Flashpoints | Diplomacy

Europe and the New Sino-American Cold War

Parsing the stakes – and the option – for Europe.

By Nicolas Regaud for
Europe and the New Sino-American Cold War
Credit: Pixabay

For two years, the United States has been engaged in a global confrontation with China, based on the Trump administration’s assessment that the policy of engagement pursued for decades has failed; that the growing assertiveness of China’s authoritarian regime is driving a policy disrespectful of international law, with revisionist designs for the international order; and that China’s government is coercive both toward its own population as well as countries daring to oppose or criticize its policy, like Australia is experiencing today.

The speech of Vice President Mike Pence at the Hudson Institute in October 2018 was a marker of the radical turning point in American posture, adding crude words to a more polished December 2017 National Security Strategy. Pence spoke of an “Orwellian system” of population control, the desire for Chinese domination of the technologies that will be at the heart of tomorrow’s global economy, massive industrial espionage, and a China aimed at “pushing the United States out of the West Pacific” and breaking the system of alliances in the region. The “United States Strategic Approach Towards the People’s Republic of China,” issued by the White House on May 20, detailed the nature of the challenges posed by China in terms of values, security, and economics, and presents the guidelines of American policy aimed at taking them up.

For its part, Europe has lost its “naïvety,” as the EU High Representative and Vice-President Josep Borrell puts it, and the EU, after having designated China as a “systemic rival” in 2019, seems determined to defend its interests better (as illustrated by the establishment of a foreign investment control mechanism) and to articulate its Chinese policy around the requirement of reciprocity, a principle disputed by a China that sees very well the risks for its authoritarian-capitalist model. The recent EU-China summit thus seems to have had the main virtue of speaking unequivocally of the disagreements (including Hong Kong, disinformation practices, and human rights).

Despite the European change in tone, the transatlantic differences over how to deal with the multiple challenges in China relations remain considerable. Brussels considers that deep disagreements with Beijing should not prevent it from cooperating with China on global issues such as climate change, refusing the zero-sum game that seems to prevail in Washington. There, discussion on China policy centers on a new cold war, “great decoupling,” and the need for others to “choose sides.” In this regard, the Manichean remarks made in June 2020 by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said the world would need to choose “between freedom and tyranny,” are both enlightening and worrying for Europeans.

The ingredients for a new type of cold war are present, and this forces the Europeans to take into account the potential consequences of a growing deterioration in Sino-American relations and Europe’s possible refusal to choose sides (the preferred position of the two-thirds of Europeans, according to a recent survey). Conversely, the China policy led by the Trump administration is the subject of a bipartisan consensus, which is based on public opinion where 90 percent see China as a threat. The new U.S. policy toward China will continue, even if Joe Biden were to win November’s presidential election.

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The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated and amplified U.S. policy to reduce the vulnerability of supply chains, particularly in high-tech areas. This entails providing incentives for companies to relocate key technology production away from China and to the United States or friendly countries, and to encourage the latter to pursue a comparable policy. To this end, the United States has invited half a dozen Indo-Pacific countries to participate in the Economic Prosperity Network to reduce their dependence on China. The decoupling policy also involves strengthening the control of foreign investment (investment from China in the U.S. plummeted from $25 billion in 2017 to $3 billion in 2019), while the administration could decide to reclassify dual-use technologies in order to better control their export and possible re-export, with cascading effects on the European production and export chains. Likewise, there is also a strong fear that the United States will resort to extraterritorial sanctions against foreign companies, in particular European ones, cooperating with Huawei. They too would be forced to make hard choices.

Europeans are not still at this point. They could downplay the gravity of the situation and consider they will be able to manage these new frictions, in the context of heavily fluctuating transatlantic relations for the past three years. That stance, however, would be a somewhat short-sighted vision of the stakes. The Atlantic alliance could be directly impacted in the event of an open crisis (or even conflict) between the two superpowers.

The balance of economic forces in the Indo-Pacific already leans toward China, and Chinese military strength is rapidly catching up. Admiral Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, warned in 2019 that the Chinese military’s capacities in the region could exceed those of the United States within five years. In such a context, aggravated by the impulsive unilateralism of the White House and as bellicose declarations and military maneuvers multiply (e.g. increasing number of U.S. freedom of navigation operations and Chinese intrusions in Taiwan’s airspace), the risks of an incident and escalating crisis dangerously increase. As illustrated by Beijing’s numerous coups de force since Xi Jinping came to power — land reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea, the crackdown in Hong Kong, seeking a fait accompli along the India-China border — Beijing is playing power politics, aggressively, without worrying too much about the negative soft power consequences. Many ingredients of an open crisis are present; the situation is very worrying.

Europeans should think about crisis scenarios in Asia. What would happen in the event of a serious military incident between the United States and China, or Chinese repression in Hong Kong, or a conflict between China and Taiwan (of which General Li Zuocheng, chief of the PLA Joint Staff, recently reminded us of the possibility).

Many Europeans think they could remain in the comfortable position of distant bystanders. But such open crises are likely to make Europeans lose their fragile unity, thus emphasizing their pusillanimity. That would be extremely detrimental because, for its part, the United States would expect from Europe unwavering political and diplomatic solidarity, possibly even some kind of direct or indirect military commitment. The United States would put huge pressure on Europe to choose sides, and a possible refusal to do so could have immense consequences for the alliance. This is a key question. Europeans who are reluctant to turn their eyes to the Indo-Pacific should consider that the transatlantic link – which they are right to consider as a foundation of European security – is at stake, and probably increasingly, in Asia.

In this context, the recent proposal by Borrell to his American counterpart to enter into a China-centered dialogue is an important and positive step. It echoes the intention expressed in 2012 by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton to open a dialogue on the Asia-Pacific, which had not been acted upon. This coming dialogue, which can be expected to be comprehensive and regular, could help convince Washington that the EU is determined, in its own way, to weigh in on Beijing’s unacceptable strategic choices and practices. By doing so, Europeans could enter the strategic equation, outline their red lines, and help prevent a global cold war and an open crisis fueled by hubris and a misassessment of the balance of power.

To do this, the Europeans still need to agree on a common strategic vision and a global strategy — political, economic, and security — with regard to China and the Indo-Pacific. This is a matter for Brussels and EU member states, but also involves an intensification of exchanges between experts and researchers.

Dr. Nicolas Regaud is senior research fellow and director for international development at the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM), in Paris.