The G-7, NATO, and US-EU summits two weeks ago elicited predictable diplomatic protests from Beijing. Also predictable was the regime’s military incursion into Taiwan’s ADIZ in the days following. That sort of thing that has come to be expected anytime there is a major international demonstration of support for Taiwan, and the G-7 statement’s mention of Taiwan was definitely that.
To all appearances, the world’s most powerful democracies are uniting against China’s bullying. This is a good thing. It is important, however, to keep in mind some context.
First, the US accords the Pacific much higher priority than the Europeans do. In fact, during the Obama years, the Europeans fretted over just this. The French are the only ones with significant territorial interests in the region. Like the US, they service these interests, in part, with military assets based in the Pacific — albeit far fewer than the US, without treaty allies, and very far from China. Similarly, the Brits — steadfast and active regional allies as they are — have a military that is stretched thin among global interests.
Second, both the US and Europe continue to have enormous economic interests in their relationships with China. Lost in the headlines of US-China rivalry is the fact that US trade with China increased in 2020 and is on record pace for 2021. Europe’s trade with China is increasing, too. Both remain major investors in China. Europe is its largest.
Is it any wonder, then, that the US and the EU have come up with flexible descriptions of their strategies? The US calls its relationship with China “competitive, collaborative and adversarial.” For the EU, China is a “partner, competitor and rival.”
Third, on both sides of the Atlantic, geostrategy contends with politics. There is nothing mystical about geopolitics. Governments determine policy outcomes, and in the US and Europe, elections determine governments.
In the US, sentiment regarding China turned abruptly with the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Candidate Trump had telegraphed his intent to take a harder line. By the time he left, Americans were convinced of the seriousness of the China threat. This sentiment now dominates Congressional opinion and boxes in his successor.
On balance, the Biden administration is in a good place on China and an excellent place on Taiwan. Still, it is not unthinkable that, having established a baseline, Biden will have a Nixon-to-China moment. Senator Biden often reminded his Senate colleagues during complex debates to keep their eye on the ball. President Biden’s hedge while in Europe that the US is not in a contest with China “per se” serves as convenient reminder of his Senatorial wisdom.
In contrast with the US, the European political environment is less clear-cut. Yes, there is polling showing that upwards of 70 percent of the publics in Germany and France have unfavorable opinions of China. Yet, their political leadership doesn’t seem to have caught up. The Merkel and Macron governments were the driving force behind the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) — which, it is critical to note, has only been “frozen,” not killed, by the EU Parliament. The Germans and the French also presented challenges to crafting the China-related portions of the latest G-7 leaders’ statement.
This may correct soon enough. In Germany, national elections are approaching and anti-China sentiment is hardening, particularly among supporters of the surging Green Party. Then again, forming a government in Germany is a complicated business. It is impossible from now to know its shape, let alone its take on China. As for Macron, he seems committed to running for re-election next year as a master of diplomatic nuance, both pro-China and anti-China, both in favor of transatlantic cooperation on China and cautious about ganging up on it. Time will tell if the French care enough to demand their next leader put a finer point on things.
Finally, there is China’s own behavior. It could change in ways that would complicate transatlantic cooperative efforts to manage it. The EU Parliament was very specific about its principal concern with CAI: Chinese sanctions on its members. Europe’s fundamental interests in that agreement have not changed. A deal that facilitates lifting the sanctions and reinstating CAI’s economic benefits cannot be ruled out. That, in turn, will once again change the environment around transatlantic cooperation.
The bottom line is that the US and Europe are finding common cause on China. No doubt. Even as we celebrate this, however, staying on task requires proponents of this cooperation to recognize its potential limitations.
Walter Lohman is the director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
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