and other countries, officials say, impacted the language in the declaration with the countries arguing that NATO is not the best platform from which to challenge China – but many member states still harbor a very real fear that Beijing could utilize the hard assets against the alliance in the future, and continue pushing for the alliance to defend against the threat.

Speaking in Washington in mid-June ahead of the summit, outgoing Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that Beijing must face consequences for its support of Russia on the battlefield in Ukraine.

CNN’s Natasha Bertrand contributed reporting.

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