Vassilis Ntousas / Jul 2020
In the pre-pandemic environment, there was perhaps no greater subtext to what the new European Commission has said or done since the beginning of its mandate on 1 December than the pervasive concern over the continuing Sino-American rivalry.
The topic might have not been on the official agenda as such, but you saw aspects of it reflected in some of the trade rhetoric employed, Ursula von der Leyen’s geopolitical aspirations, the language used by the EU’s High Representative to exhort embracing Europe’s power more resolutely, or the urgency and ambition surrounding key initiatives announced such as the European Green Deal to a European approach to Artificial Intelligence.
And then came COVID-19.
The public political sparring between Washington and Beijing only served to reinforce a feeling that that the EU is being involuntarily dragged into an arena of great power competition for which it needs to be better unprepared. The main question underpinning this sentiment is how the bloc can realistically deal with the possibility of being squeezed between an assertive and belligerent United States and an ascendant China.
Indeed, if—as the cliché goes—it takes two to tango, it remains unclear how the Union will manoeuvre through this global choreography of power, but also who its reliable partner(s) can be in this dance.
Coping with an assertive US
Evidently, this is inextricably linked to the fact that many of the certainties deriving from a strong and reliable transatlantic partnership are long gone. The well documented combination of many of the elements of the Trump presidency—an antithesis to so much of what the EU does or stands for—has meant that both sides of the Atlantic have found it increasingly hard to find (m)any issues of substantial alignment.
The solidifying consensus in Washington that China’s rise is probably the most clear and present danger to American long-term strategic interests has complicated things further. This ‘China scare’ has not exactly paralysed joint transatlantic efforts, such as the US-EU-Japan trilateral to address China’s trade policies and practices, but it has distorted to a greater extent both what and how the two sides of the Atlantic discuss and engage with each other. Washington has viewed for quite some time now several bilateral issues in the transatlantic agenda through the lens of Brussels’ relationship to Beijing. The pressure applied to exclude the Chinese tech group Huawei from the European roll-out of the 5G network should be seen only as the latest, and certainly not the last, example of this.
With the November 2020 US election fast approaching, the EU’s opposition to President Donald Trump’s aggressive pirouettes will only embolden him, but this will in turn reinforce the feeling in Brussels that the auto-pilot of ‘business as usual’ cannot be the preferred policy mode going forward, regardless of what the outcome of the election will be.
Managing an ascendant China
If the transatlantic partnership has seen better days, the EU’s relations with China have also experienced their fair share of tumult recently.
Underpinning this is what French president Emmanuel Macron called ‘an end to an age of naïveté’. What used to be a rather incoherent approach, where Europe frequently tripped over its own feet, undermined by short-sightedness or a lack of unity, gave way to what has been the most substantive overhaul of European approaches vis-à-vis Beijing in a long time.
What accelerated this process has been China’s newfound confidence in pursuing foreign policy goals that were seen as requiring a much firmer European stance: the country’s gargantuan Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its acquisition of strategic infrastructure across the EU and its involvement in the 17+1 format, competition over technology and standards, as well as the continuing bilateral trade and investment imbalances. Beijing’s heavy-handed charm offensive, mainly in the form of masks or ventilators, during the pandemic combined with the ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy of a few Chinese emissaries at a time of need for Europe certainly did not help to acquiesce such concerns.
The extremely swift adoption of the foreign direct investment screening framework, which mostly had BRI in mind, and the 2019 Joint Communication that went so far as to call China for the first time “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance” right next to the frames of “partner” and “competitor” both substantiated this new European approach.
Again, 2020 is a critical year in how this approach will translate into further action. Whereas previously, the bloc’s approach was far more ambivalent and nuanced compared to the US, the way Beijing handled itself during the public health crisis that followed the outbreak of the virus in Europe appears to have solidified a sourer mood. The visibly subdued atmosphere during the latest EU-China summit was certainly reflective of this. But this only underlines how poignant the question is of how the EU intends to sharpen and concretise its moves alongside the partner/competitor/rival routine it has established.
Considerations for an ambivalent Brussels
Instead of waiting for Washington to re-discover reason and for Beijing to show its full deck of cards, there is agreement that Europe must chart an independent course, but not enough consensus on the specific direction this course should take.
Three considerations will provide important guidance in allowing the EU to foster a more clear-eyed perspective.
First, many illusions about the current situation must be shed. For instance, waiting idly for the outcome of the US presidential election, wishing that a Trump election defeat will revert the transatlantic relationship back to its pre-2016 status is a misguided strategy.
Clearly the EU cannot afford to be a passive bystander in this rivalry. Sitting it out or at least opting for an ‘equidistant’ posture might look convenient, but it would not be sensible or sustainable in the long-term. A lack of active involvement by Brussels now will most likely result in being forced to take sides and make decisions that are neither in its interests nor in its diplomatic style later on. This is why serious EU efforts should be dedicated towards preventing Sino-American (trade) competition to escalate and solidify further.
Secondly, a greater degree of agility will be required, especially after Brexit. As I have argued elsewhere, the EU should become more comfortable with compartmentalising its use of power. For example, even a very serious dispute in the area of human rights between Brussels and Beijing need not block dialogue and cooperation in other areas.
Finally, as in dance, a nimbler and more astute European approach will demand a more convincing level of spatial and role awareness. Brussels needs to prioritise the areas in which it can take the lead in the geopolitical dance, try to make the best of it when it chooses to follow, or refuse the dance altogether when confronted with propositions directly incompatible with the core of the EU’s positions. From the Iran nuclear deal to providing global climate leadership, the latter cannot be done on every topic and all the time, but it should be very much in play on key issues that merit resistance and not appeasement.
Ultimately, the combination of these elements should result in the EU both assuming a firmer step on its own in this geopolitical dance with the US and China and learning fast how to dance with different partners. Otherwise, the bloc risks not only losing control of its own movement, but merely providing the stage for other players to move in the manner, tempo and direction that they like.