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

Tue, Feb 13, 2018 - Page 9

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.

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.

The best response to that threat is for the world’s leading liberal powers to meet it squarely and in unison. This means getting Europe, which still constitutes the largest concentration of democracies in the world, on board. Sadly, given its own ambivalence about the liberal order, it is not yet clear whether the Trump administration is up to the task.

Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.