There are essentially three kinds of European transatlanticists: those strictly focused on their capital and Washington, DC – with the occasional side-long glance toward other EU capitals and Brussels; those whose gaze wanders as far afield as Russia in the East and to the opposite side of the Mediterranean in the south; and finally those who think that the measure of the transatlantic relationship will be taken by China.
Groups one and two came together a few weeks ago in Munich. Members of the third group came together with top China watchers from the United States, Europe, and elsewhere the following weekend in Hong Kong to address the state of play regarding China’s global role, the international economic order, and (in)security in Asia at the 19th Stockholm China Forum.
The state of affairs must be described as troubled, to put it mildly. None of the developments of the past year have pointed toward a less tense, more cooperative relationship with China. Conflict is either building or brewing on at least three different fronts: influence, trade, and nuclear war.
In December of last year, concern over Chinese influence abroad was suddenly everywhere. Amid accusations that Chinese meddling in its politics and academics had gone too far, Australia proposed a new law to address “foreign efforts to influence lawmakers.” Less than a week after Australia’s push, the German’s domestic intelligence agency publicly accused China of trying to court politicians and officials, and U.S. Congress held hearings over Chinese influence. The Economist made the issue of China’s “sharp power” its December cover story. Europe and the United States will have to grow accustomed to a more assertive China, actively promoting its interests well beyond its immediate neighborhood.
On the trade front, conflict between China and the United States seemed imminent last January after Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric during the campaign. But this tough talk had so far been followed by inaction. U.S. experts in Hong Kong predicted, that this was about to change as the recent announcement by President Trump regarding tariffs on steel and aluminum have shown. The transatlantic relationship could be the collateral damage of a U.S.–China trade war, at a time when transatlantic unity on trade would be the most effective tool to counter China’s unfair trade practices and lack of reciprocity and despite that fact that, as one EU official put it, “we agree on the analysis” that China has been manipulating the rules and exploiting WTO loopholes in their favor.
Additionally, there are multiple sources of a potential hot conflict in the Indo-Pacific: North Korea, Taiwan, and persistent tensions in the South and East China Sea. By expert accounts, North Korea continues to accelerate its weapons program. While sanctions are biting, they are not doing so “in the intended way.” It was argued that it is a “dangerous false hope” to think that China would agree to any type of pressure that would actually force regime change in Pyongyang. Implicitly accepting North Korea’s nuclear capabilities might be inevitable in the near future. While recently overshadowed by the escalation on the Korean peninsula, China’s assertive posture in its near seas continues to raise tensions in the region. Europe and the United States emphasize the importance of freedom of navigation and the law of the seas, but as one Asia security expert put it: “We could end up in a hot war over different interpretations of maritime law.” Lastly, Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power has increased the stakes for Taiwan. One China watcher argued that the “Taiwan issue is much more dangerous than we think” — not because mainland will immediately push for reunification but because it presents and continued political challenge to Xi Jinping. Again, Europe and the United States agree on the analysis, but not necessarily on strategy.
Appeals for action from China watchers and transatlanticists gathered at the Stockholm China Forum could not have been clearer. The open question is whether the political will can be mobilized to pursue transatlantic cooperation on China and whether it can be operationalized quickly enough. China is moving along with a clear understanding of its interests and strategic vision. Time is up for transatlantic bickering — time now to roll up our sleeves.