In the aftermath of EU parliament elections, the next commission and EU leaders will have to deal sooner than later with the new geopolitical landscape in the global context. The conflict between China and the US is systemic in nature, and no matter how, it will keep going in the years to come. The Trade War shows that the unity of global markets should not be taken for granted in the future. In this scenario, liberal world order, understood as the possibility of a global unified governance structure and market rules organized around shared institutions, has come to an end. Besides, Donald Trump’s presidency demonstrates that Europe and the US don’t share the same interests anymore.
This article is going to argue that, from a realist perspective, the new global power configuration presents interesting strategic options for Europe. The scenario drawn in this article will take the EU as an actor which has capacity of unitary action, assuming that core EU countries, namely Germany and France, are going to be able to work together and keep their influence over minor state members. The author acknowledges the internal problems and the ideological and institutional constraints that the EU faces. But tackling them goes beyond the aim and the scope of this piece. This is an exercise to present foreign policy paths from a realist perspective, and any of the ideas hereby presented in the last instance should deal with the realities of European politics.
The main argument is organized around the idea that, regarding China-EU relations, it is in the EU’s best interests to achieve strategic independence from the US; and that it is in the best interests of China to have an autonomous and united Europe as a big player in international affairs. If the EU manages to do so, it could act as a balancing force between China and the US, being able to work and compete with both of them when needed. In this scenario, the “end of the West”, understood as a collective of countries with a common agency, would be far from being a problem for Europe, and that could be considered instead as an opportunity to achieve an independent position.
In a context of confrontation between China and the US, the first European strategic option would be to keep attached to the transatlantic alliance and help the US in its confrontation against China. This alliance is mostly based on ideological proximity and shared management of the liberal world order, but in a moment when the US is not only unable to maintain the system anymore, but also is dismantling it, this option should be revised.
First argument in favour of keeping a position close to the US is shared liberal values. Some voices are framing the existing confrontation between the US and China, as an ideological clash between Western democracies and Eastern authoritarian regimes. However, if this frame is imposed, it would condemn any future possibility of EU strategic autonomy and would make European interests be subordinated to the US.
But if we look at EU interests, this narrative doesn’t stand. In the Tech Cold War with China, the US is in the process of decoupling its supply chains in the technological sector from China. Although Europe has not followed the US on its ban on Huawei, Washington is pressing European countries to move their economies away from China. However, it is not among the EU’s economic interests to decouple from China lead value chains. Indeed, European companies are already suffering from the consequences of the Trade War. Further, the alternative cannot be kept attached to the US’s lead value chains, in which competition will be even stronger.
From a geoeconomic perspective, Europe needs to be able to keep working with Asian markets, including China. Besides, it is a fact that EU-Asian trade relation is stronger than its transatlantic one. Furthermore, the divergence of interests between both sides of the Atlantic is clear when Donald Trump’s threat to launch a trade war with Europe is still in force. Hence, the greatest strength of the EU in the international scene is being the larger common market of the world. Rejecting one of the two biggest world economies would make Europe lose the only asset in which has no match.
A second argument in favour of keeping the EU within the framework of the West alliance is the idea that China poses an existential threat to Europe. China is now an active actor/player in European politics, and Chinese interests are taken into account in most EU member governments’ decisions. Besides, the extension of the Belt and Road Initiative to several EU members that currently hold strained relations with Brussels (Eastern European countries in the 17+1, or more recently Italy’s nationalist government) has been perceived as an attempt from China to divide the European Union. That Chinese influence has grown over European countries is part of EU’s new normal. But considering that these actions are aimed at overthrowing liberal democracy and to divide the EU is far from reality. In fact, one of China’s EU policy goal is precisely to foster the EU strategic autonomy, even neutrality in case of conflict with the US.
On the one hand, Chinese funded Belt and Road infrastructure projects could hardly be considered as a weakening threat towards internal European connections. The fact is that the ultimate goal of Belt and Road Initiative is to connect the EU market with a Chinese-led Eurasian world, so there is no interest in destroying this market. Although it could also be argued whether EU internal connections are only being reinforced in the way that best serve Chinese interests to reach EU core markets.
On the other hand, there has been Chinese operations for gaining political influence among some European periphery governments. These actions are very often equated to those carried out by Russia or Donald Trump in Europe. However, a big difference between them is that, so far, Chinese intentions do not imply weakening the EU political system, but to lobby in favour of their own interests within the EU. That is what Great Powers do, and should do. The main threat from China’s influence in Europe comes precisely because its influence is nurtured by already existing EU divisions and weaknesses. China’s actions to protect its interests in Europe become dangerous to European political systems because these systems are already facing a deep political crisis. But overall, what would Beijing win from a divided Europe that would be more likely to be under the US influence?
Having said that, a multipolar scenario would give more strategic options for Europe than a bipolar one. In this way, EU’s policies towards China should depart from the fact that with the Trade War going on, and being likely to get worse in the future, the EU finds China in a position of relative vulnerability for first time in many years. That opens the door to Europe to gain concessions from China in the form of trade agreements.
In this scenario, Europe should not approach this opportunity aiming at bending China into the European model, but to keep European companies in the track of the tech race as the main front of contemporary geopolitical competition. Ideological demands regarding China’s internal political system should be avoided, and they should focus instead on protecting European trade interests, both in China and in the projects around the Belt and Road. On the security dimension, the EU could offer China assurance by avoiding to challenge its political system, and by not supporting the US interventions in those areas sensitive to Chinese interests, as it is already doing with the Iran nuclear deal issue. The EU and China share a common interest of fostering stability in the Middle East. On the other hand, China could use its leverage over Russia not backing up those actions perceived as pernicious by European countries.
If European strategists are able to embrace change not with fear but understanding it as the natural dynamic of politics, the geopolitical landscape left by the US-China Tech Cold War could emerge as a bright one. Europe could act as a bridge between China and the US, and in a multipolar world order, the actor able to take the role of a balancing force usually gets the upper hand. After years of European commentators arguing for an EU strategic autonomy from the US, an opportunity has finally come. For it to, however, the EU should not only be able to deal with its internal problems, but to change its approach towards world affairs: giving up on a foreign policy guided by values and ideological constraints, being flexible on its relations with other major players, and being able to go beyond being “nicer” than the US.
Image: United States Department of State. The image is in the public domain in the US (via Wikimedia Commons ).
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a political scientist specialized in Chinese foreign policy. He holds a BA in Political Science from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and an MA in International Security by the University of Groningen. Vila is currently finishing his second Master’s degree in Chinese Studies by the Pompeu Fabra’s University of Barcelona.