NATO ministers to question reliance on China for pandemic supplies

NATO usually has a lot to say about tanks, troops and the defence budgets of allied nations. But with the world reeling from the effects of a global pandemic, the alliance is turning its attention to how well-equipped and prepared countries are for future emergencies.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Saturday, April 14, 2018. (The Associated Press)

NATO usually has a lot to say about tanks, troops and the defence budgets of allied nations. But with the world reeling from the effects of a global pandemic, the alliance is turning its attention to how well-equipped and prepared countries are for future emergencies.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said today defence minister ministers from the 30 NATO member countries will hold a virtual meeting Wednesday to talk about the medium and long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the agenda: national resiliency and the question of whether NATO countries have become too dependent on China for critical items of health and safety equipment, such as masks and ventilators.

"Our immediate focus now is to deal with the immediate consequences of the COVID-19 crisis to help to save lives," said Stoltenberg during a teleconference media availability earlier today.

"I think it's obvious one of the lessons we all have to learn is ... about the importance of resilience and we have to look into issues like the supplies of medical equipment, protective suits, medicines and all that kind of stuff. And also ask questions on whether we are too dependent on production coming from outside, whether we should be producing some of this equipment in our own countries ..."

A new definition of national security

Last week, when the U.S. appeared prepared to ban the export of N95 masks, defence experts warned that shortages and issues related to the purchase and stockpiling of health equipment will rewrite the definition of national security needs.

Stoltenberg's remarks on Tuesday appeared to underscore the point and have focused attention on rarely discussed aspects of the NATO treaty, including the requirement for nations to be self-reliant during a crisis in a number of critical areas — including food and water supplies, power grids and the ability of a government to make decisions and communicate.

The N95 mask is a key piece of equipment in the fight against the pandemic. (Michael Wilson/Radio-Canada)

The treaty also says that member countries must have the "ability to deal with mass casualties" while ensuring that civilian health systems can cope, that there are sufficient medical supplies and that those stocks are secure.

The alliance has in the last few years paid more attention to the notion of national resilience. In November of 2019, defence ministers from NATO nations were forced to consider whether the prospect of China's participation in 5G telecommunications grids posed an unacceptable security risk.

A new approach to civil defence

An often-overlooked area where NATO also could become more vocal is civil defence — a wartime and Cold War concept involving volunteers. In the past, civil defence meant air raid wardens, ambulance drivers and search and rescue crews.

The nature of civil defence has evolved in the digital age. Dozens of information technology professionals recently volunteered to help guard hospitals and other critical infrastructure from online hacking and ransomware attacks.

NATO plans to examine the state of civil preparedness in each of its member countries in a report this year that will measure them against the commitments they made at the Warsaw Leaders Summit in 2016.

Stoltenberg said the pandemic is testing the resilience of countries, which makes it a concern for the military alliance.

Transport planes from several allied countries have been pressed into service to fly desperately needed medical equipment and supplies to various hard-hit nations, including Spain, Italy and Romania.

The defence ministers will also talk about recent Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns which claim, without evidence, that the pandemic was instigated by the U.S. military.

NATO has seen examples of disinformation and attempts to use the pandemic crisis to create instability, the secretary general said.

It is "an attempt to divide us," Stoltenberg said.

The defence ministers will discuss how to respond to disinformation and propaganda by authoritarian regimes. 

The best way to fight disinformation is to "provide facts and the truth" to the global community through the free, open and independent press, he said.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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