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Foreign Policy

Where Is the U.S.-EU-China Relationship Heading?

Dec 02, 2021

A majority of Europeans feel that a new Cold War is brewing between the United States and European Union partnership, against both China and Russia. However, according to recent polls, most Europeans feel that their national governments did not contribute to the alleged confrontation. Many European citizens believe that EU institutions side with the U.S. against China and Russia, while national governments are not entirely involved. 

Since the great financial crisis (GFC) of 2008, the European Union failed to develop a union-wide consensus concerning nearly all of the crises Europe encountered, including the coronavirus pandemic, leaving many national governments disappointed with the EU’s handling of big and complex problems. Therefore, these poll results suggest that most Europeans do not feel that a fermenting Cold War between the East and West has support from national governments. Instead, it appears that most citizens view brewing conflict with China and Russia as a U.S. position rather than an authentic European position. 

There is no European public consensus that we are approaching growing competition between democracy and authoritarianism, implying that although Europeans feel close to the United States, they might not necessarily support an ideological-framed conflict with China or Russia. Although China was declared a European Union systemic rival, a majority of Europeans do not see China as a threat to their way of life. Nearly a third of people in France and Germany do not believe that their respective countries need American security guarantees to protect them from external threats. 

During the 2020 U.S. presidential election, most Europeans and Americans viewed President Joe Biden as a foreign policy expert, a friend of Europe, and a leader capable of repairing the transatlantic relationship between Washington and Brussels after President Trump’s turbulent four years in office. 

However, it is now seemingly clear that Biden’s frequently used phrase, ‘America is back’, has never been euro-centrist, but rather, a promise to reimplement President Obama’s pivot to Asia much more aggressively. While Biden remains in the White House, Europe is peripheral, and thus, more divided and less confident in its institutions in Brussels. 

European capitals stood by the United States for two decades as it waged war in the Middle East, only to witness a catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan, which will create waves of migrants for Europe to absorb. This also happened in the cases of Libya and Syria. Washington continues to attempt to place Europe between itself and China and Russia, suggesting that Europe should follow Washington’s lead, despite each country’s individual national interests, to isolate the two largest and most powerful nations of Eurasia. Asking for such accommodations might work should Washington offer increased benefits, but the recent diplomatic focus on ‘the Quad’ (Australia, India, Japan, and the U.S.) and AUKUS, despite the fact that the U.S. harmed French national interests after Biden cancelled a $66 billion deal  for Australia to purchase French-built and diesel-powered submarines, tells the world that Europe is no longer as important to Washington. The Indo-Pacific will remain the focus, despite Europe’s national interests. The Indo-Pacific is obviously more strategically important, but the Quad have also more quickly accepted Washington’s calls to ban or regulate Chinese applications and companies like Huawei, whereas European allies hesitated. Also, U.S. allies in Asia immediately supported Washington’s calls to build a global technology supply chain with like-minded, democratic countries – and without Chinese involvement. The ‘China issue’ could very well sever the EU-U.S. alliance, while giving birth to a more solidified Anglo alliance among the Asian partners and the Five Eyes members. 

After analyzing Biden’s words and actions, it is clear that the European Union must develop strategic autonomy. However, this might be difficult as many differing opinions exist in national capitals within the vast European Union. President Macron is the continent’s largest supporter of European strategic autonomy, but even he has struggled to bridge the differences within his country as the migrant crisis, economic uncertainty, and the pandemic all continue to polarize society. 

The European Union, as evidenced by President Macron’s statements, might not wish to tie itself to Washington’s geopolitical goals. Instead, some European politicians, like Macron, might want to benefit from U.S.-Chinese competition by remaining neutral and working with different sides on different matters. This could be the future of the European Union’s geopolitical ‘balancing act.’

Failed efforts for consensus on union-wide fiscal spending, the coronavirus pandemic, Nord Stream 2, and trade ties with China all weakened European unity. However, America’s strategic withdrawal from Europe really began during the Obama-era when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, since the initial effort to ‘pivot to Asia,’ small steps were taken to re-focus on Asia with Biden even re-orienting NATO away from its focus on Russia with a greater focus on China.

Although Europe is losing its preferential treatment of America to Asia, Europe remains the leading investor in the Indo-Pacific with 40 percent of its trade passing through Asia. The new AUKUS coalition is an Anglo-alliance aimed at serving as a security deterrent to China, ignoring Europe over its increasing trade ties with Beijing. The French push for strategic autonomy could essentially isolate Paris within the European Union, or tear the political union apart since so many nations have varying views on the brewing rivalry between China and the U.S. The first straw for Paris was Biden’s decision to allow the completion of Nord Stream 2 from Russia to Germany, which bypassed Ukraine and Poland. The second straw was Washington’s decision to push Australia out of the French submarine deal, while solidifying the AUKUS alliance. To make matters more complicated, the left-wing, in a likely coalition between the center left and greens could complicate Germany’s relationship with China. The leading European states must re-evaluate their foreign policy goals to assess how to move forward after President Biden disappointed the transatlantic supporters.  

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