There's a Crack Between the U.S. and Europe Over China

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

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

First is geography. America’s 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, U.S. strategists can easily imagine scenarios in which America 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 China poses but on the economic opportunities it offers. David Cameron made headlines in 2015 by proclaiming a “golden era” in Sino-U.K. relations and taking Xi Jinping 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. But 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 couldn’t. 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 can’t 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 United States and Japan. But 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 U.S.-Europe gap is being compounded -- as are so many problems in American policy today -- by President Donald Trump. Trump’s 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 Jinping to steal the show at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2017, 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 American behavior.

It has also inhibited cooperation on matters where U.S. and European observers largely agree. As the Financial Times has reported, some European officials and business elites share U.S. concerns about Chinese intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer. Yet they remain wary of collaborating on retaliatory measures for fear of undermining the World Trade Organization (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 a European Union move to delay recognition of China as a market economy by the WTO. But 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 the U.S.-China competition is playing out most intensely in the Asia-Pacific. Yet if the gap persists, it will cause U.S. strategists no end of troubles.

For one thing, the implementation of a more American competitive economic strategy vis-à-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 United States 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; they therefore require the support of America’s European allies, several of which remain among the world’s largest economies. 

The transatlantic gap has the potential to undercut U.S. strategy in other ways, as well. Over time, Washington might find it harder to dissuade the EU from lifting its arms embargo, a step that would intensify Beijing’s challenge to U.S. 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 notes, 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 U.S. 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 United States -- 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. And that 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.

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

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. His latest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump."

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

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