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March 30, 2021

A Common Front on China? A View from the United States

A robust transatlantic agenda on China is required not in spite of, but because of the complex interdependencies that exist between the West and Beijing. 

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The new US administration has spent its first few months in office articulating a foreign policy that will guide its relations with both allies and adversaries. One overarching focus is the urgent need to strengthen democracy’s comparative advantages over rising authoritarianism. As President Joe Biden stated at this year’s Munich Security Conference, “We’re at an inflection point between those who argue that, given all the challenges we face—from the fourth industrial revolution to a global pandemic—that autocracy is the best way forward, they argue, and those who understand that democracy is essential—essential to meeting those challenges.” China is central to this proclamation, even if not explicitly stated.

Viewing the Peoples’ Republic as an ideological challenge makes many Europeans uncomfortable; it harkens back to a time of iron curtains and nuclear standoffs between the United States and the Soviet Union. But today’s realities bear little resemblance to the Cold War. Unlike the USSR, China is a major engine of economic growth. It was the only major economy that grew throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and today comprises 18 percent of the world’s GDP. China’s share of world trade is three times that of the Soviet Union in 1959, and the country recently surpassed the United States as the EU’s largest trading partner. China will also be a central player in tackling transnational challenges such as climate change, pandemic recovery and preparedness, and arms control.

Strengthening transatlantic democracies requires even more focus and attention today because of the complex interdependence that exists between our countries and China, not in spite of it. Recognizing that we must safeguard liberal democracy from authoritarian influence is not a retroactive worldview, nor is it the basis of an anti-China agenda. Rather, a shared commitment to renewing our democracies is an enduring feature of the transatlantic relationship and should remain so in the years ahead. 

Early Outreach to Allies

Unlike President Donald Trump’s unilateral approach toward China, the Biden administration aims to work through coalitions of like-minded countries. This is a strategy born more out of necessity than out of deference to America’s partners. The balance of power between the US and China has shifted significantly over the last decade. China’s relative economic position has strengthened since the global financial crisis of 2008–09. Beijing has modernized and professionalized its military. China’s leaders no longer promote a national strategy of “hiding its light and biding its time.” The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) acts assertively through military, economic, and diplomatic tools on the world stage and with impunity against ethnic and religious minorities at home. It is stripping Hong Kong of its autonomy and democracy. If the US is to be successful in safeguarding its interests and values from a more aggressive and powerful China, it needs partners at its side.

America’s multilateral efforts have already begun to bear fruit in the Indo-Pacific. The first leader-level summit of the Quad (the US, Japan, Australia, and India) shows promise for advancing cooperation on everything from vaccine distribution to fighting climate change. One important outcome is the launch of a working group on critical and emerging technologies to facilitate cooperation on standard-setting and innovation.

Working with allies in Europe will likely prove more difficult than in the Indo-Pacific. It is increasingly clear that President Trump was only one of several reasons behind the lack of transatlantic cooperation on China. Often, he was a convenient excuse. The deep divisions across the EU and within member states on how best to balance competition and partnership with China are another inhibitor to cooperation. Chinese economic leverage continues to divide European and transatlantic unity even on issues where there are shared concerns, including on Chinese surveillance technologies and unfair trade practices.

Stalled Momentum

The EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) is illustrative of such divisions. The deal was finalized in principle just weeks before President Biden took office despite calls from incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to hold off and allow time for coordination. The overarching impression of the CAI in Washington is one of poor optics and bad timing, highlighting China’s ability to split European and transatlantic cohesion to its own benefit.

While some argue that it is nothing more than a bilateral trade deal (similar to the Phase I trade deal reached between the Trump administration and Beijing), the CCP has hailed it as a major political and diplomatic victory. The CAI has also highlighted that Europeans (and Germans in particular) aim to separate economic and strategic interests with China, an approach Washington no longer believes is possible.

Fortunately there are several avenues of cooperation between the US and Europe on China that CAI does not preclude. The strongest transatlantic agenda on China will be one that focuses first and foremost on democratic resilience. Specifically, the US, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the EU should pursue three policies: first, enhance defenses and set standards in emerging technologies and AI to protect against authoritarian influence and interference; second, speak with one, collective voice on human rights and democratic freedoms; and third, enhance cooperation with democracies in the Indo-Pacific to uphold the rules-based international system.

Advancing Democratic Resilience

Make Technology Safe for Democracies: Over the last two years, transatlantic conversations on technology have been dominated by disagreements over whether to allow Chinese telecom Huawei to build out Europe’s 5G networks. Yet behind such disagreements is a shared interest in ensuring that emerging technologies and AI reflect democratic values. Growing concerns in Europe over China’s surveillance technologies and high-tech manufacturing provide new impetus for transatlantic cooperation.

While the US and Europe are already advancing joint R&D efforts, the US, the EU, and NATO should explore how best to share data sets to train AI algorithms, boost defenses against counter-AI techniques, and investigate other efforts to exploit AI system vulnerabilities. Achieving this objective will not be without its difficulties. European attempts at “digital sovereignty” may hinder transatlantic cooperation, as could discrepancies over data privacy, regulation, and digital taxation.

To overcome these hurdles, I and others in a report recently published by Harvard Kennedy School and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) call for the creation of a Transatlantic Technology Forum to address security, economic, and regulatory disagreements and set global standards that protect privacy, competition, transparency, and fairness. Alongside such a forum, a Transatlantic Trade and Economic Dialogue involving the US, Canada, the UK, the EU, and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries would help to align policy regarding new technologies like AI, biotechnology, and quantum computing.

Speak with a Collective Voice on Human Rights and Democratic Freedoms: Transatlantic partners must speak out against human rights violations abroad while strengthening democratic institutions and norms at home. The US, Canada, the UK, and the EU have each passed their own Magnitsky Acts that allow for the freezing of assets and imposition of travel bans on individuals involved in serious human rights violations and abuses. In March 2021, these pieces of legislation were employed in a coordinated fashion against Chinese individuals and entities involved in Beijing’s mass internment of the Uighur ethnic minority group in Xinjiang. This is a positive signal that jointly addressing human rights violations is possible. Similar coordinated actions should be considered in response to China’s efforts to undermine Hong Kong’s democracy and autonomy.

Moving forward, the US and likeminded partners on both sides of the Atlantic should also oppose China’s aggression and bullying in the South and East China Seas, and urge stronger legal measures in international courts. Finally, and perhaps most complex, democratic countries around the world should strengthen their relations with Taiwan and make it clear that Taipei should remain free from Chinese pressure.

Strengthen Cooperation with Democracies in the Indo-Pacific: European countries increasingly view the Indo-Pacific as a region central to international commerce, security, and stability. France released an Indo-Pacific Strategy in 2018 and was the first European country to do so. Germany released its own Indo-Pacific strategy in September 2020 and announced that it would send a naval frigate to patrol the Indo-Pacific this year. Most recently, the UK published its “Integrated Review” of its security, defense, and foreign policy and stated ambitiously that: “By 2030, we will be deeply engaged in the Indo-Pacific as the European partner with the broadest, most integrated presence in support of mutually-beneficial trade, shared security and values.” This focus should create new opportunities for cooperation between the world’s leading democracies in Europe and Asia.

One avenue for cooperation is through British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suggestion to invite South Korea, India, and Australia to this year’s G7 meeting, effectively expanding the G7 into a “D-10” of leading democracies. In the longer-term, momentum could build around a “Quad+1” format, to include a European country such as the UK (although this would likely meet resistance from India). 

In addition to international summits and groupings, the US can seek to advance more agile forms of cooperation among likeminded partners. This is crucial on technological issues, where the US should promote R&D and joint publicly-funded programs in AI and emerging technologies among European countries, G7 partners, and Asian democracies such as South Korea and Taiwan. There is also room for greater cooperation between transatlantic and Asian democratic partners on trade issues. For example, the US, Europe, and Japan should expand on current cooperation at the WTO and bring forward joint cases that address unfair Chinese trade practices.

Building a Common Agenda

Both sides of the Atlantic recognize that cooperation is not an end in itself, nor is it a strategy for addressing an authoritarian and assertive China. Americans and Europeans will not agree on how to assess and respond to every challenge from China. It is clear that even the strongest economic powers in Europe, including Germany, will remain dependent on China’s market and trade. Transatlantic partners should instead seek to make progress on policies where US and European interests and values align. Here there is ample room to advance an agenda of democratic resilience, specifically on technology and human rights policy, and in working with Asian democracies to strengthen the rules-based international order. An agenda centered around strengthening democracy will not bring about a new Cold War with China. It will drive transatlantic partners to uphold the free society values and principles we hold sacred.  

Torrey Taussig is a research director in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and a nonresident fellow in the Foreign Policy program's Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.

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