Can Europe remain neutral and avoid an American-Chinese war?

European countries are currently divided over 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 a key motivation behind the EU’s efforts 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 US-EU China Dialogue and the US-EU Business and Technology Council. 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.

This is even the case for France, the only European country with a significant military presence in the Indo-Pacific. As French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently explained: “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 – with respect for their sovereignty – all interested countries.

This reluctance to take a hard stance on China is bound to persist. While the new German government seems likely to take a somewhat firmer tone, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has adopted a cautious line, noting 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. Communication failures around the AUKUS defense agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States – an agreement which blinded France, which lost a major defense contract – further underline the limits of the American-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. Policy makers are now struggling to learn lessons from history and craft an approach that allows both sides to confront each other without catastrophe, especially in the event of armed conflict. Europe can help here.

The EU should consider launching a diplomatic initiative reminiscent of 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, US and Chinese forces regularly operate in close proximity, and 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 this would align with the EU’s stated goal of pursuing 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?

Robert Williams, Senior Fellow and Lecturer at Yale Law School, is Executive Director of the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. Moritz Rudolf is a postdoctoral fellow at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. © Project Syndicate, 2021

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