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Foreign Policy

Transatlantic Coordination on China?

Mar 10, 2022
  • Sun Chenghao

    Assistant Research Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

Since Joe Biden became the U.S. president, transatlantic relations have witnessed a rapid revitalization. This is closely related to the Biden administration’s return to an idealistic foreign policy and U.S. efforts to unite Europe to engage in intense competition with China.

In the fields of ideology, economy, trade and even security, the United States is actively courting Europe to act against China. In particular, the sanctions imposed by the U.S. and European Union on China have stalled ratification of the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, driving a wedge into China-EU relations.

The positions and pursuits of U.S. and Europe during the Biden presidency are not identical. The hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the abrupt announcement of the AUKUS defense pact by the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia surprised Europe and became another wake-up call for it to seek strategic autonomy.

However, after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and Russia’s special military operation, the U.S.-Europe alliance has been thoroughly activated in various fields. Frequent diplomatic coordination, military deployments and economic sanctions reflect the capabilities of the two allies to conduct joint actions in the face of crisis.

How will the looming Russia-Ukraine crisis affect the transatlantic alliance in regard to China? For the U.S., the crisis will enhance its capability to unite the EU in two ways.

On one hand, the U.S. holds greater sway over Europe in the area of military security. Europe, once intoxicated with postmodernism, finds that it still needs to face traditional security issues of war and peace and remains highly dependent on the U.S. for protection. Under such circumstances, NATO — led by the U.S. — has become essential for Europe’s security, and the U.S. will continue to dominate the future direction of NATO’s transformation and the goal of great power competition. This, in turn, will lead to the decline of Europe’s autonomy in security.

On the other hand, there are much stronger reasons for the U.S. to engage Europe ideologically in dealing with China. With the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the U.S. believes it has seized the moral high ground, and its alliance of values was more attractive in Europe. Previously, both the U.S. and the EU accused China of challenging the existing international economic and political order.

At present, China’s voice promoting peace via dialogue has been ignored by the U.S. and the EU, which have instead ramped up their blame of China and Russia for jointly undermining the international order and its rules. The U.S. and Europe have a fixed perception that China and Russia have forged a solid alliance, and the U.S. will continue to join hands with Europe to push forward the Indo-Pacific Strategy to balance China. This is as likely to lead to confrontation between the U.S. and Europe as it is to undermine China and Russia.

It is hard to ignore in the short term that the U.S. will remain involved in the European security affairs, and the pace of its Indo-Pacific Strategy against China will be influenced. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Bush administration had already decided to shift its strategic resources to the Asia-Pacific, but the Sept. 11 attacks forced the U.S. to slow down its strategic pivot and return to the broader periphery of Europe. Now, because of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, the U.S. must reallocate some of its diplomatic and military resources to Europe.

In the long run, however, once the Russia-Ukraine crisis is degraded or to some extent resolved, the U.S. will implement a policy of “leading from behind” or even “strategic withdrawal” in Europe, and its main strategic resources will be invested in the Indo-Pacific — although the U.S. strategic retraction in Europe will depend on which party, Democratic or Republican, is in power at the moment.

For Europe, the Russia-Ukraine crisis will greatly weaken its willingness and capability to cooperate with the U.S. against China, since the wake-up call has been upgraded to a wake-up alarm. Europe is about to enhance its all-around strategic autonomy, and it will invest much more in its own internal affairs.

The crisis shows the failure of Europe’s idea of seeking a middle path — a calibrated balance between the U.S. and China. It had hoped to align itself ideologically with the U.S., maintain cooperation with China in economics and trade, rely temporarily on the U.S. for security and seek to improve its own strength. But the Russia-Ukraine crisis had a huge impact on that design. Europe has become the main battlefield of the conflict between the West and Russia, and Europe’s weaknesses in economy and security have been exposed.

Even if the crisis ends, some issues will haunt Europe. In the security field, Russia is a neighbor that Europe cannot change, and the voice of security autonomy within Europe will only become more fierce. Should Europe’s security be enhanced under the framework of NATO or the EU? Will it push for a European defense alliance of its own, or will it rely more on the U.S. for security?

In the economic and trade fields, Europe’s energy dependence on Russia cannot be removed in a short period of time. How can Europe deal with the pain of an energy transition? The energy crisis and food shortages have put more inflationary pressure on the eurozone. In addition, as Europe steps up its sanctions against Russia, they could also backfire and hit Europe economically.

In the social sphere, the Russia-Ukraine crisis has created a new surge of refugees. How will Europe properly address this issue as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold? All this will force Europe to focus more on internal issues for a time, rather than supporting U.S. ambitions for great-power competition.

Meanwhile, the Russia-Ukraine crisis has further amplified the existing differences between the U.S. and Europe with regard to China. Europe and the U.S. are currently facing a complex misperception of security. Europe regards Russia as the most urgent threat and believes that a new cold war, provoked by Russia, is still possible; meanwhile, the U.S. regards China as the most critical challenge facing the West and is more likely to fall into the so-called Thucydides trap with China, not Russia.

Some American strategists believe that the U.S. has the ability to focus on two theaters and can implement a two-ocean strategy — the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific. But the structural contradictions between the U.S. and Europe on China-Russia issues cannot be easily resolved. This will largely determine the direction of transatlantic coordination with regard to China.

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