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To Counter China, We Must Strengthen Ties with Europe

America will not have a better friend and ally than the community of democracies on the other side of the Atlantic.
September 22, 2020
To Counter China, We Must Strengthen Ties with Europe
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) and Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab walk up the stairs in the Foreign Office on July 21, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Three and a half years into Donald Trump’s presidency, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo embarked on a charm offensive in Europe, hoping to bring Europeans on board with U.S. efforts to confront China. As he told the Copenhagen Democracy Summit in June, “Europe faces a China challenge, just as the United States does, and as—just as our South American, African, Middle Eastern, and Asian friends do too.” Then, speaking in Prague last month, he compared China’s challenge to Soviet communism: “The challenge of resisting the [Chinese Communist Party] CCP threat is in some ways much more difficult. That’s because the CCP is already enmeshed in our economies, in our politics, in our societies in ways the Soviet Union never was.”

Pompeo is right to reach out to America’s European partners. In 2018, the EU was China’s largest trading partner. Together with the United States, the EU imported just over $1 trillion of Chinese goods, accounting for over 40 percent of all China’s exports. With the world’s second-largest economy and with longstanding political, economic, and cultural connections to the United States, the European Union (EU) is America’s natural partner in addressing China’s mercantilist practices, its intellectual property theft, and its investments around the world that may seem innocuous but are often intended to exert political influence or create cybersecurity threats.

Beijing did itself no favors by its heavy-handed diplomacy during the pandemic. A plurality of Europeans now see China more critically than before, with 62 percent of respondents in France and Denmark reporting that their views have “worsened” since the onset of the crisis—with other European countries also seeing huge swings in public opinion toward China. After the U.K.’s decision to ban Huawei from its 5G network, the voices calling a for a similar move by Germany are growing, including most prominently the country’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas. As a result, on Pompeo’s initiative, the United States signed common memoranda on the security of 5G networks with the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia, and Lithuania.

However, Secretary Pompeo’s efforts come on the back of frequent abuse of America’s European allies throughout Trump’s presidency—and, prior to that, of eight years of not entirely benign neglect. Drastically cutting U.S. forces in Germany with little notice and unclear strategic rationale—other than President Trump’s dislike of Chancellor Angela Merkel—does not send the signal to Berlin that the United States is a reliable partner with whom it can take on China or indeed address any major international challenge. If there is any chance of creating a somewhat united front of Western democracies seeking to contain China, the next U.S. president will have to invest heavily in repairing trust lost during the Trump years.

Moreover, it will not be enough to charm individual European countries. Especially on trade and economic policy, it is the EU, not national governments, that yields the relevant competences. While the Trump administration’s bilateral ties with European countries have not all uniformly worsened—many Eastern Europeans are rightly appreciative of the beefing up of NATO’s presence in Poland and the Baltic States—its view of Brussels has oscillated between indifference and hostility. Yet, few things are more acutely in U.S. interests than the EU’s ability to speak in one voice on China, even if the message might not be aligned 100 percent with the U.S. administration’s views.

Reviving not just bilateral dialogue, but the EU-U.S. one, is in the interest of both the United States and of Europe. In practical terms, reviving the now-abandoned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (without forgetting about the U.K.) would not only bring U.S. and European economies closer together but could also serve as a basis for international standards on state aid, financial transparency, and intellectual property, on which China needs disciplining by the world’s democracies.

In short, the United States needs a genuine Europe First foreign and trade policy, recognizing that America will not have a better friend and ally than the community of democracies on the other side of the Atlantic. There is a security role to play for the Europeans too, especially for NATO. While Article 5 was written with the Soviet threat in mind, its deterrent role applies to all regimes seeking confrontation with the alliance’s members, including China.

The United States has been developing new missile systems, including long-range standoffs, stealth naval and aerial vehicles, and unmanned aerial and naval vehicles meant to break into anti-access/area-denial defense systems that China and Russia have developed. Partnering with the Europeans would reduce the financial burden that the United States is bearing—not an insignificant consideration given the state of the global economy—while providing the Europeans with access to technologies that can help keep Europe’s Eastern flank safe and bringing the allies on both sides of the Atlantic closer together.

Another area where cooperation is beneficial is the field of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, microelectronics, and 5G. AI in particular might revolutionize warfare as much as the invention of the nuclear bomb or the airplane did in the 20th century. In its 2021 budget, the Department of Defense has boosted significantly investment in AI and quantum R&D (i.e., quantum computing and various technologies that are based on quantum science). A report by the Center for a New American Security suggests that the United States ought to increase spending on AI and quantum science research from the current $1 billion to $25 billion by 2025. However, scaled R&D programs need more research capacity and human talent, and that’s where NATO’s non-U.S. members, with a population of 600 million and some of the world’s leading universities and research organizations, come into play.

Last but not least, Europe provides legitimacy to America’s actions both in the eyes of Americans and internationally. Be it sanctions, trade restrictions, or military operations, the United States always benefits from the support of European governments and the EU. Especially in attempts to attack and punish the CCP on its human rights violations, the United States will benefit if the European Union also joins it in such punitive measures. The United States can also leverage Europe’s assistance in the negotiations to renew the New START, set to expire in 2021. The treaty puts a ban on the development of high-yield nuclear weapons by Russia and the United States. The renewal makes sense only if China joins the agreement, which could be achieved through the EU’s diplomatic and economic pressure on China.

China does not pose a challenge exclusively to the United States. It poses a threat to the entire free world. As AEI’s Kori Schake argues in her 2017 book Safe Passage, China aspires to remake the world order in its own image: unfree, corrupt, and mercantilist. Preventing its rise to hegemony is therefore in the collective interest of the United States and its European allies—as well as other democracies around the world. If the next administration does not want to see Europe accommodate China because Europeans feel that America is no longer a reliable partner, it ought to make repairing its ties with the old continent its single most important foreign policy priority.

Shay Khatiri and Dalibor Rohac

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran FileDalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.