NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNBC that if the U.S. is concerned about the rise of China then it was “even more important to maintain NATO to keep your friends and allies close.”

The head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was responding to U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s speech at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, in which he called China a rising threat to the world order.

Stoltenberg acknowledged that the global balance of power was shifting with the rise of China, pointing out that it now has the second-largest defense budget in the world and that it’s “investing heavily in new military capabilities.”

The alliance put the issue of China on its agenda for the very first time at an event in London in December. At the time, Stoltenberg told CNBC that the rise of the Asian powerhouse provided some “obvious opportunities but also some obvious challenges.”

In March 2019, China set its 2019 defense spending 7.5% higher than a year ago, raising it to 1.19 trillion yuan ($177.61 billion), according to known figures (some believe the actual figure could be higher). This still lags behind U.S. spending, however, with its Defense Department having asked Congress for $718 billion in its fiscal 2020 budget.

Stoltenberg said Saturday that the “important message” for the U.S. was that if it was concerned about China then it needed its allies. “Together with Europe and Canada we represent 50% of the world’s military might and 50% of the world economy. Together we are strong,” he told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble.

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Jens Stoltenberg, 13th Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is talks to the media at the NATO headquarter on February 11, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium.

Thierry Monasse/ Getty Images

German defense spending

Meanwhile, Stoltenberg suggested he was not concerned by recent data showing weaker economic growth in Germany and the possible impact that would have on its defense spending as part of NATO. He said Germany had already started to increase its defense spending and that it planned to increase this by 80% over a decade.

The secretary general said that European allies and Canada will add $400 billion to their defense spending by 2024. “When it comes to defense spending, we’re already moving in the right direction,” he added.

On the Middle East, the NATO chief said the alliance would look to reduce its troops in Afghanistan, from the 16,000 currently based in the country, “if Taliban believers are ready to reduce the violence.”

He said that the only way to create lasting peace in Afghanistan was to talk to the Taliban and that the purpose of truce talks currently taking place was also to “initiate inter-Afghan negotiations.”

Stoltenberg said NATO’s role was to support Afghans to take ownership of the peace process, “sending a message to the Taliban that they will never win on the battlefield, they have to sit at the negotiating table and (make) real compromises and reduce violence.”

—CNBC’s Holly Ellyatt contributed to this article.