Middle East

Can Europe Avoid the US-China War?

Robert Williams and Moritz Rudolph / New Haven

European countries are currently divided on whether to participate in the diplomatic boycott of US President Joe Biden at the Winter Olympics in Beijing. This episode reiterates the fact that the ocean is really far away when it comes to dealings with China, Europe and the United States.
The United States and Europe not only share basic political values, but often adopt similar rhetoric about the challenges China poses to the international order. Nonetheless, most European governments have been unable to reconcile their interests with the vision of a U.S.-led democratic coalition that confronts the world’s dictatorship, and European authorities have focused on containment in the guise of competition. Hesitate to pursue China’s policies.
The European Union wants to deepen its cross-Atlantic cooperation, but there is no consensus on how to achieve it without alienating China or damaging the international system that is trying to defend it. Also, the European government is not convinced of America’s credibility as a partner. Biden may appreciate transatlantic relationships, but his predecessor, Donald Trump, did not. Who will say what the next US president, perhaps Trump himself, means? This question is the main motivation behind the EU’s efforts to put the vision of “strategic autonomy” into practice.
Indeed, China has room for cross-Atlantic cooperation. In fact, efforts to promote such cooperation are already underway in the form of initiatives such as the US-EU Dialogue on China and the US-EU Trade Technology Council. We need to welcome joint action to counter China’s anti-competitive commerce practices, export and investment restrictions in response to China’s allegations of human rights issues, and the high-level promotion of overseas infrastructure projects.
However, the current US-EU agenda for China can be overly ambitious. Clearer prioritization is needed to maximize the benefits of adjustments. In addition, the perception of different legal systems and threats in the United States and Europe will be very slow in key areas such as carbon taxes, antitrust laws and the response to disinformation campaigns in China.
The prospects for meaningful military and security cooperation with China are particularly limited. European countries have made some iconic moves, for example the German warship Bavarian has recently shown the right to freely pass through the South China Sea, but they are wary of going further.
This also applies to France, the only European country with a significant military presence in the Indo-Pacific. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently explained: Respect their sovereignty and allow them to include all countries of interest. “
This reluctance to take a strict stance toward China will continue. Germany’s new government is likely to adopt a rather solid tone, but Prime Minister Olaf Scholz has taken a cautious stance, clarifying that all actions need to be “carefully considered” and cooperating. It emphasizes the need to seek a sensible approach.
Therefore, the United States should not expect Germany to immediately begin to see its relationship with China, primarily through its ideological lens. The communication failure surrounding the AUKUS defense pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States is a blinding deal to France, which has lost a major defense contract, further emphasizing the limits of US-Europe military cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
But cross-Atlantic cooperation is not the only way Europe can influence Sino-US relations, but mitigating the risks associated with its rapid deterioration. Strategists are now struggling to draw lessons from history and devise an approach that allows them to compete without catastrophe, especially armed conflict. Europe can help here.
The EU should consider launching a diplomatic initiative reminiscent of the Helsinki process, which is said to have eased tensions between the Soviet and Western nations in the 1970s. Through such a process, Europe can mediate agreements to facilitate escalation, risk reduction, and crisis management, thereby reducing the likelihood of armed conflict.
Europe’s limited ability to project military power in the Indo-Pacific can be an asset in this context as it strengthens the credibility of European stakeholders as honest and credible intermediaries. Compared to more direct stakeholders, the EU may be better suited to mediate troublesome issues such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. It may even be able to promote constructive diplomacy in the realm of cyber and outer space. In these contexts, US and Chinese troops are regularly operating in close proximity, and miscalculations can lead to war.
The difficulty of establishing rules for roads that are robust enough to avoid conflict should not be underestimated. But Europe has a comparative advantage in this area – it has been repeatedly demonstrated in the past. For example, the European Commission and European countries have played a central role in implementing multilateral export control regimes such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and Wassenaar Arrangements. Europe has also played an important role in negotiations with Iran on nuclear program.
The EU-led deescalation initiative in the Indo-Pacific is far from certain, especially given the recent heightened tensions between the EU and China. However, it will be in line with the EU’s stated goal of pursuing a comprehensive approach to regions that strengthen the rules-based international order. More importantly, it probably offers the best chance of avoiding a war between great powers. Isn’t that the reason why the EU was created? — Project Syndicate


* Robert Williams, Executive Director of the Paulzei China Center, Senior Researcher and Lecturer at Yale Law School, is a non-resident Senior Fellow and Contribution Editor of the Brookings Institution.
* Moritz Rudolf, a postdoc at the Paulzei China Center at Yale Law School, is the author of the Belt and Road Initiative: Impact on the International Order.



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