Shadow Government

China’s Trans-Atlantic Wedge

China is challenging Washington's privileged position in Europe.

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China’s rise is no longer a regional phenomenon that primarily impacts Asia. It is a global force, putting pressure on alliances that underpin the liberal international order. Nowhere is this more true than in trans-Atlantic relations. China has just convinced America’s closest European allies to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Beijing’s proposed multilateral development bank, over concerted opposition from Washington. White House officials have condemned the “constant accommodation” of China by Britain and other European powers, and the topic was the subject of intense debate last weekend at the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum.

But it is the United States that looks isolated in this diplomatic spat, even as Beijing’s leadership remains untested, and as Washington appears set to deliver trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic trade agreements that are far more important economically.

American officials worry that the allure of the Chinese market risks converting European allies into proponents of the kind of Ostpolitik that Cold War-era U.S. leaders feared could tear apart the Western alliance by turning Europeans into middlemen, horse-trading for advantage between rival superpowers. China is not yet a superpower like the Soviet Union was; it needs Europe’s technology and investment capital at least as much as Europeans need access to Chinese markets. And as Russia’s army marches westward, Europeans still find U.S. defense guarantees rather useful. Nonetheless, in at least five ways, China threatens to crack the Atlantic alliance by challenging America’s privileged position in Europe.

First, China has called into question both the “special relationship” between Washington and London, and American influence in NATO by tempting Britain (followed by Germany, France, and Italy) into joining the AIIB. All four countries have acted in defiance of a concerted U.S. campaign to boycott what Washington sees as a competitor to the Asian Development Bank, in which Japan and the U.S. are the largest stakeholders. President Barack Obama’s campaign to prevent U.S. allies from joining the AIIB is perverse: Asia has enormous infrastructure requirements that neither the ADB nor the U.S. foreign assistance budget can meet. But by luring America’s closest friends into the new grouping over loud protest from Washington, China has demonstrated the limits of U.S. influence in Europe, and its ability to checkmate American power in allied capitals.

Second, China’s economic magnetism risks pulling Germany, Europe’s central power, away from both Washington and its European Union partners, threatening the trans-Atlantic and European compacts. Nearly half of all EU exports to China are made in Germany. Already, China absorbs twice the value of German exports that Russia does. German-Russian economic ties have constrained Berlin’s support for tougher sanctions against Moscow following the invasion of Ukraine. Closer German economic ties with China will have even greater weight on Germany’s foreign policy choices. When German and Chinese leaders huddle in their now-annual summits, American (and other European) officials are anxious to know what they are discussing behind the backs of their friends.

Third, the allure of Chinese trade and capital has tested the limits of European unity by creating a scramble for mercantile advantage, pitting EU member states against one another to secure commercial contracts. European leaders’ summitry with China is too often about doing deals. In recent years, a wave of Chinese capital has washed over Europe’s shores, transforming property markets from London to Lisbon, and infusing investment in both “core Europe” and in its poorer southern and eastern peripheries. Chinese companies are active in everything from Greek ports to British telecommunications, Italian electricity, and Swedish cars. China’s buying power has created new political groupings like the annual summit between China and 16 central and eastern European countries, which last took place in Serbia in December. China’s government has not been shy about using divide-and-conquer tactics to provide European powers with differentiated levels of access and investment on the basis of their political cooperation with Chinese goals.

Fourth, in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, China has engaged in a propaganda blitz linking Europeans’ memories of the fight against fascism to what Beijing alleges is an equivalent “militarism” emanating from Japan — a close U.S. ally that enjoys privileged partnerships with NATO and the EU. Few countries have done more than Japan to promote peace during the past seven decades. But Chinese embassies across Europe are running a concerted campaign to vilify the West’s natural ally in Asia in emotional terms that play to the sensitivities of Europeans who abandoned war as an instrument of policy after 1945. Just when Europe needs a strong democratic ally in Asia to counterbalance ever-closer ties with authoritarian China, Beijing is cleverly driving a wedge between Japan and its Western friends.

Fifth, China’s government has withheld commercial and diplomatic access from European countries whose leaders dare to meet with the Dalai Lama and other political dissidents. This has neutered official advocacy of democracy and human rights for the Chinese people in the home of the Enlightenment. No European leader publicly stood up for the rights of Hong Kong’s citizens during their recent face off with the regime in Beijing over the voting rights they were promised. This has led many Chinese to conclude that Europeans are engaged in a blinkered pursuit of profit that only enhances state control and repression inside China. In fact, China’s transformation into a more liberal, reliable, and transparent partner would benefit European interests across the board. Ironically, officials in Beijing would respect European leaders more if they did not abandon their principles in dealings with Chinese interlocutors so frequently.

Europe has pivoted to Asia before in ways that sowed trans-Atlantic divisions. In the mid-2000s, the EU debated lifting its arms embargo on China. Such a policy shift could have seen U.S. forces defending Taiwan confronting top-of-the-line European jet fighters piloted by Chinese aces. European officials sensibly retained the arms embargo then. Today they should perhaps consider that, as Russia simulates nuclear strikes against European capitals and deploys offensive forces along NATO’s borders, a continuing U.S. commitment to Europe’s defense may be worth a degree of restraint in Europe’s dealings with Beijing.

For their part, Americans might have a little more trust that growing European ties with China will exert influence in both directions — and spend more time collaborating with trans-Atlantic allies to shape China’s behavior in ways that advance Western interests and ideals, rather than maintaining the current policy of alienating everyone.

A version of this article appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.

Photo Credit: Sean Gallup / Staff

Daniel Twining is president of the International Republican Institute. Prior to joining IRI, Twining was Counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed in his articles for FP are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the International Republican Institute.

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