Potential adversaries might try to take advantage of the virus-triggered economic downturn by buying controlling stakes in NATO members’ strategic industries, the alliance’s chief, Jens Stoltenberg, warned on Wednesday.
“The geo-political effects of the pandemic could be significant,” he told a videolink news conference following a virtual emergency meeting of NATO’s defence ministers focused on the impact of the novel coronavirus.
“Some may seek to use the economic downturn as an opening to invest in our critical industries and infrastructure, which in turn may affect our long-term security and our ability to deal with the next crisis, when it comes,” he said.
Stoltenberg did not name the adversarial countries, but his message was taken to be directed at China, which has been buying into European seaport and telecoms companies.
He said many of the ministers “highlighted the importance of critical industries and infrastructure” and stressed that “reliable telecommunications” were needed to function in times of crisis.
He also emphasised the need to battle disinformation aimed at dividing the alliance.
“The best response to disinformation and propaganda is a free and independent press, is the work of journalists,” he said.
He added that, while NATO was lending its military capability where it could to help member states cope with the pandemic, notably through the airlift of medical equipment, lessons could be learned on how to better integrate with civilian efforts “before the next crisis”.
Asked about the US decision to freeze its funding of the World Health Organization, he declined to offer any criticism of Washington.
“NATO is not a member of that organization,” he said, but added that it used WHO guidelines in NATO missions and operations.
“I believe in the importance of international cooperation and and transparency,” he said.