Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

The Emerging U.S. – China Strategic Competition and the Role of Transatlantic Cooperation

The Emerging U.S. – China Strategic Competition and the Role of Transatlantic Cooperation
 Scott W. Harold
Visiting Fellow - Asia Program

A recent and widely-read article by Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan has highlighted the fact that the U.S. is in the middle of "the most consequential rethinking of its foreign policy since the end of the Cold War" over the question of relations with China. As Elsa Kania has noted, in many ways the U.S. debate over relations with and policy towards China is "not a 'new era'," but rather a return of long-standing arguments over how to deal with the rise of China. Former senior official Mike Green focuses on the rise of China as the frame for the final section of his masterful history of U.S. relations with Asia By More than Providence, noting that the question of how to manage relations with China is linked more broadly to the question of whether to prioritize Asian or European security affairs. The Obama administration’s "pivot" indicated an intent to elevate Asia’s importance in U.S. foreign policy, and constitutes one of the last administration’s legacies in the Indo-Pacific that has been consolidated under the Trump administration. Indeed, as the 2017 National Security Strategy, the summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the State Department’s fact sheet on advancing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region, and the 2019 Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy report indicate, competition with China is the driving factor in this reprioritization. This begs the question, when competing with China, what role should U.S. alliances—especially the transatlantic relationships the United States has with its European partners—play? This question is potentially decisive for whether or not any strategy adopted by the U.S. to compete with China will succeed or fail.

Key U.S. Asia experts have expressed concerns that the Trump administration appears to have adopted an approach that is unlikely to succeed in competing with China. There is widespread agreement among U.S. Asia experts on the importance of allies; shared interests, values, and identity; consistency of policy; and clarity of strategy, staffing and resources if the U.S. is to compete effectively with China. Analysts have noted at least four key areas of concern that are relevant to managing transatlantic relations with respect to U.S. China policy.

First, U.S. observers worry that Washington has underspecified its policy goals and areas of disagreement with China, potentially losing support from countries not interested in an across-the-board confrontation with the PRC. This is a serious concern, since the appetite in much of Europe for a stronger stance towards China appears to be growing, with a recent Pew Research study finding that the median American and European views of China are statistically tied at 60% and 57% negative, respectively. Moreover, attitudes in many European nations, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom have all worsened by 5% or more since 2018. This hardening of European views of China has been reflected in a number of recent reports by leading European think-tank experts, and was at the heart of the European Commission’s report of March 2019 designating China an "economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance." These developments suggest that a more carefully calibrated U.S. approach could find much wider support than some of the Trump administration’s critics have claimed would be feasible.

Second, the Trump administration has sent inconsistent and contradictory signals, and appears uncertain of its own level of commitment to competition with China. Examples include the President’s praise for Xi Jinping’s ending of term limits; claims that he and Xi would "always be friends" followed by a sudden relabeling of the Chinese Communist Party leader as an "enemy"; as well as his initial refusal to speak out in support of the Hong Kong protesters followed by its inclusion in a broad-ranging UN speech largely focused on criticizing China over its trade practices. Also notable have been the administration’s ban, and subsequent reversal of its ban, on U.S. firms selling components to Chinese telecom giant ZTE; as well as the President’s willingness to treat the criminal detention of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou as a chit in his trade war with China. Such inconsistency is one factor—though by no means the only one—in the European Commission’s refusal to issue a blanket ban on Huawei; the U.S. leader’s personally difficult relationship with key European allies such as France and Germany, and his 4% approval rating across the continent, also further complicate efforts by Washington to build a transatlantic consensus.

Third, in giving such high-level priority to competing with China, especially on defense and security affairs, some observers worry that the Trump administration is misaligned with European concerns about China, most of which center pushing back firmly but less prominently on liberal values, technology and digital infrastructure standards, and supporting global norms and institutions. Key opportunities to compete with China using the transatlantic relationship exist if Washington can focus on issues of interest to Europeans and Americans alike, and in an approach that European powers can support. Promising areas for cooperation include achieving new multilateral agreements on trade and cases designed to hold China accountable at the WTO; synchronizing approaches to foreign direct investment national security reviews such as the U.S.’s CFIUS/FIRRMA and the EU’s FDI Screening Mechanism; and aligning to as great an extent as possible initiatives on subjects such as digital infrastructure and data protection, cyber security, and coordination in the implementation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Recommendations of the Council on Artificial Intelligence and the EU’s ethical standards for artificial intelligence; or joint plans to address global warming and climate change, much of it fueled by China’s continuing reliance on greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels. Other areas of possible cooperation could include coordinating responses to China’s extrajudicial use of concentration camps against Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang, repression in Tibet, efforts to undercut transparency and accountability and suppress protests in Hong Kong, and forced organ harvesting from Falun Gong practitioners; developing a unified plan to push back on China’s weaponization of tourism, students and scholars associations, and other tools of sharp power and interference; or working to support Taiwan’s security and meaningful participation in international society through mechanisms such as the Global Cooperation and Training Framework, where Sweden, Japan and the U.S. recently joined hands with Taipei and its diplomatic partners to discuss how to identify and resist social media disinformation campaigns and political manipulation. These are all on the harder end of competition with China, and can only be moved forward effectively if done collectively with U.S. allies and partners standing together. On some issues, Washington’s greater wherewithal, if employed effectively, might be able to help Brussels move stumbling blocks, such as the Greek government’s 2017 veto of a proposed common EU position on China’s human rights abuses.

Finally, U.S. policymakers need to be alert to the potential risks China poses to intra-European and transatlantic cooperation through a variety of initiatives that, to date, Washington has been relatively quiet about or disengaged from addressing. As Adam Liff’s work on China and the U.S. alliance system has shown, China holds a fundamentally hostile view of America’s alliances, seeing them as obstacles to Beijing’s ambitions. While to date China’s focus has largely centered driving wedges in the U.S. alliance network in the Indo-Pacific, China would likely welcome fracturing of the transatlantic relationship as well, since this would enable it to play Europe off America as well as continue to strive to divide Europe internally. Brussels and Washington share a common interest in collaborating and coordinating their efforts to ensure that key Chinese-dominated formats such as the 17+1 grouping that links China to Central and Eastern Europe plus Greece, or the Belt and Road Initiative, do not enable Beijing to play Europe’s less developed or increasingly populist polities, such as Hungary, as foils against its wealthier members or transatlantic initiatives more generally. Should Washington return to a more traditional and fulsome embrace of European integration and standard setting, it could do much to help counter Chinese influence that comes at the expense of Europe, and ultimately the transatlantic relationship.

In conclusion, Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, and the other capitals of EU member states share a substantial interest in jointly developing and in a coordinated fashion pursuing a common approach to China, one centered around rules, norms, and a common identity as liberal democracies committed to the multilateral order. Collectively, the U.S. and Europe represent roughly 850 million people with a total GDP of nearly US$40 trillion. If Washington and its European allies can coordinate their policies towards China—especially if such efforts can be synchronized with efforts already underway with Japan, India, Australia, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, and other partners in the Indo-Pacific to deepen regional security cooperationit should be possible to resource and support the liberal international order against the challenge posed by Beijing’s aggressive foreign policies, military build-up, predatory economics, gray zone tactics, domestic repression, and export of authoritarianism and enabling technologies. By contrast, U.S. policy observers tend to agree that an approach premised on unilaterally challenging the world’s second most powerful country across the board while simultaneously sanctioning and denigrating allies and treating them as national security threats instead of cherishing our shared decades-long history of struggle to defend and expand freedom and democracy, is likely to fail.



Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English