NEW HAVEN – European countries are currently divided over whether to join US President Joe Biden’s diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. The episode once again emphasizes that when it comes to dealing with China, Europe and the United States are truly an ocean of their own.
Beyond sharing core political values, the United States and Europe often employ similar rhetoric about China’s challenge to the international order. Nonetheless, most European governments fail to reconcile their interests with the vision of a US-led coalition of democracies standing up to global autocracies, and EU officials are reluctant to pursue a Chinese containment policy. , under the guise of competition.
While the European Union is keen to deepen transatlantic cooperation, there is no consensus on how to do so without alienating China or undermining the very international system it aims to defend. European governments are also not convinced of America’s reliability as a partner. Biden might appreciate the transatlantic relationship, but not his predecessor, Donald Trump. Who can say what the next US president – perhaps Trump himself – will represent? This doubt is a key motivation behind the EU’s efforts to operationalize its vision of “strategic autonomy”.
Certainly, there is a possibility of transatlantic collaboration on China. In fact, efforts to advance such cooperation are already underway, in the form of initiatives such as the US-EU China Dialogue and the US-EU Business and Technology Council. Joint action to counter China’s anti-competitive trade and commerce practices, export and investment restrictions in response to China’s human rights violations, and push for high standards for women. overseas infrastructure projects are to be welcomed.
But the current US and EU agenda on China might be too ambitious. Clearer prioritization is needed to maximize the benefits of coordination. In addition, the different legal systems and threat perceptions in the United States and Europe will painfully slow progress in key areas, such as carbon taxes, antitrust policy or responses to Chinese disinformation campaigns.
The prospects for meaningful military and security cooperation vis-à-vis China are particularly limited. While European countries have taken symbolic steps – for example, the German warship Bayern recently demonstrated the right of free passage in the South China Sea – they are reluctant to go much further.
This reluctance to take a hard stance on China is likely to persist. Communication failures around the AUKUS defense deal between Australia, the UK and the US – an agreement that blinded France, which lost a major defense contract – further underscore the limits of the American-European military cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
But transatlantic cooperation is hardly the only way for Europe to influence US-China relations and mitigate the risks its rapid deterioration entails. Policy makers are now struggling to learn lessons from history and craft an approach that allows both sides to confront each other without catastrophe, especially in the event of armed conflict. Europe can help here.
The EU should consider launching a diplomatic initiative reminiscent of the Helsinki process, credited with reducing tensions between the Soviet and Western blocs in the 1970s. Through such a process, Europe could negotiate agreements to promote de-escalation, risk reduction and crisis management, thereby reducing the likelihood of armed conflict.
Europe’s limited ability to project its military might in the Indo-Pacific could be an asset in this context, as it strengthens the credibility of European actors as honest brokers and trusted intermediaries. Compared to more direct stakeholders, the EU may be better placed to mediate thorny issues such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. He might even be able to promote constructive diplomacy in the fields of cyberspace and outer space. In these contexts, US and Chinese forces regularly operate in close proximity, and miscalculation could lead to war.
An EU-led de-escalation initiative in the Indo-Pacific is far from certain, especially given the recent rise in tensions between the EU and China. But this would align with the EU’s stated goal of pursuing an inclusive approach to the region that strengthens the rules-based international order.
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Robert Williams is Executive Director of the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School and Senior Researcher and Lecturer at Yale Law School. Moritz Rudolf is a postdoctoral fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School.
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