Europe and America Are Moving Closer on China

Negative views of Beijing are growing—as is limited support for Taiwan.

By , the program assistant of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and , director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
U.S. President Joe Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meet.
U.S. President Joe Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meet.
U.S. President Joe Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meet in Brussels on March 25. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 has refocused trans-Atlantic attention on Europe while the longer-term challenges posed by China have, to some extent, taken a back seat. Yet, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “pro-Russia” neutrality in the Ukraine conflict and joint efforts by Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin to weaken the liberal rules-based order have not gone unnoticed in European capitals. In addition, persistent concerns about Chinese human rights abuses, influence operations in Europe, unfair trade practices, economic coercion, and military pressure on Taiwan make it likely that China will remain high on the Europe’s policy agenda.

Xi has officially secured another five years at least as the head of the Chinese Communist Party and emerged from the 20th Party Congress in an unprecedentedly strong position to advance his agenda, which includes reshaping international politics and global governance so it is more favorable to China’s interests. Freed from his focus on personnel arrangements and with other matters now resolved, he will be even more confident in exerting Chinese influence regionally and globally, less risk averse, and likely even less willing to listen to alternative views from within the party system.

In facing the challenge posed by Beijing, trans-Atlantic coordination and cooperation will be even more critical. Whether the United States and Europe can join up their approaches to China depends in part on the extent to which their publics are aligned. The German Marshall Fund conducted its annual survey of public attitudes between May 26 and July 11 to assess opinions across the United States and Europe, polling in 14 countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Poland, Turkey, Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Lithuania, and Romania.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 has refocused trans-Atlantic attention on Europe while the longer-term challenges posed by China have, to some extent, taken a back seat. Yet, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “pro-Russia” neutrality in the Ukraine conflict and joint efforts by Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin to weaken the liberal rules-based order have not gone unnoticed in European capitals. In addition, persistent concerns about Chinese human rights abuses, influence operations in Europe, unfair trade practices, economic coercion, and military pressure on Taiwan make it likely that China will remain high on the Europe’s policy agenda.

Xi has officially secured another five years at least as the head of the Chinese Communist Party and emerged from the 20th Party Congress in an unprecedentedly strong position to advance his agenda, which includes reshaping international politics and global governance so it is more favorable to China’s interests. Freed from his focus on personnel arrangements and with other matters now resolved, he will be even more confident in exerting Chinese influence regionally and globally, less risk averse, and likely even less willing to listen to alternative views from within the party system.

In facing the challenge posed by Beijing, trans-Atlantic coordination and cooperation will be even more critical. Whether the United States and Europe can join up their approaches to China depends in part on the extent to which their publics are aligned. The German Marshall Fund conducted its annual survey of public attitudes between May 26 and July 11 to assess opinions across the United States and Europe, polling in 14 countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Poland, Turkey, Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Lithuania, and Romania.

The results, in keeping with other global polls, show a general worsening of views on China—likely as a result of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy, the broad term for the aggressive stance increasingly taken by Chinese diplomatic staff on the world stage; Beijing’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion; the Chinese sanctions imposed in March 2021 on EU and British parliamentarians, think tanks, academics, and EU committees; and declining business confidence in China due to prolonged closures as part of its zero-COVID strategy. At the same time, polls show significant variation across Europe on coordinating China policy with the United States—with some countries being reluctant to align too closely with Washington. However, in a new and significant development, there is an emerging consensus on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean to support Taiwan—both diplomatically and through sanctions on China—in the event of a Chinese invasion.

Asked to rank actors from most to least influential in global affairs, the perception of China as a leading global power dropped sharply among those polled for this survey. Whereas most countries sampled in the 2020 and 2021 iterations of the Transatlantic Trends survey saw China as the second most influential actor globally after the United States, this number dropped to 13 percent in 2022, with most Europeans now viewing the United States and the European Union as more influential.

The rise in the position of the European Union can largely be attributed to its effective management of the health crisis and its unified response to the war in Ukraine. Beijing’s prolonged zero-COVID strategy closures and Xi’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be largely responsible for its slide to third place.

The perception of China as an influential actor in global affairs sunk in all countries surveyed, declining most sharply in Italy (where it plunged from 32 percent to 24 percent), in the Netherlands (from 27 percent to 16 percent), and in France (from 28 percent to 18 percent).

In addition to being seen as a trailing global power, China’s influence in global affairs continues to be viewed as overwhelmingly negative. Among countries polled for this survey, China is viewed in a “very negative” light in Sweden and Canada, the latter likely a result of tensions following the arrest of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadian citizens who were detained on trumped-up charges of espionage in 2018 in retaliation for Ottawa’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and finally released in September 2021.

In its 2019 strategic outlook on China, the European Commission described Beijing as a “negotiating partner,” “an economic competitor,” “and a systemic rival.” The ambiguity and complexity of the EU’s relationship with China is clearly reflected in the German Marshall Fund’s poll. Asked to identify which of the three descriptors best defines their bilateral relationship with China, 30 percent of respondents in the EU said they were not sure whether China is a partner, a competitor, or a rival.

A majority of respondents in Germany (43 percent), France (39 percent), Spain (37 percent), and Italy (34 percent) see China mainly as an economic competitor. In contrast, Romania (46 percent)Portugal (44 percent), as well as Poland (36 percent) see China primarily as a partner. The case of Lithuania is particularly interesting since it has been subject to harsh economic coercion measures from Beijing and withdrew from the China-led 16+1 platform for economic cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, 29 percent of respondents in Lithuania still view China as a partner, whereas 35 percent see China as a competitor and rival.

Asked to choose how their country should primarily manage relations with China—whether to work through the EU, with Asian countries, or pursue an independent approach—responses across the Atlantic diverge significantly. Among European countries, the EU is listed as the top partner of choice in managing ties with China, with the highest support in Portugal (67 percent), followed by Spain (58 percent) and Sweden (50 percent), signaling confidence in the ability of Brussels to deal with the China challenge. However, willingness to work with the EU is far more limited outside of the EU, with only 27 percent of U.K. respondents choosing the EU as partner of choice, followed by 23 percent in the United States.

Europeans show little interest in prioritizing working with Washington to manage Chinese challenges, with Poland (18 percent), and Romania (13 percent) being the two EU member states most likely to choose to work with the United States. Respondents in the United States divide almost evenly among those who express a preference to work independently (25 percent) versus with countries in Asia (24 percent) or with the EU (23 percent). The lack of confidence in Europe in coordinating China policy with the United States may suggest skepticism of U.S. reliability due to the uncertainty of U.S. politics in the post-Trump era, but it may also reflect a misalignment of priorities that needs to be addressed in trans-Atlantic consultations.

When asked how their country should react in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, responses across the Atlantic show a consensus for providing carefully calibrated support to Taiwan. Respondents were asked to choose only one among five options—although in a real contingency, policymakers would be able to pursue more than one action. Most respondents across all countries polled favor using diplomatic measures to resolve the conflict. This approach was particularly popular in Turkey (45 percent), Romania (45 percent), and Italy (44 percent).

Closely following, 32 percent of respondents indicated that their countries should join other countries in imposing sanctions on China. This measure was preferred by those from the United Kingdom and Portugal (40 percent) as well as Canada, Germany, and Sweden (39 percent).

In contrast, a more interventionist response was not favored in any of the countries surveyed: On average, less than 3 percent of respondents in Europe were in favor of supplying arms to Taiwan, which would shrink to less than 2 percent if the scenario was to include sending troops. Neither of those two options had much support, including in the United States, where 8 percent favored sending weapons and 7 percent supported sending troops.

Although publics in countries polled appear wary of a broader escalation of a potential conflict, less than 1 in 5 respondents want their country to take no action at all in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

The return of war in Europe and the looming energy crisis threatening the continent’s economic stability might have taken the spotlight for the time being, but China policy is bound to retain long-term importance in trans-Atlantic relations. Negative sentiment in the United States and Europe regarding China’s influence in global affairs suggests that there is fertile ground for strengthening cooperation. The German Marshall Fund’s polling results indicate that the United States needs to step up efforts to win trust in many European countries as a preferred partner in coping with growing challenges posed by China.

As the war in Ukraine drags on, Taiwan is increasingly viewed as a worrisome flash point that requires Europe’s attention. Public support for working diplomatically to defuse a conflict over Taiwan or joining other countries in imposing sanctions on China signals the potential for a shared trans-Atlantic approach to strengthening deterrence in the Taiwan Strait. With many politicians highlighting the need to bolster the rules-based order both in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, Taiwan is no longer seen as geographically distant and marginal to Europe’s security.

Julia Pallanch is the program assistant of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

Bonnie S. Glaser is director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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