Tue, Feb 13, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Crack between the US and Europe over China widens

Transatlantic differences over Beijing’s rise threaten the future of the liberal world order

By Hal Brands  /  Bloomberg View

Illustration: Yusha

In several new strategy documents, US President Donald Trump’s administration argues that the US needs to gear up for prolonged geopolitical competition with China. This shift in US policy is welcome — even if it so far remains mostly rhetorical — because it reflects the growing threat that a revisionist, authoritarian China poses to US interests in the Asia-Pacific and to the liberal international system more broadly. Yet, even though US-China competition is primarily a transpacific matter, a transatlantic divergence could hamper US strategy on how to handle Beijing. The US’ European allies have long been its most important partners, but today, those in Europe and the US often see the China challenge in very different ways.

Transatlantic differences over China are not new, of course. Outrage over the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre was stronger in the US than in Europe. In 2005, the EU nearly lifted its arms embargo on China, maintaining it only after last-minute intervention by former US president George W. Bush’s administration. However, in recent years, the transatlantic gap has grown larger, for several reasons.

First is geography. The US’ status as a Pacific power with numerous treaty allies in the region makes the Chinese military threat tangible for Washington in a way that it is not for most European allies. Simply put, US strategists can easily imagine scenarios in which the US and China might go to war. European strategists have a harder time seeing how a country — even a rising authoritarian power — half a world away poses a meaningful security threat.

Second, most European governments thus focus not on the geopolitical challenge that China poses, but on the economic opportunities that it offers. Then-British prime minister David Cameron made headlines in 2015 by proclaiming a “golden era” in Sino-UK relations and taking Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) out for a pint at a pub (later purchased by a Chinese company), as part of a bid to make London a preferred destination for Chinese investment and trade. However, the phenomenon is essentially continent-wide, as European countries line up to establish profitable ties with Beijing.

Third, even if European governments wanted to play a larger role in Asia-Pacific security, they probably could not. Since the end of the Cold War, Europe’s primary security role has been riding shotgun when Washington takes action against threats to the international order, particularly in the greater Middle East. Yet, because most European countries simultaneously cut military spending so deeply, because their remaining defense capabilities are being taxed by a revanchist Russia and because of the geographical difficulties inherent in projecting power into the Asia-Pacific, most NATO allies simply cannot do much to fortify the balance of power in the Pacific. The French and the British have proclaimed the importance of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and have carried out naval exercises with the US and Japan. However, even though these largely symbolic measures are welcome, they mostly prove just how meager the European role in Asia-Pacific security really is.

Finally, the US-Europe gap is being compounded — as are so many problems in US policy today — by Trump. His America often seems to be retreating from international leadership on issues such as trade, climate and democratic governance, and embracing a nationalistic, protectionist ethos. This shift allowed Xi to steal the show at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year, by portraying China as a new global leader on trade and climate, and it has led some European observers to see stronger ties with Beijing as a hedge against unwelcome trends in US behavior.

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