The U.S. and Europe Are Speaking a Different Language on China

Dire American warnings about the threat from Beijing fall on deaf ears at the Munich Security Conference.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a speech at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 15.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a speech at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 15. Johannes Simon/Getty Images

MUNICH—The Americans came on strong. Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned America’s allies at the Munich Security Conference that it was time to “wake up” to the Chinese threat. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the West was “winning” the conflict with China. And a senior Trump administration official said Europe was “missing the point” if it did not see China through an “us against them” lens. 

The Europeans also heard from a Republican member of the U.S. Congress that the raging coronavirus was an “opportunity” to turn the Chinese people against their government. And they listened as Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described the Chinese telecommunications group Huawei as an “insidious form of aggression.”

But most of these warnings fell on deaf ears at the three-day gathering, which ended Sunday and, as it does each year, brought leaders, diplomats, and the world’s top foreign-policy thinkers to a crammed hotel in the Bavarian capital for frank debates about global challenges. What all the panels, breakfast meetings, and side discussions about China revealed most was that Washington and Europe are speaking a completely different language when it comes to China. And so long as they do, developing a trans-Atlantic agenda to respond to China’s rise will be very difficult, perhaps impossible.

In the coming months, U.S. President Donald Trump could single-handedly torpedo prospects for such cooperation if he follows through on his long-standing threat to impose tariffs on European cars. This goes to the heart of another major obstacle to a common agenda: the vanishing sense in Europe that it can rely on what the U.S. administration says and does. 

Trans-Atlantic trust has steadily eroded since Trump came into office and pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord and Iran nuclear deal. His decision last October to abruptly withdraw U.S. troops from Syria without alerting allies first deeply unsettled European capitals. And his repeated assertions that Europe is far worse than China are hard to reconcile with Pompeo’s reassurances that all is well in the West and Esper’s demands that Europe join forces with the United States against China.

In Munich, the sense of U.S. policy disarray was reinforced when U.S. officials effectively admitted that they had been bluffing with their repeated threats to rein in intelligence sharing with Britain and other European countries that choose Huawei for their 5G networks. Implausibly, they also denied ever having issued such threats. “We’ve learned that you can’t believe everything, or possibly anything, they say,” a European diplomat said.

The hosts listened to the U.S. warnings about China politely. But even the conference host, Wolfgang Ischinger, a veteran German diplomat, couldn’t help but push back against the American torrent, reminding the audience gathered in the Bayerischer Hof that China was in the midst of tackling the coronavirus, an epidemic of historic proportions, with implications for the entire world. 

“I think China deserves some compassion, cooperation, some words of support, and encouragement rather than only criticism,” he said.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier kicked off the conference by lumping the United States together with China and Russia as major challenges for Europe. “Our closest ally, the United States of America, under the current administration, rejects the very concept of the international community,” he said.

Europe and the United States do agree on what they don’t like about China’s development under President Xi Jinping. That includes a Chinese market that has not opened up to foreign investment in the way Xi promised over three years ago at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It includes the emergence of a dystopian surveillance state that is now being exported to countries in Africa, Latin America, and beyond. It includes the detention of over a million Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang. And it includes China’s intimidation tactics in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere.

They also agree on the need to push back. Both sides have responded to a flurry of Chinese acquisitions by introducing tougher restrictions on Chinese investment. Both have condemned China’s actions in Xinjiang. Both are talking about muscular new industrial policies.

Where they don’t agree is on how to define this competition. And in the end, this will be crucial if they are to move beyond the loose cooperation on China that exists today—including within NATOand develop the kind of trans-Atlantic agenda that people were buzzing about in Munich.

A first step would be for the Americans to tone down their “with us or against us” rhetoric. As Reinhard Bütikofer, a veteran China watcher from the German Greens party, told Foreign Policy, officials in Washington still talk down to the Europeans on China, as if they didn’t “get it.” “The more they wag their finger, the less the Europeans listen,” he said.

But it will also require a more concerted effort from Europe to forge a common, coherent, and firm policy toward China after a year that has been less than encouraging on that front. Since the EU declared China a “systemic rival” in March 2019, the momentum behind a united European policy has stalled, and Germany, its largest member state, deserves its share of the blame.

This starts with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s reluctance to offend or anger Beijing, an approach that has driven her open-door policy toward Huawei and led her government to break with Britain, France, and other European capitals last month and refuse to congratulate Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on her reelection.

Merkel’s plan to host a summit in Leipzig in September that brings together Xi and all 27 EU leaders is seen critically in Brussels and a number of other European capitals. She is pushing China to clinch a comprehensive investment agreement with the EU and agree to closer cooperation to fight climate change and promote economic development in Africa. But talks with Beijing are moving slowly, and the coronavirus could doom prospects of a substantive result in Leipzig.

“If Germany is not careful, this meeting could end up undermining, instead of reinforcing, European unity on China,” said Mikko Huotari, the director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. “It can’t be allowed to turn into an elaborate photo-op for Xi two months before the U.S. election.”

Until Europe gets its own ducks in a row, French President Emmanuel Macron made clear in Munich, it will be difficult to achieve much progress with the United States. Macron has tried twice—during a 2018 visit to Washington and at the G-7 summit in Biarritz last year—to convince Trump to work more closely with Europe on China, only to be rejected both times.

But if Europe must develop a more joined-up strategy to achieve trans-Atlantic convergence, then Washington must find a way to speak credibly, and with a different tone, toward its allies. 

Noah Barkin is a managing editor at the Rhodium Group and senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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