May 27, 2021

Charting its Own, Nuanced Course on China is in Europe’s Interest

There are good reasons why Europeans should withstand Washington’s charm offensive to align with the United States when it comes to China policy, including global governance, Africa, and geopolitics.

An attendant walks past EU and China flags ahead of the EU-China High-level Economic Dialogue at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China June 25, 2018.
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The US presidential transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden in January 2021 has not entailed a relaxation of tensions between the United States and China. This increasingly puts Germany and other European countries between a rock and a hard place: how should they position themselves in the intensifying Sino-American great power rivalry? Obviously, this question defies easy answers. Yet, as the debate about European options seems to be tilting more and more toward favoring transatlantic solidarity, it must be clear that joining a full-blown anti-China coalition would be myopic and not in line with major European interests. Importantly, these interests go far beyond economic profits.

Unlike its predecessor, the incumbent Biden administration has launched a charm offensive on Europe, and Germany in particular, thereby seeking to enlist the old continent’s support in the US’s growing rivalry with China. One major instrument used by the Biden administration as well as transatlanticist pundits and institutions supporting Biden is the now strongly developed narrative that the key fault line of today’s international system runs between democracies and autocracies and hence the European Union and European countries should prioritize shared transatlantic values over short-term economic gains from China.

Without a doubt, this narrative has strong appeal. While the EU was founded as a “community of values,” including democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, China treats those values with seemingly growing contempt. China’s more recent behavior toward Hong Kong and its Uighur minority in Xinjiang speaks volumes in this regard. China’s disproportionate retaliation following EU sanctions in March this year has been grist for the mill of an increasing number of politicians and experts across Europe who demand a much tougher stance on Beijing, including much closer transatlantic alignment. The marked deterioration since last year of China’s image across large parts of Europe’s population, and especially in Western European countries, has done one more thing to undergird such demands. As a result, the few leading European politicians, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who remain hesitant about jumping on the bandwagon, are increasingly put on the defensive.

The True Fault Line?

Nonetheless, the crucial question is whether the democracy-autocracy divide actually represents the ultimate fault line in the light of which Europeans should assess their options vis-à-vis the US and China. This is not least because there are three key areas of important concern for Europeans where such dichotomous thinking clearly does not serve major European interests particularly well.   

The first area is global governance. If global governance is to successfully address pressing global problems such as climate change, pandemics, and nuclear non-proliferation, this entails, almost by definition, that democratic states must be willing to not only work together with like-minded states, but also engage, and find compromises with, non-like-minded countries, especially if they are as big and consequential as China. It is correct, and was a good sign, in this regard that Biden invited China to his digital climate summit in late April. Apart from that, the more general impression, however, is that the US continues to see global governance primarily as a strategic arena in which to maintain dominance over Beijing and limit Chinese influence in key international institutions. The World Trade Organization is a case in point, where all the major players agree that the organization has to be reformed, but where Washington shows no sign of letting China, the world’s second-largest economy, have a say at the table. Given China’s dubious WTO track record to date, it actually makes sense to provide the Chinese side with greater, not smaller, incentives to follow the rules of a revamped WTO by involving Beijing in the reform process in the first place.

While the EU and European countries used to profit from the US’s sway over international institutions, it cannot be in Europeans’ interest if global governance becomes increasingly fragmented and even paralyzed in light of Sino-American great power competition. If Europeans are seriously interested in solving, or at least mitigating, global challenges, then they must also continue to collaborate with not only the US, but also China on a range of demanding issues. This includes the promotion of necessary change in the current global governance system at large so as to better reflect the division of power in today’s world, thereby rendering the system more balanced and stable.

China’s Africa Engagement

The second area concerns Africa. The continent was long exploited, then neglected by Europeans; the migration issue has brought it back into focus. Today, Europeans need to make an honest and comprehensive long-term investment in the future of all Africa so as to help build a more prosperous and more stable continent that otherwise has the potential to spell huge trouble for European countries and their societies. But the resources available to Africa’s former colonizers alone will be insufficient and, therefore, Europeans will need partners. The Biden administration has announced its intention to deepen the US commitment to Africa, but Washington has a long way to go to catch up. Meanwhile, China’s unrivaled pursuit of Africa for many years—albeit far from unambiguous either—has led to an enormous breadth of Chinese engagement in Africa. It is of course true that China will not bring more democracy to Africa. But there is also a fair chance that the Chinese will contribute positively to development, prosperity, and stability in many African countries. This trajectory would be put at risk, with negative impacts on Europe, if Africa were turned into one of the new theaters of intensifying US-China global competition. Against this backdrop, Europeans can not really afford to work against China in Africa, but should rather find a way to work with both the US and China there—for the sake of Africa and Europe itself.

The third area relates to geostrategy. In prudent geostrategic reasoning, the political systems of states play, at best, a subordinate role. But the opposite is currently happening. As the Biden administration continues to put the screws on both China and Russia at the same time, we can observe that the two autocratic giants are growing closer and closer. (Henry Kissinger may well be not amused.) Even though there remain significant hurdles to the revival of a Sino-Russian alliance, for Europeans just this scenario is already worrisome, given that they would not be able to defend their continent without NATO (read, American) support. While such support may be guaranteed under the current Biden administration, will this also hold true under his successors who may return to a more Trumpian way of sidelining NATO and Europe? As a result, the EU and European countries should evade the building of military blocs that put them in a vulnerable geostrategic position by potentially leaving them alone with two very powerful adversaries on the Eurasian land mass.

To be sure, none of this is to deny that the US remains a closer and more natural partner for the EU and European countries than China, nor is it to militate against the need for increased European alertness to China’s foreign behavior. What it does mean, though, is that European decision-makers should avoid following the US into a full-scale anti-China coalition. Even though this may go against what many in the EU and European countries typically deem to be part of their DNA, Europeans should critically question if the prioritization of values over interests is always the right choice by default, especially in rough times of great power competition.

Sebastian Biba is Visiting Research Fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, and a Research Fellow (on leave) at the Institute for Political Science, Goethe University Frankfurt.