What is the EU’s approach to the U.S.-China rivalry?

20 oktober 2021Leestijd: 5 minuten
De Chinese leider Xi Jinping kwam in 2019 op bezoek in Parijs. Foto: Corbis/Getty

In mid-October I had the privilege of speaking on two panels at The Rīga Conference 2021 and its side-events. The Latvian Transatlantic Organization (LATO) brought together politicians, diplomats, and experts for constructive dialogue on international security issues.

As you might imagine, China was a frequently discussed topic.  The round table discussion that I joined was entitled “Reconsidering the Global Order: U.S. and China,” with my specific task being to present thoughts on the European Union’s approach to U.S.-China relations.  However, there is not just one EU attitude towards U.S.-China relations.  Instead, I see three significantly differing standpoints.  The first is a trade-related approach, the second is a security-related posture and the third I labeled a French approach.

No Sinophobe
The first approach for the EU is to carve out some mediating position between the U.S. and China.  Nothing exemplifies this position more than the 30 December 2020 deal that the EU brokered at the end of the German presidency with China.  While some in the EU were boasting that the deal exemplified strategic autonomy, Biden said that he would prefer a united front of democracies to provide substantial leverage over China.  Europeans do see his point, especially after China boycotted retailers like Sweden’s H&M and slapped sanctions on 10 MEPs and 4 European Union organizations for making statements about forced labor in Xinjiang province.

Nevertheless, most governments in Europe want a more conciliatory trade relationship with China, courting its investment and eyeing its market potential in services and EU-made goods.  As The Economist pointed out in July 2021, China trades with a greater number of countries in the world than America does.  The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was designed to do something about the realities of trade, but former President Donald J. Trump killed the TPP on his first full day in office.

While there are several ways that allies are affected by what feels like a new emerging Cold War, none is more troublesome than the rivalry in technology, where the Biden administration is launching a “techno-democracies” versus “techno-autocracies” campaign.  The geopolitics of tech highlight the dilemma that Europe faces in carving out a reconciling position between its American ally and attractive Chinese investments.  The 15 October phone call between European Council President Charles Michel and Chinese President Xi Jinping to arrange a “27+1” summit, which will include Xi and all the EU leaders, is the latest step in the EU’s mediating approach.

China’s assertiveness
Technology is also intimately tied to the second approach, since tech is closely linked to national security and future threats, in a variety of ways: through ensuring national access to essential hardware; in particular, micro processing chips; through the military capacity of advanced and sensitive technology, such as quantum computing and Artificial Intelligence (AI); through the harvesting and use of data; or through cyber-crime and cyber-terrorism.

In the case of semiconductor chips, the U.S., China, and European countries all want to increase their self-reliance in part because of the current global shortage in chips continues to wreak havoc across many industries. The fact that today the largest producer of sought-after chips is the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), causes stress about Asia’s dominance in the $600 billion chip sector industry as well as specific worries about Taiwan’s future independence.  With China stepping up its military assertiveness against Taiwan along with an uptick in its claim on sovereignty, concerns about China attempting to “reunify” by force are at an all-time high.

The EU’s security approach also means that EU leaders are increasingly focused on the Indo-Pacific.  For instance, outgoing German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told Politico that France should accept the importance of the new AUKUS pact. Europeans know that America boasts formidable convening powers in the region, which heavily influences their forward movement alongside their realization that the Indo-Pacific is intensifying in its global impact.

Stab in the Back
Which brings us to the third posture, the French approach.  Soon after taking office, in 2017, Macron clearly stated his goals for “European sovereignty” and a “capacity to act autonomously” in security matters should the need arise.  Other EU member states, like those facing Russia on the eastern shoulder of the union, regard these goals as undermining NATO.  However, the fact that European allies were either barely or not at all consulted on AUKUS and the U.S.-led withdrawal from Afghanistan, raised legitimate concerns about U.S. credibility.

For many of America’s allies, the rivalry between China and the U.S., especially the contest in technology, means that the differences between Biden and Trump are few.  The fact that the AUKUS pact was announced on the same day that the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, published the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy may not be stab-in-the-back painful but does feels like a slap in the face.

Tricky circumstances
What do these three approaches mean?  The first views China as a possible partner, thus requiring Europeans to go forward carefully between two global rivals.  The second sees China as a strategic competitor and security threat, which necessitates forging new ties with America on a variety of levels.  The third sees America as an unreliable ally at a time of a rising China.  France argues that because this is not a fleeting trend, Europe needs greater self-reliance in the military sense.

Europeans find themselves in a thorny situation that necessitates a delicate dance between two superpowers that are increasingly wary of each other.  Add to this Biden’s recent missteps in foreign policy, which frustrated allies, elicited criticism from supporters and raised concerns that he is not as sure-footed in international affairs as he claimed.

However, Biden is not Trump, meaning rather than double down on his mistakes Biden has the capacity to realize that he bruised his allies’ egos.  This gives Europeans a lot more flexibility as well as the possibility for far more influence than they ever had with Trump.

Even if Europeans do not agree on how to approach the U.S.-China relationship, they can agree that having a president who pledges a return to multilateralism with an appreciation of allies is better than one that spurns them.