The policy of the United States toward China under the Biden administration is simple and clear. There is a bipartisan consensus for engaging in fierce competition with China and containing its development. And it’s clear that the Trump administration’s extreme policy was both dangerous and futile. So the Biden administration now stresses sustained long-term competition but with guardrails, seeking to leverage its alliance system to confront China “from a position of strength.”
The European Union seems to be a natural partner for the U.S., as it ranks high in the hierarchy of the American alliance system. The cultural affinity and economic ties among U.S. allies are also unparalleled. However, compared with America’s Asian allies, how the EU positions itself in U.S. competition toward China is still full of nuance. This is well documented and captured by many observers of the EU-U.S.-China triangle.
It stems from three factors:
First is the complexity of U.S.-EU relations. The decades old security alliance has been both a boon and a curse for the two sides. The substantially free ride on security provided by the U.S. and its fear of abandoning Europe has made Europe question America’s reliability. This has led some Europeans to imagine a Europe without the U.S. In addition, since both are economic giants and occupy the same echelon of the global value chain, economic competition between the two is unavoidable. The Trump administration’s approach to Europe has revealed the darkest side of U.S.-EU relations.
Second, the degree to which the EU sees China as a threat is still uncertain. Despite European attitudes toward China shifting in a sharply negative direction in recent years, Europe is far from China and is not a hegemon, as is the U.S. Accordingly, China poses no threat to the security of any European state or its global status. On the contrary, Europe’s fortunes are heavily dependent on the stable development of China.
In the difficult year of 2020, China emerged as the biggest trading partner of the EU. In the first three quarters of 2021, trade volume reached nearly $600 billion, an increase of more than 30 percent. When the EU talked about the South China Sea being the artery of its economy — referring to the fact that 40 percent of its exports pass through those waters — it did not promote so called freedom of navigation in the region but rather highlighted the importance of China to its economy.
Third, the EU is a strange and difficult partner for the U.S. to rally. On one hand, there is a European Union, led by Ursula Gertrud von de Leyen, that is bent on creating a geopolitical commission and is asking Europe to think strategically about its position in the U.S.-China rivalry. On the other hand, there is diversity among EU member states. Some are eager to answer America’s call, like the Lithuanians; some are inherently hesitant and vigilant about any scenario of a new cold war; and some are more than willing to delegate the difficult geopolitics to the EU while pursuing pragmatic bilateral cooperation with China.
Also, every EU member has its own domestic politics. With more Atlanticist Greens and FDPs, the new “traffic light” German government is expected to be more hardline toward China and has to think of the implications for its big industry and its designated role being a stabilizer in both Europe and the multilateral system.
However, the Biden administration is not to be deterred by the difficulties of working with Europe on China, partly because the U.S. will not achieve much by unilateral confrontation. The past year has seen genuine efforts from the U.S. to patch up differences and seek coordination with Europe.
The first was to speak softly to heal the wounded heart of Europe. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have had the nicest words for Europe, proclaiming U.S. support for European defense and apologizing for the clumsiness of the AUKUS deal.
The second is to build coordinated platforms with respect to China. The two sides have launched a U.S.-EU dialogue on China, and the TTC is attempting to rebuild the transatlantic relationship while leveraging it to address the rise of China. In this context, the EU has begun to work on its own path even as U.S.-China competition evolves.
The EU has its own grievances toward China and is willing to work with U.S. to address those. Since 2019, the EU is increasingly united in perceiving China as a challenge to its value system and to its economic competitiveness; it is thus a systemic rival for the EU. This perception of China is not entirely the same as that of the U.S., but the overlapping part leaves plenty of space to maneuver, especially in the fields of value and economic practices.
Second, the EU will use its new position in the triangle to solve long-standing friction with the U.S. Whether it is steel and aluminum tariffs, Boeing-Airbus subsidies, data protection, emerging technologies or even the long-held U.S. criticism of European defense cooperation, there is reason for the U.S. to engage with or even make concessions to the EU to win the hearts and minds of Europeans.
Third, the EU will only cooperate with the U.S. on China where it suits its own politics and interests and with its own approaches and tools. On one hand, the EU and its members will be more cautious in political and diplomatic terms with China, compared with the provocative U.S., to avoid a new cold war. The lack of judgment in imposing sanctions on China back in March does not strengthen the EU’s position on China but ties its hands. Europeans are more prudent in joining a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which the U.S. is calling for. On the other hand, the EU will be equally aggressive in using its market and will apply regulatory power in both bilateral and multilateral forums to confront China.
It is true that the U.S. and EU are coordinating on China, but it remains to be seen how far the two can go in developing a truly united approach. As things stand now, the EU is making its own bets and forging its own way in China-U.S. rivalry. China cannot assume that Europe is unquestionably following the U.S., and should make greater efforts for China-EU.