Europe and Germany in China-US Rivalry

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Europe and Germany in China-US Rivalry

Insights from Klaus Mühlhahn.

Europe and Germany in China-US Rivalry
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat 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 Dr. Klaus Mühlhahn – president of Zeppelin University and author of numerous publications on China, including “Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping” (Harvard 2019) – is the 366th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

Examine the strategic relevance of Europe in China-U.S. rivalry.

China and the U.S. seem on a collision course. The economic strength and technological superiority that were the sources of U.S. primacy have been challenged by a rising China. Debates in Europe today rage about how the rise of China should best be handled by the incumbent power and sole remaining superpower, the United States, while maintaining global stability and peace.

The strategic relevance of Europe in the U.S.-China rivalry thus lies in its potential to act as a mediator and promoter of global stability. Europe recognizes the economic costs of a great power struggle and hopes to persuade the U.S. to develop a working relationship with China, while maintaining competition. However, this more ambivalent and cautious approach also provides China with the opportunity to split Europe from the U.S. Europe’s stance also emphasizes the importance of cooperation with China to address global challenges such as climate change. Ultimately, Europe’s position highlights the need for a nuanced and multifaceted approach to the U.S.-China rivalry that takes into account not only economic and strategic concerns but also global stability and cooperation.

Analyze the divergent positions of Germany, France, and the European Union on how the EU should engage China.

There are divergent positions among Berlin, Paris, and Brussels regarding the EU’s engagement with China. While Brussels emphasizes the importance of transatlantic relations with the U.S. in the context of security and defense, France is cautious about taking a confrontational approach toward China, as it seeks to protect its significant economic ties with Beijing. Berlin, on the other hand, is torn between its heavy economic interests in China and its commitment to the transatlantic partnership with the United States. 

The differences in approach have resulted in a fragmented EU strategy on China. Some member states have pushed for a more assertive stance toward China, citing concerns over human rights abuses, while others prefer a more cooperative approach to ensure access to the Chinese market. The EU has also been grappling with issues such as technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and market access barriers.

In recent years, the EU has tried to present a more united front on China, with the publication of a strategic documents on China and the establishment of a framework for screening foreign direct investment. However, divisions still exist, and China has taken advantage of this to pursue a “divide and conquer” strategy, exploiting differences among member states to advance its interests.

Identify the stakes for Berlin in strategically positioning Germany amid escalating China-U.S. tensions.

Germany’s strategic positioning amid escalating U.S.-China tensions is of utmost importance for the future of the country. Germany is the largest economy in Europe and heavily dependent on exports for economic growth. China has become one of Germany’s most important trading partners, accounting for over 8 percent of Germany’s total trade in goods in 2020. Germany also sees China as an important partner in addressing global challenges such as climate change and multilateralism.

However, as U.S.-China tensions escalate, Germany is facing increasing pressure from the U.S. to align with its position on China. The U.S. views China as a strategic competitor and systemic rival and is pushing its allies to adopt a tougher stance on China. This puts Germany in a difficult position as it seeks to balance its economic interests with China and its strategic alliance with the United States. 

The German government has declared that is does not want to cut economic, societal, political, and scientific ties with China. But Berlin does see a need to rebalance the relationship for strengthening transparency, predictability and reciprocity. This approach is also called “de-risking.” This of course marks a difference from the American strategy that, as U.S. officials point out, aims at a wide-reaching dissociation from Beijing, which is known as decoupling. For Berlin, the intention is to reduce and avoid risks, rather than a complete disengagement from China.

Explain how the Ukraine war and Taiwan Strait tensions are testing U.S.-EU relations.

The ongoing war in Ukraine and the rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait are putting a strain on the transatlantic relationship between the U.S. and the EU. The Ukraine war has highlighted Europe’s reliance on the U.S. for its security, particularly in the face of Russian aggression. The Ukraine war has led to a deep soul-searching in Europe. Some speak of the “end of naiveté.” 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed Europeans’ profound dependence on the U.S. for security. Over the last decade, the EU has relatively weakened compared to America – economically, technologically, and militarily. Europeans also still lack consensus on crucial geopolitical questions and expect Washington to lead. Although American leadership recently has been shaky, especially under President Trump, the U.S. still expects the EU and the U.K. to fall in line behind its China strategy, including its Taiwan policy. 

However, Europe is wary of being dragged into a potential conflict over the Taiwan Strait or becoming a war party in the Ukraine war. Instead, European leaders have been calling for a more balanced approach to dealing with these issues, prioritizing diplomacy, and peaceful solutions. However, tensions with the U.S. over its approach to China and other geopolitical issues could strain the transatlantic relationship even further. 

Assess whether European “strategic autonomy” is viable vis-à-vis mounting U.S.-China competition and China-Russia cooperation.

The concept of “strategic autonomy” has become increasingly important in recent years as Europe faces mounting challenges from both the United States and China. Internally, the departure of the United Kingdom from the EU has forced Brussels to demonstrate the continued viability of European integration, while externally, growing economic interests have driven Europe’s attention towards the Asia-Pacific region. However, concerns about China’s increasing economic and military power, coupled with competitive bilateral economic relations, have also pushed Europe to reassess its policies towards Beijing.

While the idea of strategic autonomy is motivated by the perception of American interests diverging from Europe’s, confusion abounds as to what it involves in practice. Europe’s major powers recognize the security implications of China’s rise and Russia’s aggression, but no clear viable strategy has been devised, much less implemented. 

Europe’s pursuit of strategic autonomy must also contend with China-Russia cooperation, which could further complicate Europe’s relationship with both powers. The EU must consider the possibility that China might use Russia to balance against the West, and that China might seek closer ties with Russia to undermine Europe’s strategic autonomy.

Ultimately, the viability of European strategic autonomy in the face of mounting U.S.-China competition and China-Russia cooperation will depend on Europe’s ability to articulate a clear strategy that balances economic interests with security concerns, develops a common strategic culture, and effectively cooperates with both the United States and China on issues of mutual interest while asserting its independence where necessary.