US-China Rivalry and Europe

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The true battleground in the upcoming cold war will be in Europe

“It will not be any European statesman who will unite Europe: Europe will be united by the Chinese.” — Charles de Gaulle
These words by the former French president aptly depict the state of affairs today. In the past few weeks, there has been a flurry of visits by European leaders to China. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was the first leader to make a post-pandemic trip to China, travelling there in November 2022. Then, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón went to Beijing on March 31, 2023, where he met President Xi Jinping, as well as China’s chief diplomat Wang Yi and the newly appointed foreign minister, Qin Gang. Later, on April 5, the three Chinese bigwigs welcomed Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, who went to the country along with French President Emmanuel Macron and his foreign minister, Catherine Colonna on a three-day visit. This growing EU-China diplomatic engagement manifests that Europe is avoiding the United States blindly and, in fact, wants to choose its own course.
On his flight from China and after returning to Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a series of interviews with the media and elaborated on the idea of European strategic autonomy in many aspects. He said that Europe must reduce its dependence on the US and avoid being caught up in the confrontation between China and the United States over the Taiwan question. He urged Europe to become more committed to achieving strategic autonomy so as not to become a “vassal” of a major power amid the global crisis. He also stressed that Europe doesn’t want to “get into a bloc versus bloc logic.” “Do we [Europeans] have an interest in speeding up on the subject of Taiwan? No. The worst of things would be to think that we Europeans must be followers on this subject and adapt ourselves to an American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction,” Macron said.
This is a view representative of Europe’s insightful people in the face of the continent’s current complex and severe internal and external situation, pointing out a relatively objective and rational path and direction in line with Europe’s own interests. In the eyes of normal people, a European leader’s emphasis on protecting European interests should not have become “news.” But in the US and the West, many people act as if this has stepped on their tails and show a strong sense of discomfort and even fury. Such an abnormal reaction confirms Macron’s statement that strategic autonomy is “Europe’s struggle.”
Why Europeans are wary of the US?
When Biden won the presidency in 2020, leaders in Europe were relieved that a more conventional democratic leader would be in the White House; though they also knew that Biden would not be able to undo all the damage done in Donald Trump’s four years during which the former president repeatedly criticized America’s European allies. He threatened trade wars on everything from cheese to planes. He questioned the principles of the NATO alliance and sniped at the European Union, at one point saying that if he ran the UK he simply wouldn’t pay the £50 billion ($62 billion) Brexit bill that Britain legally owed the EU. And, this attitude seems to prevail in Europe even now because Europeans believe that Biden has continued much of Trump’s foreign policy of protectionism on trade and maximum pressure on China.
This lack of trust and general suspicion of America has, in part, driven what is referred to in Europe as the strategic autonomy agenda – essentially an attempt for the EU to have an independent foreign policy that makes it less dependent on the US. A key part of that agenda is Europe maintaining close economic ties with China which would be unacceptable to both major American parties these days.
French President Emmanuel Macron explained his vision for strategic autonomy in somewhat clunky terms recently when he said that Europe must not become “just America’s followers” on China. The comment was deemed controversial because it was said in response to a question about what Europe would do if China invaded Taiwan. But broadly speaking, all 27 EU member states support the strategic autonomy agenda, albeit with varying degrees of hawkishness on China thrown in for good measure.
The truth is that European concerns over modern America have made even some of the biggest China-sceptics in the EU accept that Europe must now take a different approach to Beijing from Washington.
China’s embrace of Europe
During Macron’s China sojourn, there were plenty of signs indicating that Beijing is placing particular emphasis upon consolidating Sino-French friendship. Such signs included the lavish ceremonials and exuberant reception that greeted Macron in Beijing, the 51-point joint statement issued at the end of Macron’s visit that encompassed an unusually diverse range of policy areas, and Xi’s meeting with Macron over an informal setting in Guangzhou (with only translators present). Both leaders agreed to “elevate the China-France comprehensive strategic partnership to a new height” through “closer strategic communication.”
However, we should not be too surprised by China’s amenable approach to France. France has long served as a relatively open anchor in Europe to which China turned, even amid fractious relations with the United States and other, more ideologically disposed members of the proverbial “Western bloc.” In 1964, General Charles de Gaulle recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate representative of the country, a move that in turn, precipitated the establishment of bilateral relations at the height of Cold War tensions (the Prague Spring took place just four years later).
There are several reasons undergirding Beijing’s effervescent reception of Macron.
The first is the geostrategic case pertaining to great-power rivalry. Amid increasingly fractious relations with the United States, China needs a strategic force that can push back against the conspicuous bipartisan consensus in the US Congress – as evidenced by the TikTok hearings, the establishment of the House Select Committee on China, and the earlier fracas over the spy balloon. Knowing fully that a complete détente between all European states and China would be nigh-impossible, Beijing seeks instead a Brussels that is willing to put a healthier distance between itself and Washington.
Moreover, since the departure of the pragmatist Merkel, Sino-German relations have been complicated by the ascent of the “Traffic Light Coalition” that has mixed attitudes toward China, to say the least. France is thus the most logical – and pivotal – actor within Europe that Beijing must convince to come aboard the non-alignment train, though China has also made similar pitches to leaders of Spain, Germany and Italy, as of late.
The second rationale is the particular case surrounding Beijing’s vision for a China-led coalition to broker a peace agreement over Ukraine. China has little incentive for the ongoing war to escalate substantially. Such large-scale escalation would only bolster NATO solidarity and induce the risk of a nuclear confrontation, while further jeopardizing food supplies and domestic political stability within Russia. More fundamentally, from the perspective of its senior leaders, Beijing is keen to demonstrate its maturing diplomatic finesse as not only an economic superpower, but also as a core driver of global governance and conflict resolution.
The historic declaration of resumption in diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia – though perhaps less the product of Chinese mediating prowess than active goodwill on the part of both actors – has certainly granted Beijing significant momentum and credibility as a peace-broker. In continuation of this path toward greater diplomatic power, China is in need of allies that can buy into its vision for a post-conflict Russo-Ukrainian balance of power that is not unequivocally tipped in the direction of NATO. China hence views France as an instrumental counterweight in this process. Buy-in from Paris, even if nominal and symbolic, could go a long way in ameliorating cynicism toward China’s aspirations for a multilaterally devised ceasefire and peace over Ukraine.
The third factor is the economic one. China can only succeed in its economic endeavors – rebooting growth, rejuvenating its private sector and stimulating consumption – if it adopts a pragmatic foreign policy, which succeeds in retaining key supply chain partners while ensuring market access by Chinese firms to large, international markets.
China’s new approach to Europe
Given the above interpretation of China’s recent overtures toward France, the following conclusions can be reached on China’s Europe strategy in the wake of the 20th Party Congress.
First up is a discursive-normative shift in the predominant frame for the Sino-European relationship. From a monolithic focus on mutual economic and material gains, which Beijing realizes are inevitably overshadowed by rhetorically convincing narratives of “democracy promotion” and “opposition to Russian aggression,” China is likely to shift toward emphasizing the case for Europe to embrace strategic autonomy.
Such rhetoric will appeal to nations that have grown increasingly disillusioned with the United States’ attempts to fuse talk of high-sounding values (e.g. democracy and freedom) with its wider economic protectionism (e.g. the Inflation Reduction Act) and seeming preference that countries must choose between itself and China. These countries may not be overwhelmingly aligned with China’s vision of a new international order, but could still be sufficiently convinced of the merits of “collectivized hedging” – a term coined to describe countries banding together in straddling and liaising positively with more than one great power.
Second, China will look to shift further away from engaging with Europe as a whole, and prioritize diplomatic relations with individual countries of importance. The four largest European economies – Germany, France, Italy, and Spain – will likely be the foci of Chinese strategic efforts, along both Track I and II dimensions. Yet diversification should also be expected. Resources will also be allocated to rebuilding trust and repairing frayed ties between China and Central and Eastern European countries, many of which were previously active and supportive members of China’s 17+1 initiative.
In addition, as evidenced by the joint agreement that advocated expanded cooperation in aerospace, nuclear energy, green energy, technology and agriculture, China is seeking to render itself more useful and value-adding across a plurality of dimensions. Both moves provide gravitas and concrete bases for China’s criticisms of unilateral decoupling efforts. In exchange, China hopes that Europe will shift more favorably toward what it views to be “baseline interests,” including the Taiwan issue.
Third, the reception Macron received in Beijing is most revealing of the fact that it is possible for Chinese diplomacy to be less confrontational, less bellicose and more strategically welcoming toward actors that are aligned or open to alignment. The degree of tactical (albeit not strategic) dexterity in Chinese foreign policy should not be underestimated. For states that acknowledge – openly or tacitly – China’s vision of a strategically autonomous Europe, Beijing is likely to significantly rein in its previously hostile rhetoric and instead employ a combination of concrete economic rewards and lavish rhetorical praise in signaling approval.
In contrast, for countries that continually repudiate this worldview, China is unlikely to soften its projected stance at large. In short, Chinese diplomacy will continue to adapt to the “complex and grim” status quo of international relations.
EU-US divergence
The Biden administration has so far adopted a particularly critical tone toward Beijing and put forward measures to restrict China’s influence, including export restrictions on certain technologies. It has pushed European nations to do the same.
European nations currently have different views on dealing with Beijing. Some capitals favor a closer relationship with the US, given its critical role on security and defense — while other countries are afraid of antagonizing China and endangering deep economic ties. This has resulted in a divided European approach toward China.
China was the largest source of EU imports and the third-largest buyer of EU goods in 2022, according to Eurostat, highlighting Beijing’s economic importance for Europe. This is particularly relevant when economic growth in the EU is vulnerable to the ongoing war in Ukraine.
European leaders have also tried to forge closer relations with Beijing, so that the latter refrains from supporting Russia in the war with Ukraine. United States intelligence suggested China considered sending weapons and other ammunition to Russia.
There is also the question of climate change, where many EU leaders find a dialogue with China pivotal toward any substantial progress in bringing down CO2 emissions.
Future prospects
Washington has a strong desire to control Europe, which is why Macron’s emphasis on European strategic autonomy is seen as a form of “betrayal.” To put it plainly, on many occasions, the US is viewing Europe as a henchman. When it needs Europe to take action against Russia, Europe has to stand on the line of fire; when it needs Europe to cooperate in suppressing and containing China, Europe must follow its lead.
When this boundless desire for control becomes natural, it often unintentionally manifests itself in the words and deeds of American political elites. The US is not shy about this fact. For example, conservative American historian Robert Kagan once described the relationship between the US and Europe as: Americans are from Mars, the dominant party, while Europeans are from Venus, the weaker party. Americans take care of the “cooking,” while Europeans are responsible for “doing the dishes.” Washington’s proclaimed “alliance friendship” implies that Europe must completely depend on and submit to American hegemony, without any respect or equality.
The US’ geopolitical role assigned to Europe is structurally contradictory to Europe’s pursuit of strategic autonomy. Macron’s visit to China and his remarks on European strategic autonomy have reminded people of former French president Charles de Gaulle. After World War II, the Cold War quickly began, and de Gaulle strongly advocated for strategic autonomy, withdrew from NATO’s integrated military structure and established diplomatic relations with China. This also made the US very unhappy and caused great controversy in Europe. However, history has proven de Gaulle’s clarity and wisdom. De Gaulle established France’s independent political tradition and won France the major power status. Today, it does not take long to verify Macron’s understanding of European strategic autonomy.
Europe will not lose friends because of sticking to strategic autonomy, but will only gain more respect and have the ability to better maintain its interests and strategic balance in the international arena. If even controlling one’s own fate is a mistake, then Europe will have no hope. Once again, Europe is standing at a historical juncture. Whether to revisit and carry forward Gaullism or choose confrontation.

Muhammad Ali Asghar

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