What China really means when it talks about NATO's eastward expansion

The British Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in the South China Sea in July 2021.

Hong Kong (CNN)When Russian armed forces launched an unprovoked assault on Ukraine last month, Beijing appeared to side with Moscow, accusing the United States and its NATO allies of inviting conflict by allowing their security bloc to expand eastward.

Now, as China faces pressure from the West to condemn the Russian invasion, it's ramping up similar rhetoric to talk about America's footprint in Asia.
In recent days, senior Chinese Foreign Ministry officials and influential Communist Party publications have accused the US of seeking to build a NATO-like bloc in the Indo-Pacific, with one official warning of "unimaginable" consequences if it does.
    At a conference in Beijing on Saturday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng said the Ukraine crisis could be used as a "mirror" to view the security situation in the Asia-Pacific region.
      Le didn't name the US, but he explicitly referred to the Indo-Pacific strategy -- a plan the Biden administration detailed last month to strengthen America's role in the region, such as through supporting democracy and bolstering its alliances and partnerships, including with Taiwan.
      Building "closed and exclusive small circles or groups" in the region "is as dangerous as the NATO strategy of eastward expansion in Europe," Le said at the event at Tsinghua University, according to a version of the speech published by China's Foreign Ministry.
      "If allowed to go on unchecked, it would bring unimaginable consequences, and ultimately push the Asia-Pacific over the edge of an abyss," he said.
        China's criticism of NATO follows attempts to portray itself as a neutral actor in the Ukraine crisis, refusing to denounce Russia's attacks on civilians, while stressing its humanitarian aid to Ukraine and denying it considered providing military support to Moscow.
        However, China's bid to draw parallels between the US strategy in the Indo-Pacific and NATO's "eastward expansion" in Europe closely echoes talking points from Moscow, raising serious doubts as to Beijing's supposed neutrality.
        Russian leader Vladimir Putin has repeatedly attempted to use concerns over NATO to justify his brutal invasion of Ukraine. Now, experts say China is seeking to use the current crisis in Ukraine to not only amplify its portrayal of the US as an alleged instigator of conflict, whether in Europe or in Asia, but to warn of the consequences if the US and countries in the region align against China.

        China 'takes advantage' of crisis

        Washington's emphasis on the Indo-Pacific has come as China pushes a more aggressive foreign policy, doubling down on its territorial claims, while taking a harder line in response to perceived challenges.
        In recent years, China has disavowed a UN tribunal ruling dismissing its vast territorial claims in the South China Sea, while continuing to militarize its positions there and harass other claimants. It's also ramped up its threats on self-governing Taiwan, with record incursions of fighter jets into the island's air defense identification zone in recent months.
        "It's no surprise that China would take advantage of the Ukraine crisis to lash out at the Indo-Pacific strategy," said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor and Provost's Chair in international relations at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.
        Li pointed to China's "growing anxieties" over the rejuvenation of the "Quad" security forum between India, Japan, Australia and the US, and of the AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the US, as well as the strong commitment from the US to maintain its longstanding role in the region, outlined in Biden's Indo-Pacific strategy last month.
        "The intention is clear -- China wants to send this message to the US and countries in the region that the Indo-Pacific strategy and American security alliances could also generate some similar security dynamics (to those) seen in Europe, involving Russia," Li said.
        That message is also being sent ahead of an "extraordinary" NATO summit on Thursday, where US President Joe Biden will meet allied leaders in Brussels to discuss the situation in Ukraine -- in another showing of the striking solidarity of the bloc since the start of the crisis.

        A message to America