Cooperative Security, Arms Control and Disarmament By Herbert Wulf | 23 April, 2023
China-Strategy: Transatlantic and European Cacophony
Image: Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping, pictured in 2018
Frederic Legrand - COMEO/Shutterstock
The G7 summit of foreign ministers in Japan in mid-April sought to emphasise the need for a unified China policy. However, the diplomatic pronouncements can only gloss over the internal contradictions, but not eliminate them. Since the Russian attack on Ukraine, dealing with China has become the focus of transatlantic and European policy. The aim is to learn lessons from the experience with Russia and to avoid or at least reduce dependencies.
So much for the consensus. The differences within the transatlantic group are already evident in the trips of leading politicians. While high-ranking politicians from the USA are currently not appearing in China, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was followed by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, among others, and then recently by French President Emmanuel Macron together with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. There is currently neither a coordinated policy between the US and the EU nor a consistent EU strategy. On the contrary: the transatlantic countries and their allies in Asia are acting in a largely uncoordinated, inconsistent, contradictory, and cacophonic manner vis-à-vis China.
In the U.S., the focus of bipartisan security policy is primarily on Taiwan's independence and, derived from this, the attempt to decouple itself from China. Economic ties should be reduced, and critical technology withheld from Beijing. The goal of the US is to stand up to China militarily and to prevent or at least delay that country's inexorable rise to become the world's number one power, and to do so through extensive containment. The Europeans and North Americans agree to ward off the “world view shaped by a sense of mission for the Chinese nation”. At least that's how von der Leyen put it in a keynote speech before her trip to Beijing. The fact that China is supported by many countries in the Global South in wanting to reform the Western-dominated international order is often ignored. “We need to reinforce the institutions and systems”, allowing cooperation and competition, said the President of the European Commission.
She summarised the EU's position in her keynote speech as follows: “Our relationship with China is far too important to be put at risk by failing to clearly set the terms of a healthy engagement.” Thus, no “containment” or “de-coupling”. Years ago, the EU formulated a triad – depending on the policy area. China is a partner, competitor, and rival. But that partnership has recently become questionable. It’s the attempt to cut the Gordian knot.
Macron surprised and horrified allies in the US and Europe with his remarks on Taiwan and the EU's relationship with the US. In an interview with Politico on the flight back from Beijing, the French president said that Europe is facing the “the great risk”, that it “gets caught up in crises that are not ours.“ He wants to reduce the EU's dependence on the US so as not to become part of the confrontation between the US and China over Taiwan's independence. His long-term goal, which he had already formulated in his famous Sorbonne speech in 2017 and repeated in the Politico interview, is "strategic autonomy" for Europe to establish it as a "third superpower". With reference to today's situation, he reasoned: “If the tensions between the two superpowers heat up ... we won’t have the time nor the resources to finance our strategic autonomy and we will become vassals.”
At its core, Macron's analysis is correct. The EU does not have the military means to play an important security role in Asia, and controversial economic interests are obvious in the EU-US relationship. But Macron's method often consists of saying the right things at the wrong time and communicating them insensitively. At a time when China is strengthening its ties with Russia, instead of pushing Putin to back down in the Ukraine war, Macron's Gaullist-inspired calls for distance from the US are rather misplaced. The war in Ukraine shows how much Europeans depend for their security on the United States, Ukraine's largest donor of military aid. Moreover, in many European countries, the attempt to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States is criticised as a French national interest.
As early as 2019, Macron had promoted the creation of European armed forces and sharply criticised the state of NATO, calling it "brain dead". In the Sorbonne speech, he was more cautious and wanted to make Europe "complementary to NATO, capable of acting independently" in security policy. Even if his demands for European "strategic autonomy" are still a long way off, if they were to be tackled at all, the Ukraine war has also achieved one thing above all: Never have military spendings increased as sharply in all European countries as it does now.
But the EU's relationship with China is not about a security dispute on global scale, as between the US and China, but about economic relations and economic dependence. The extremely important economic ties between European countries and China are also reflected in the fact that Macron—like the German chancellor at the beginning of November 2022—visited Beijing with a large and high-ranking business delegation. This, too, highlights the different priorities in Europe and the US. Or, to put it more bluntly: The power of the purse has its effects.
EU Commission President von der Leyen wants to focus on reducing risks in an EU China strategy. “We need to focus on de-risk – not de-couple.” In her keynote speech, she used the artificially constructed term "de-risk" nine times. After her trip to China, she repeated it half a dozen times in the European Parliament. Second thoughts about economic ties with China did not come out of a blue sky. Even before the start of the Ukraine war, Europeans were alarmed by two events regarding their relations with China. First, since EU member Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open a representative office in the country in 2021, the Chinese government has been annoyed and restricted trade relations with Lithuania. China's sanctions against Lithuania have an impact on the EU's internal market. Secondly, when the EU Parliament decided in March 2021 to ban four Chinese from entering the EU for participating in the oppression of the Muslim Uyghur minority, Beijing reacted reciprocally and banned some MEPs from entering China.
The EU is now pursuing the concept of "de-risking”. Von der Leyen formulated what this means in concrete terms: “We will never be shy in raising the deeply concerning issues… But I believe we must leave space for a discussion on a more ambitious partnership and on how we can make competition fairer and more disciplined.”
But there is no agreement within the EU on a China strategy. Even within the German government, there are differences. After his trip to Beijing in November 2022, Federal Chancellor Scholz proudly announced that Chinese President Xi Jinping had criticised Russia's repeated references to the possibility of using nuclear weapons. "For that alone, the whole trip was worth it," Scholz said after his return. Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister who travelled to Beijing shortly after Macron, chose a more confrontational course. "It was more than shocking at times," she said after her talks with Chinese government. She now perceives China more strongly than before as a systemic rival, having emphasised the European triad of "partner, competitor and systemic rival" before her trip.
With this assessment, according to Politico, she, like many other European politicians, gets closer to the “hard-line consensus that has formed in Washington.”
Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relations and former Director of the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC). He is presently a Senior Fellow at BICC, an Adjunct Senior Researcher at the Institute for Development and Peace, University of Duisburg/Essen, Germany, and a Research Affiliate at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He serves on the Scientific Councils of SIPRI and the Centre for Conflict Studies of the University of Marburg, Germany.