Can Europe Avoid an American-Chinese War? by Robert Williams & Moritz Rudolf

Policy makers are now struggling to learn from history and craft an approach that allows the United States and China to compete without triggering catastrophic conflict. The best hope for achieving this may lie in Europe.

NEW HAVEN – European countries are currently Split on 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 one of the main motivations for the EU’s effort 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 USA-EU Dialogue on China and the US-EU Council on Trade and Technology. Joint action to counter China’s anti-competitive trade and business practices, export and investment restrictions in response to China’s human rights violations, and push for high standards for projects infrastructure abroad 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, 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.

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This is even the case for France, the only European country with a significant military presence in the Indo-Pacific. As the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian recently Explain, “We do not underestimate the depth of competition with China, which can be fierce, and the need for constant risk assessment, but we try to avoid the militarization of our strategy to allow us to include – respectful of their sovereignty – all interested countries.

This reluctance to take a hard stance on China is bound to persist. While the new German government looks set to take a somewhat firmer tone, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has taken a cautious line, make it clear that all actions should be “carefully weighed” and stressing the need to seek a cooperative approach.

So the United States shouldn’t expect Germany to start viewing its relationship with China through a primarily ideological lens anytime soon. the communication failures surrounding the AUKUS defense agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States – an agreement that blinded France, which lost a major defense contract – further underlines the limits of US-European military cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

But transatlantic cooperation is hardly the only way Europe can influence U.S.-China relations – and mitigate the risks its rapid deterioration entails. Strategists are currently jostling to draw the lessons of history and design an approach that allows both parties to compete without disaster, in particular armed conflicts. Europe can help here.

The EU should consider launching a diplomatic initiative recalling 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 areas of cyberspace and outer space. In these contexts, American and Chinese forces have regularly function nearby, and a miscalculation could lead to war.

No one should underestimate the difficulty of establishing rules of the road that are strong enough to avoid conflict. But Europe has a comparative advantage in this area – an advantage that it has demonstrated time and time again in the past. For example, the European Commission and European countries have played a central role in establishing multilateral export control regimes, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the Wassenaar arrangement. Europe has also played a key role in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

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 that would align with the EU avowed objective pursue an inclusive approach to the region that strengthens the rules-based international order. More importantly, it offers perhaps the best chance of avoiding war between the great powers. Isn’t that what the EU was created for?

Mary I. Bruner