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The Transatlantic Alliance and the China Challenge: Current Trends and Future Developments

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The Transatlantic Alliance and the China Challenge: Current Trends and Future Developments

A closer look at the current state and future evolution of U.S. and European collaboration on China.

The Transatlantic Alliance and the China Challenge: Current Trends and Future Developments
Credit: Flickr/US State Department

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a visit to Germany coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. While the trip was expected and the agenda of Pompeo’s trip was wide-ranging, of particular note was the focus on transatlantic cooperation regarding the challenge posed by China in spite of the differences that remain on that front.

While strategic transatlantic interconnectivity in Asia has long been clear dating back centuries – with events from the U.S. Open Door policy with respect to China in the late 19th century to the calculations of European powers about how to manage their declining colonial role in the region in the 20th century – the attention to transatlantic cooperation in Asia has increased in recent years. This is due to a series of factors, including Asia’s own growing economic and strategic heft which has driven both the United States and Europe to invest more in the region, as well as growing concerns about the challenge posed by China, in spite of differences that remain about how to address it.

Of particular note in this context has been the China challenge. As the Trump administration has begun clarifying the outlines of strategic competition with China – as evidenced by policies such as the so-called trade war and documents such as the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy– it has been looking to European allies such as France and Germany for a more united transatlantic front against Beijing on issues ranging from 5G to the South China Sea to human rights. Key European states have also been increasing their concern about aspects of China’s behavior, as seen in documents such as the Europe-Asia Connectivity Strategy unveiled last year and a European Commission strategy document this March which made reference to Beijing as a “systemic rival” – even if differences remain both within European countries and between Europe and the United States.

That spotlight on the transatlantic alliance and the China challenge has continued on over the past month or so. Over the past few weeks, the key officials within the Trump administration, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have been giving addresses to reinforce the Trump administration’s approach to the China challenge. There have also been developments tied to the approach of European states towards China, be it French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China or German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remarks at the German parliament last month, where she stressed that Germany’s holding of the rotating EU presidency would include a focus on China, including reportedly a notable first where President Xi Jinping would meet all EU heads of government and the presidents of the European Commission and Council.

Last week, the transatlantic alliance’s China challenge was in the spotlight again during Pompeo’s trip. The agenda for Pompeo’s trip, which lasted from November 6 to November 8, was wide-ranging, with engagements with German government officials as well as civil society tied to honoring the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But China was also part of that broader conversation as well. In his remarks at a joint press conference with Maas on November 7, Pompeo mentioned the China challenge first among a series of global issues within transatlantic cooperation, noting his speech in New York. And during an address at the Korber-Stiftung in Berlin on November 8, Pompeo reinforced the need for greater transatlantic cooperation with respect to China, arguing that Beijing was “shaping a new vision of authoritarianism” using tactics that would seem familiar to former Eastern Germans, and that countries needed to recognize free nations were in a value-based competition with unfree nations.

Pompeo’s remarks themselves were not surprising. They reflect Washington’s continued desire for greater transatlantic cooperation on the China challenge in general as well as on specific issues tied to it, including those such as 5G where there have been divisions between the United States and its allies. This desire transcends the Trump administration despite concerns about some of its policies. On November 12, for instance, James Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered an address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that touched on a Congressional perspective on the United States, Europe, and China, where he clearly noted Congress’s shared commitment to the issue even as he noted disagreements with some of Trump’s views.

Nonetheless, Pompeo’s trip also reinforced the fact that transatlantic collaboration on China is not without its challenges. While aspects of China’s behavior have indeed been causing concern in both the United States and parts of Europe, there continue to be differences in how both sides perceive those concerns depending on the issue in question, with a case in point being Germany’s evolving approach to China and 5G which Pompeo repeatedly referred to during his trip. There are also more structural constraints, be it divergences between European countries about their approaches to China or broader strains in the transatlantic alliance, in part due to the fact that the Trump administration has deepened disagreements over wider foreign policy issues such as Iran and climate change and raised questions about burden-sharing within the transatlantic alliance while attempting to forge greater collaboration with Europe on China.

How the transatlantic alliance evolves with respect to the China challenge will continue to be an issue to watch into 2020 and beyond. Beyond more immediate events such as the NATO Leaders Meeting in London in December or the ongoing evolution of the U.S.-China trade talks, broader trends and developments, including decisions that individual European countries take in their ties with China; shifts in aspects of Beijing’s behavior as we have seen in cases such as the BRI; and leadership transitions – be it Trump’s quest for reelection in 2020 or Merkel’s expected handover of power in 2021 – will be under scrutiny both for their own sake as well as what they reveal about the broader subject of the transatlantic alliance’s China challenge.