LONDON – As President Joe Biden says, China poses a unique challenge to Western democracy that requires a unified response from the United States and its traditional allies.
How did some of America’s main European allies react to this decisive confrontation? Meh.
Where the White House takes a bullish tone, some European countries are trying to follow a much more delicate line. They criticized China for human rights, but also expressed their eagerness to continue cultivating its lucrative business opportunities – while adopting neutral language about the intensifying geopolitical maelstrom between Washington and Beijing.
Key European allies “see Americans being confrontational with China and they don’t think Europe can afford to be so confrontational on their side,” said Charles Parton, whose career has spanned more than two decades in as a diplomat for Great Britain and the European Union. in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
With an ever smaller share of the global economic pie, Europe finds itself dependent on China for trade. At the same time, he grew more suspicious of the United States after four murderous years of dealing with then-President Donald Trump. Some experts say this raises a question about Biden’s hopes of working together to challenge what he sees as China’s autocratic vision for the future.
The Biden administration says it deploys the three Cs – cooperation, competition and confrontation. But so far he has put more emphasis on the latter two. The president has said on several occasions that he believes democracies are “in crucial competition” with Beijing, which is expected to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy as early as 2028.
So, in response, the White House has adopted what many see as a hawkish tone that bears similarities to Trump’s position. He accused China of “genocide” over its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region, which Beijing denies, and upheld Trump’s $ 350 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods.
Meanwhile, the United States has criticized China for tightening its grip on Hong Kong and increasing military activity around Taiwan, while challenging Beijing’s territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.
“Lack of nuance”
In some ways, allies in Europe and elsewhere have also taken a tough approach.
In June, the major industrialized countries of the Group of Seven called on “China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” and NATO declared for the first time that it “would engage China in defend ”his security interests, Biden said later. as victories for its goal of collaboration.
Meanwhile, in May, a huge China-EU investment deal was frozen by Europe after it joined Washington in sanctioning Chinese officials in Xinjiang. And just this week, the UK has sailed a group of strike carriers into the South China Sea, ignoring protests from Beijing.
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But besides that, some European leaders have been much more eager than their American counterparts to insist on the cooperative side of this balancing act.
One of the reasons for this discrepancy is that European and other allies do not trust Washington as they once did, according to John Kornblum, the United States’ ambassador to Germany under President Bill Clinton.
“The past four years have significantly damaged America’s ability to lead,” he said. European leaders “say, ‘Old Joe, we know him. But will he be here in four years? We could be back to square one.'”
French President Emmanuel Macron warned in February that it would be “counterproductive” to gang up on China, vowing never to become “a vassal of China or aligned with the United States” in Asia.
When Biden met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in July, he said China was working to “undermine free and open societies.” But Merkel’s first mention of China was to stress the need for “cooperation and also competition”.
And Rishi Sunak, Britain’s Finance Minister, lamented in July that “the China debate is lacking in nuance,” calling for “a mature and balanced relationship” allowing London’s financial services industry to tap into a Chinese market. ‘worth $ 55 trillion.
Although currently frozen, the very proposal for the EU-China investment deal has dismayed critics who have said it neglects human rights and offers Beijing a divisive victory. In December, new National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan telegraphed US disapproval on Twitter.
While the White House directly singled out Chinese intelligence agencies in July for the Microsoft Exchange hack, the EU simply said its origins lay in “Chinese territory.”
“Cover their bets”
The main reason for this divergence with Washington is economic, according to experts.
In 1960, the countries that would form the EU accounted for a third of the world economy. By 2050, the block should only include 9%, according to the British accounting firm PwC.
Beijing overtook Washington in 2020 as the EU’s largest trading partner. And nowhere are these ties deeper than in Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe, which for years has tapped into China’s booming economy.
Merkel has come under pressure at the national level, with opponents accusing her of being too eager to cultivate this resource and not being vocal enough about human rights.
She “resisted the pressure to choose sides between the United States and China”, according to a May briefing by UK think tank Chatham House. But he said “Germany will find it increasingly difficult to stay on its current path of seeking close political and economic relations with the United States and China.”
Many of these factors are also true for the United States, whose economy is also deeply tied to that of China. But while the Biden administration may think its economy is large enough to overcome any pain triggered by confrontation, European countries don’t have that luxury, Kornblum said.
“This has been the dynamic of the transatlantic relationship since 1945 – weak and insecure allies trying to hedge their bets,” he said.
Moreover, the Biden administration speaks with one voice on foreign affairs. Europe, meanwhile, comprises more than three dozen governments, ranging from Lithuania’s tough confrontational approach to Hungary, of which illiberal and populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has close ties to Xi and has used its veto to soften the EU’s statements about China.
In the words of Parton, the former ambassador who is now a senior associate researcher at the think tank at the Royal United Services Institute in London: “The problem with Europe is that it is not united.