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

It has also inhibited cooperation on matters where observers in the US and Europe largely agree. As the Financial Times has reported, some European officials and business elites share US concerns about Chinese intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer. Yet, they remain wary of collaborating on retaliatory measures for fear of undermining the WTO (a favorite Trump target) or enabling the president’s protectionist impulses. To its credit, the Trump administration has supported European countries in their grievances with Chinese economic policies, most notably by backing an EU move to delay recognition of China as a market economy by the WTO. However, on China as on so many issues, Trump’s presidency has more often widened than narrowed the transatlantic gap.

Downplaying the strategic significance of this gap is tempting, because US-China competition is playing out most intensely in the Asia-Pacific. Yet, if the gap persists, it will cause US strategists no end of trouble.

For one thing, the implementation of a more American competitive economic strategy vis-a-vis China will be harder. The challenge in doing so is already severe, simply because of the size of the Chinese economy and the interdependence that exists between Beijing, on the one hand, and the US and its Asia-Pacific allies on the other. Yet, if Washington is to compete effectively with China, it must devise policies that limit opportunities for Chinese economic coercion and prevent Beijing from using the lure of trade and investment to mute diplomatic resistance to destabilizing behavior. Those policies must be multilateral to be effective, and therefore require the support of the US’ European allies, several of which remain among the world’s largest economies.

The transatlantic gap has the potential to undercut US strategy in other ways. Over time, Washington might find it more difficult to dissuade the EU from lifting its arms embargo, a step that would intensify Beijing’s challenge to US military primacy in the Western Pacific. Similarly, although China’s authoritarian form of governance represents one of its greatest ideological weaknesses, Europe’s economic embrace of Beijing is already making European countries more reticent on issues of political repression and human rights. As Chinese trade with Norway has increased, for instance, Oslo has become less vocal regarding Chinese human rights violations. For the same reason, the EU recently soft-pedaled criticism of Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. Indeed, as one think tank report said, Beijing is aggressively expanding its economic ties to Europe for just these reasons.

Not least of all, the transatlantic divergence regarding China will exacerbate the difficulty of dealing with the broader, overarching challenge Chinese behavior represents. China does not simply pose a military and geopolitical threat to US power and alliances in the Asia-Pacific. It is the leading edge of a larger challenge by illiberal, revisionist powers to the liberal international order that the US — in cooperation with its European partners — constructed after World War II.

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