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Foreign Policy

U.S., EU China Policies Compared

Jul 13, 2021
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

U.S. President Joe Biden recently concluded his first visit to Europe. Upon boarding Air Force One for the trip, Biden said he would showcase to Putin and China the intimacy between the United States and Europe. Has he achieved that? Judging from his eight-day itinerary, especially the G7, NATO and U.S.-EU summits, as well as the participating leaders’ reactions, it’s not difficult to find there are both similarities and differences between the China policies of the U.S. and Europe.

The G7 summit communique openly mentioned China, touching upon Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, stating opposition to “unilaterally” changing the status quo in the East and South China Seas.  It also asked the World Health Organization to launch fresh probes to trace the origin of COVID-19. There’s no surprise in the G7 summit issuing a communique attacking China. Biden has changed his immediate predecessor’s unilateral way of doing things since his inauguration and has emphasized the importance of building a united front against China by taking advantage of the U.S. alliance system. Biden’s “values diplomacy” fits in easily with the EU, resulting in a scenario of jointly confronting China on such subjects as Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

Not long ago, the EU imposed sanctions against China for the first time since the 1990s, citing human rights in Xinjiang. The U.S., Canada and Britain immediately followed suit. Obviously the EU had consulted with the U.S. and other countries beforehand. The EU has also moved frequently on the Hong Kong issue, only its attempt to impose sanctions was aborted because of a member country’s opposition.

At the end of the day, it is common Western values and ideologies that have driven the EU and U.S. to take joint action against China on the hot-button issues. In this sense, the “closeness” of the U.S.-EU alliance has undoubtedly been enhanced. Predictably, China may face greater pressure diplomatically and in public opinion.

On the other hand, the summits also fully exposed the differences between the China policies of the U.S. and EU. Even on human rights, there is difference in temperature between the U.S. and EU. Biden wanted badly to condemn China for the so-called forced labor. Judging from the communique, however, he failed to do so. The communique on one hand expressed concern about forced labor, but on the other hand promised to protect individuals from forced labor.

As to the U.S. proposals for containing China, its European allies avoided making any substantial commitment; they chose to leave their options open and thereby hedged or weakened the U.S. tune of containing China. When it came to the so-called higher-quality alternative Biden proposed for targeting China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Germany seemed hesitant and unwilling to make a specific financial commitment. In the final text of the communique, the G7 only made a general mention of providing infrastructure assistance to developing nations, without giving precise amounts the participating countries were willing to offer. In his phone call with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, after the summit, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said his country hopes to continue promoting BRI progress. 

As for the so-called Chinese systemic challenge against NATO, French President Emmanuel Macron told the press that “NATO is a North Atlantic organization; China has nothing to do with the North Atlantic. It is very important not to disperse ourselves and not to bias the relationship with China.” Upon mentioning the Indo-Pacific, Macron suggested the EU should neither be a vassal of China nor be totally aligned with the U.S.

Responding to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposal for establishing a working group on China, Biden called for a tough stance. However, since some leaders were concerned the G7 could be seen as anti-China, the final communique made no mention of it. Talking about G7-China relations, the Italian and German prime ministers put more emphasis on cooperation than confrontation.

The Biden administration defines U.S.-China relations with competition, cooperation and confrontation, while the EU in the spring of 2019 identified China as a negotiating partner, economic competitor and systemic rival (“EU-China: A strategic outlook”). Literally, the trinity of cooperation, competition and confrontation is the same in both the China policies of the U.S. and EU. But their differences were evident at the summit, as the U.S. made competition and confrontation the main theme, while the EU put more weight on cooperation than on competition.

The U.S. deems China as its “harshest competitor.” In the 2021 Annual Threat Assessment published by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “China increasingly is a near-peer competitor, challenging the United States in multiple arenas — especially economically, militarily and technologically — and is pushing to change global norms.” The U.S. accentuates the elements of competition and confrontation in U.S.-China relations and plays down those of cooperation.

The EU, which sees China as a “negotiating partner,” has three goals in its China policy: deepen engagement with China and promote common interests at the global level; strive to pursue conditions for EU-China economic relations to be more balanced and mutually beneficial; adapt to the constantly changing economic conditions, and consolidate domestic policies and industrial foundations. The EU will continue engaging China, and will emphasize that its China policy is aimed at building a relationship of coopetition centered on cooperation.

There are in-depth interest considerations and geopolitical factors behind the differences in the U.S. and EU policies. It may only be a matter of time for China, the world’s second-largest economy, to surpass the U.S. in terms of GDP. As it had done with other second-largest economies in the past, the Americans will do whatever it takes, including launching all-around attacks on China with their allies, to disrupt the momentum of China’s development and preserve global U.S. hegemony.

It is interests, not values, that have determined the fundamental orientation of the EU’s China policy, as developing relations with China is not only in its own interest but also conducive to its pursuit of “strategic autonomy.”

First, China constitutes no security threat to Europe. Biden’s declaration of “extreme competition” with China is dramatically different from the EU’s position. Unlike Americans, most Europeans don’t consider China as an existential threat, nor are they willing to be dragged into a China-U.S. strategic competition.

Second, the unilateralist approach of the Trump administration taught the EU that the U.S. is unreliable, so the EU must be its own master and pursue “strategic autonomy.” The EU formulates its China policy independently, free of influence from Washington. Though it adheres to values in principle, it won’t sacrifice its interests where China is concerned. After the European Parliament “froze” review of the China-EU investment agreement, EU leaders continued to show support, saying that the agreement was the correct choice.

Finally, from a geopolitical perspective, the EU wants to take advantage of China’s progress and also to increase its supply of bargaining chips in dealing with the U.S., extending its own development space beyond the two countries.

The communique was an outcome of compromise, the most outstanding characteristic of which was concentrating more on the general than on the specific, more on rhetoric than on action and more on policy announcement than on implementation. Despite their consensuses on human rights and ideological matters, and their common wishes for repairing the bilateral ties that were damaged under Trump, such European countries as France, Germany and Italy are not interested in confrontational China policies and launching a new cold war.

According to “A New EU-U.S. Agenda for Global Change,” which the EU issued at the end of 2020, “the EU and the U.S. agree on the strategic challenge presented by China’s growing international assertiveness, even if we do not always agree on the best way to address this.” This might be a fitting summary of the differences and similarities between the China policies of the U.S. and EU.

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