Trans-Pacific View

Europe in US-China Rivalry: Stakes and Strategy

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy

Europe in US-China Rivalry: Stakes and Strategy

Insights from Jonathan Holslag.

Europe in US-China Rivalry: Stakes and Strategy
Credit: Flickr/ Friends of Europe

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Jonathan Holslag professor of international politics at Free University of Brussels, special adviser to the first vice president of the European Commission, and author of numerous publications, including The Silk Road Trap (Polity Press 2019)is the 220th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Assess how European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will likely manage EU relations with China and the core stakes of the EU’s China strategy.

The EU is caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it’s pressured by U.S. President Donald Trump; on the other it’s challenged by China. One would suppose this to lead the countries to work closer together, but that has not been the case and I fear it will not be the case. As a result, the European institutions make bold declarations about China being a systemic rival, without changing its policy accordingly.

Consider investment screening. It’s advanced at the EU level, but the responsibility remains with the member states and most of them do not have the intel and the capacity to properly do so. Consider 5G. Again, a critical EU position, but the member states remain opportunistic. Or take the connectivity strategy, meant to balance the BRI [Belt and Road Initiative]. On paper, it looks nice, but in practice its lacks funding and member state support. Trade, finally. I do not see the Commission or member states building up the resolve to address the unfair competition from China. They still have the vain expectation to rescue the WTO instead, which allows China to buy more time.

The problem is that people here are critical about Trump, which is understandable, but do not come up with a better alternative.

Examine European political and public reactions to China’s expanding, aggressive approach in the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Sweden, etc. 

The attitude towards China starts to change, but only slowly, and not to the point yet that member states really say: it’s enough! We are all being pressured by Chinese diplomats to accept Huawei, scared that European companies that invested in China could suffer from trade tensions, but we still keep sending delegation after delegation to China to pursue business opportunities. Take France. The one day, [French President] Emmanuel Macron calls [Germany Chancellor] Angela Merkel and the Commission President to meet President Xi Jinping together in Paris, the next day he desperately tries to sell Airbus planes. Same for Germany. Companies like Volkswagen, BASF, and BMW shape the China agenda much more than long-term strategic concerns or the national interest. In closed-door meetings member state officials vent their frustration about China, but at the end of the day, short-term opportunism prevails. It is often said that the main stumbling block for a common EU policy towards China is the predominance of national interests. I would say it is often more national ignorance.

How is China capitalizing on EU-U.S. tensions and raising geopolitical and economic stakes?   

I can assure you that many folks here in Brussels consider Donald Trump a bigger challenge than China. The Western world destroys itself and if this goes on, China only needs to pick up the pieces. There are different ways in which Beijing is exploiting this. After the American threat of protectionist measures against German cars, China presented itself as a reliable trade alternative. Now that Trump has turned his back on the WTO, China presents itself as a reliable partner in rescuing multilateralism. And despite it being obvious that China has been a free-rider on much of the global economic governance, you would be surprised how many officials fall for that argument. To be sure, China also has its vulnerability, but at this moment, the United States has relapsed into economic appeasement for a fistful of soy, the EU has not yet started to develop a meaningful strategy to counter China’s offensive mercantilism, and NATO is significantly divided. Nobody is willing to truly defend the values of the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 in light of China’s advancing authoritarianism.

Is a “NATO-China Council” modeled on the existing NATO-Russia Council viable?

As far as I understand, the NATO-China Council is not yet in the offing. My advice to NATO has been that we need to engage China through strength. We first need to bolster our position inside NATO’s mandate area and only then we can properly engage China. Otherwise, one risks ending up with the kind of engagement that China usually cultivates, allowing it to gather intelligence, to selectively cooperate, to gain experience, and to use the time that we talk to continue to alter the military balance around and even inside NATO’s mandate area. I think we should move towards a division of labor in which European countries invest more to preserve security between the North Atlantic and the Middle East, so that the U.S. has its hands free to do more in the Indo-Pacific. NATO could help European countries to rebuild dominance inside along the main maritime gateways to the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Russia’s developing A2AD [anti-access/aerial denial] capabilities are a good warm-up for China’s military modernization. We can engage China, join forces even, but first we must do our homework. Engagement should not be appeasement or a guise for weakness and irresolution.

As U.S.-China rivalry intensifies, why should U.S. policymakers be concerned about China’s growing influence in Europe?

It depends on the viewpoint. For those who believe, and these are still numerous, that there are some values that we hold in common, whatever the ailments of today’s democracy and the errors of the past, the weakening of the West, not just Europe, and the advancing of dictatorship is a historic defeat in the making and threatens everything that previous generations fought for. For the hard-nosed realists: we risk the nightmare of another revisionist power that eclipses all other powers in Eurasia, certainly if we keep driving countries like Russia into its arms. China is fragile, to be sure, but all other countries on its fringes are much more fragile: Japan, stagnant; Southeast Asia, divided; India going nowhere with its economic reform; the Middle East, a mess; Europe, fragmenting. We are not there yet, but I would start to worry about the long run. It suffices for all this Eurasian fringe players to continue to hedge opportunistically for another decade or to, and the balance of power might shift decisively. I assume America strategists are familiar enough with history to understand the possible repercussions of that scenario.