Top US and European think tanks has cautioned that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has emerged more “assertive, demanding, unyielding, confrontational, and punitive” in its international posture.
A report titled ‘Dealing with the Dragon: China as a Transatlantic Challenge’, has summarized changing U.S. and European views of, and relations with, China.
The contents of report is based on a symposium convened in Berlin, Germany in February 2020, which brought together 43 strategists and China specialists from the United States and 11 European countries for intensive discussions over three days.
The first half of the Symposium was structured to probe the debates on both sides of the Atlantic, while the second half was dedicated to “deep dives” into seven specific dimensions of China’s behavior and U.S. and European encounters and responses.
During the Symposium, the participants met just as the coronavirus crisis began to spread outside of China, but before it had taken its devastating toll in Europe and the United States. If there was uncertainty concerning Europe-China and U.S.-China relations prior to the COVID-19 crisis, those uncertainties have only become more acute in its wake.
The conference included growing transatlantic tensions and U.S.-China tensions with Washington pushing European leaders on issues related and unrelated to China.
Despite these changing circumstances, U.S. and European views on China—both its behavior and policy responses—are converging. China’s party-state that the United States and Europe now face is a very different one than the one that both sought to work with in partnership over the past four decades.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has become considerably more assertive, demanding, unyielding, confrontational, and punitive in its international posture. For example, China’s embrace of an aggressive “Wolf Warrior diplomacy.” Internally, China has become substantially more repressive in multiple domains.
The symposium explored both China’s new behavior as well as the implications for possible new responses on both sides of the Atlantic.
The U.S. embrace of the “strategic competition” framework has directly and indirectly affected European perceptions and policies. On some issues, Europeans feel pressure to “choose” between America and China, on others they feel more closely aligned with the United States, while on issues of trade, they feel invested in their ties with China.
Many Europeans believe that Europe must find its own autonomous path between America and China.
While U.S. and European respective interests and perspectives on China continue to substantially overlap, the Trump administration’s (and President Trump’s own) behavior towards European allies and partners has substantially eroded transatlantic trust. Europeans emphasized that Americans needed to understand and be responsive to the seriousness of this trust deficit.
In addition, European participants complained of a lack of predictability and stability on the part of the United States under Trump and expressed a sense of feeling increasingly “on their own” when facing China and other international challenges. Both sides expressed an urgent need to repair transatlantic ties and suggested that shared concerns about China could be a catalyst for doing so.
Participants agreed that “engagement” was no longer the sole paradigm for framing policies toward China. Americans now routinely call China a “strategic competitor” and the EU has officially designated China as simultaneously a partner, competitor, and “systemic rival.”
For both U.S. and European policy-makers, the balance between cooperation and competition has shifted starkly in favor of the latter.
Participants expressed a unanimous belief in the need for regularizing transatlantic dialogues on China—not only at the “Track 2” level among academic and think tank experts and “Track 1.5” (mixed official/unofficial), but also better institutionalizing Track 1 governmental interactions.
On both sides of the Atlantic, China policy has become a highly contested and debated issue and many longstanding premises are being called into question as the whole spectrum of perceptions is shifting significantly towards views much more critical of China.
American participants highlighted the speed and scope of shift in the U.S. away from engagement and cooperation towards competition and “push back” against Chinese coercion, predation, and aggression.
Several U.S. participants also pointed to a deterioration of views on China among the American public over the past couple of years. Nearly two-thirds of the public now view China “unfavorably” and as a “rival.”
In Europe, debates about China are also occurring with increasing intensity indicating a broad range of views. This variety of viewpoints contributes to but at the same time often poses an obstacle to forming a coherent “European” perspective. However, overall, Europe’s relations with China have become considerably more stressed as Xi Jinping’s regime has raised concerns among many European countries.
European debates on China tend to be about specific elements of China’s behavior rather than China as a composite actor. The specific issues include: China’s investment footprint in Central Europe; attempted corporate acquisitions of high-tech companies in Germany; whether or not to buy Huawei IT; Chinese influence operations; and the incarceration of Uighurs in Xinjiang.
Europeans are less inclined to think of China in terms of geopolitics or national security than in the United States, and more in terms of trade.
For many years, U.S. and European companies experienced similar sets of problems (e.g., market access, industrial subsidies, poor IP protection) and are now similarly wearied by unfulfilled Chinese commitments. Nonetheless, with a few exceptions, U.S. and EU actions to address these problems have occurred largely in parallel, rather than in coordination.
While many Americans see Chinese inbound investment through a national security lens, Europeans are more concerned about protecting a technological comparative advantage. American experts welcomed the March 2019 EU regulations to screen Chinese inbound investment but noted that these are only a first step and not sufficient.
Discussions reflected concerns across technology issues including: surveillance, espionage, maintaining competitiveness in key frontier technologies, R&D and innovation, technical standards, and how U.S. and European governments and private sector actors should respond to China in these areas.
Participants at the Symposium agreed that the challenge of maintaining Western advantages across a range of technologies is now acute, because China’s indigenous innovation has begun challenging other developed countries for global supremacy in a number of critical technologies including AI, 5G, semiconductors, and quantum technologies.
Advances in Chinese innovation have set off alarm bells in the U.S. government as well as in Germany, Scandinavia, France, and the UK. However, several European participants noted that their governments have been much slower to recognize this threat. Several Europeans observed that Washington’s appeals and pressures especially in regards to 5G have fostered an awareness among European governments of the national security risks.
There were notable differences between the U.S. and European participant responses to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Americans were more concerned with its geopolitical implications while Europeans focused on its commercial or infrastructural dimensions.
All participants concluded that CCP influence seeking and external propaganda efforts are only likely to grow in magnitude. Significant efforts need to be put into educating institutional actors and sectors of society in both the United States and Europe about the scope of the problem.
Both sides agreed that China has become much more active, even aggressive, than before; is at least “moderately revisionist”; and is investing enormous financial, diplomatic, institutional, and human resources in trying to shape global institutional rules more in line with Chinese preferences.
U.S. security interests in Asia and globally drive its strategies and policies toward China and East Asia more broadly. U.S. participants emphasized that the pace and scope of Chinese military modernization has advanced to the point that the balance of power in the region was being dangerously altered to the detriment of the United States and its allies.
Of all the China-related issues that divide the United States and Europe, it is the issue of military security in Asia that perhaps most starkly distinguished the concerns of each. Without significant military presence in the region, Europeans tend to view China more as an economic and trade, than a national security issue.