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Avoiding the sirens of an ever-deepening Sino-American rivalry

Vassilis Ntousas / Feb 2021

Image: Shutterstock

 

By now, it’s already a tired cliché to suggest that the Biden presidency has brought with it high hopes for a revitalized cooperation and a reinvigorated partnership between the two sides of the Atlantic. US President Biden’s first public encounter with German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron during the 2021 special virtual edition of the Munich Security Conference marked a moment where all three leaders recognized the importance of decidedly turning the page from the Trump era.

But if a sense of profound relief has been felt in Washington, in Brussels and across most European capitals at least since January 20th, this has been quickly combined with a growing realization that turning the page cannot be equated to turning back the clock. Mr Macron’s and Ms Merkel’s diplomatic pushback during the same conference was a very clear indication of this.

From data privacy to climate action ambitions, and from Russia to Europe’s emerging appetite for strategic autonomy, it is clear that both transatlantic partners have a range of differences—often nuanced, yet at times marked—that cannot be simply patched over, but rather require deep reflection, lengthy discussions and facing up to some hard dilemmas.

Evidently, at the centre of such a delicate exercise lies the capacity (or lack thereof) of both the US and the EU to converge on a strategy that tries to respond to a fundamental question: how to deal with other major powers, and primarily China.

To all intents and purposes, the Sino-American competition is shaping up to provide a new organizing principle for the way global dynamics unfold. Last year’s very public political sparring between Washington and Beijing over the World Health Organization perhaps served as the most illustrative recent example of this, but there is a myriad of other cases as to how this intensifying rivalry will shape much of the contours of international relations in the years to come, not least in terms of trade, technology, military balancing, and economics. Even excluding the myopic way the Trump administration tried to use Beijing as a scapegoat for its own inefficiency in handling the public health crisis, the events of the past year did deepen the bipartisan impression in Washington that China presents the most clear and present danger to the US long-term strategic interests.

In light of this, a rising China incentivises strong and durable cooperation between the US and Europe, as a way of maximizing the synergetic effects of joint action in the face of shared irritants and challenges. The EU’s own heft could serve as a force multiplier and leverage booster in many of the dossiers that the US sees as vital as Washington shifts towards greater competition with China; meanwhile, alignment with US policy can elevate the impact of any autonomous EU actions vis-à-vis Beijing.

Nonetheless, while the fundamentals of the analysis by the US and the EU on the worrisome direction of travel Beijing seems to have embarked upon are shared, there remain several important distinctions of approach and outlook. What is still different is an aura of anti-China sentiment that seems to be dominant in the US, but is not really as monolithic, sturdy and deeply rooted on European shores. This, despite the fact that last year’s heavy-handed ‘mask diplomacy’ on the part of Beijing and aggressive ‘wolf warrior’ tactics employed by members of the Chinese diplomatic corps seem to have disrupted any positive dynamism in Sino-European relations, mainly at a political level.

Meanwhile, the difficulties behind a quick US-EU rapprochement on China have been exacerbated by the fact that Washington appears increasingly intent on looking at many bilateral issues in the transatlantic agenda ‘through the lens of Brussels’ relationship to Beijing’. As such, autonomous European choices such as that to finalize a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with Beijing in December 2020 after seven years of negotiations, was seen by many in Washington as a naïve, misguided and fundamentally negative development.

In light of these differences, crafting an actionable common transatlantic agenda towards Beijing will not be easy.

This is why such an endeavor will be impossible without a more balanced buy-in from both transatlantic partners. On the one hand, the EU and its member states should accept that addressing instances of Chinese malpractice (trade and investment imbalances, human rights violations, information warfare, copyright theft or acquisition of critical infrastructure) requires some hard choices that correspond to some real costs. At the same time, however, European concerns of being involuntarily dragged into a Cold War déjà vu by Washington need to be taken into serious account. The US should therefore allow an organic evolution of Europe’s China strategy, without resorting to coercion or extortion, supporting and respecting European decisions. This realisation should dovetail with serious EU efforts towards preventing Sino-American (trade) competition to escalate to a hot war, or at least to ossify to the point of providing the bedrock for a contracted frozen conflict.

As difficult as it might be, resisting falling into the trap of a Sino-American ‘Cold War’ should be the joint lens through which closer transatlantic cooperation on several fronts is pursued.

Critical issues, such as the need for diversification of global supply chains that have arisen during the pandemic should not be allowed to be treated with simplistic solutions that advocate for a total ‘decoupling’. Similarly, the case for closer cooperation between the US, the EU and their democratic allies across the world in addressing various common challenges might be clear, but as I have argued elsewhere, “what is equally clear is the need to avoid turning any steps to this end into instruments of zero-sum thinking against specific global competitors such as China. An anti-Beijing alliance of democracies, which is what former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advocated in his broadsides against that nation, will reduce not only the value and functionality of such an undertaking but its legitimacy as well”. Beijing has its increasingly obvious ambitions, but the loud beating of a Cold War drum that frames everything as a ‘US vs. China’ exercise not only risks actually hurting long-term transatlantic interests, but is also heedless of present geopolitics, given how interdependent the world is.

Homer tells us that, when faced with the mythological Sirens, Odysseus successfully escaped their enchanting call by trusting his crew to tie him to his ship’s mast, and having his crew block their ears with wax.

Avoiding the geopolitical Sirens of an ever-deepening Sino-American rivalry would equally require planning, trust, and restraint, at least if the two transatlantic partners genuinely desire this relationship not be overcome with nostalgia but survive and thrive today and tomorrow.

 

Vassilis Ntousas

Vassilis Ntousas

February 2021

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