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What is Europe’s Place in Sino-American Competition?

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This article was originally published by War on the Rocks on 14 February 2019.

In a recent speech in Hungary, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Europeans that using technology from Chinese telecommunications manufacturer Huawei could hurt their relationship with the United States. This warning follows a series of high-profile arm wrestling involving the U.S. government, Huawei, and countries like Canada and Australia. The Huawei saga has come to encapsulate a broader concern: Current efforts by Chinese state-led companies to access — and eventually dominate — global markets in key technologies, such as 5G or artificial intelligence, raise a number of privacy and competition-related questions. China’s disinterest in Western standards, coupled with lack of reciprocity and other barriers to foreign companies operating in the Chinese market, makes these challenges even more acute. As argued by other U.S. officials, the lack of a level playing field ultimately means that China could leverage global supply chains and infrastructure nodes and “game” the current international order against American power. In order to forestall this risk, the United States will need to work with allies. And the advanced economies of Western Europe and East Asia are particularly critical.

How should Europeans position themselves in the context of the unfolding global competition between the United States and China? Given the historical, cultural, and political ties that bind Europe and America together, the answer to that question should be a no-brainer. However, recent developments have introduced an important element of confusion in this key strategic debate. One such development relates to U.S. President Donald Trump’s repeated swipes at the European Union and some of the global rules, principles, and institutions Europeans hold so dear. Another is Chinese President Xi Jinping’s attempt to fill Trump’s vacuum and erect himself as a leader of the international order, as exemplified by his 2017 speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The European Union’s reaction to this Trump-Xi dance has been ambivalent at best. On the one hand, the European Commission has consistently expressed concerns about Chinese intellectual property theft. On the other, it has deepened its global strategic ties with China and set up a joint working group with China to protect the World Trade Organization from Trump’s predatory urges. Against this backdrop, some European experts have even argued that the European Union should strive for some form of geopolitical equidistance between the United States and China, emphasize European strategic autonomy, and work E.U. diplomatic and multilateral magic to bring those powers (as well as Russia) closer together, ideally around a new, inclusive, and broadly accepted international order. But is this even realistic? Can the competition between the United States be wished away? And if not, can Europe afford not to take sides?

In trying to provide some context to these important questions, I focus on three main areas: the evolving relationship between power and order or, more specifically, between the Sino-American competition and the current international order, the question of whether Europe can even strive for some form of geopolitical equidistance between the United States and China, and, relatedly, the viability of the concept of European strategic autonomy.

Sino-American Competition and the Future of the International Order

After World War II, the United States is said to have set up an international order that was meant to further its interests and influence. This argument is eloquently deployed by Princeton Professor John Ikenberry in his seminal work Liberal Leviathan. Ikenberry makes a fairly intuitive point: International orders, norms, and institutions tend to reflect power balances. And they are created and maintained by powerful states or coalitions forming around them. The fact that the international order had to incorporate the sensitivities of a wide diversity of states does not change the fact that it is and remains by and large a U.S.-led order.

It is important to distinguish between the different institutions that make up such an order. Some are characteristically inclusive, with the U.N. system being arguably the best example. But others are much less so. Thus, for instance, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization excluded many non-Western countries for a long time and afforded the United States and its allies (mainly its European allies) a position of institutional and normative leadership. Neither is inclusivity a supreme value in international orders nor is the current Western, U.S.-led order all about inclusivity.

On a related note, it is difficult to separate the international order from the great power competition that surrounds it and provides it with meaning. How has the relationship between the international order and great power competition evolved?

During the Cold War, America’s main geopolitical competitor was the Soviet Union, which was openly hostile to an international political order and economic system that was primarily confined to the Atlantic world and parts of the Asia Pacific. U.S. global geopolitical and security interests were thus in sync with an order that excluded the Soviet Union and its satellite countries and helped strengthen economic and political ties between the United States and its key European and East Asian allies. In other words, the international order was not neutral in power-political terms: It reflected U.S. and Western interests (and values) and was strategically leveraged by the United States in its competition with the Soviet Union.

The collapse of the Soviet Union cleared the path for the so-called globalization of this order. This was illustrated by the progressive integration of Central and Eastern Europe, Central and South Asia, Southeast Asia, and parts of the Middle East into the order. And even also that of Russia and China, however fragile or selective such integration may have turned out to be. Crucially, between the end of the Cold War and today, competition between great powers has kept a markedly low profile in international politics. And this may have given many the impression that the globalization of the order was “neutral” in power-political terms. But it wasn’t: It was underwritten by U.S. power all along.

Fast-forward to 2019, where we live in a world that’s increasingly characterized by great power competition. What does this return of great power competition mean for the future of the U.S.-led liberal international order?

The relationship between great power competition and international order is very different today from what it was during the Cold War — when the current liberal international order was created and took root. Unlike during the Cold War period, America’s main geopolitical competitor today (China) is engaging vigorously, if selectively, with market capitalism both at home and internationally. Internationally, China has embraced many of the principles, norms, and institutions that make up the current order. This has led to concerns in some quarters that Beijing has come to the conclusion that integrating into, and selectively supporting, the existing international order is the best way to subvert or transform a normative and institutional infrastructure that has for so long advanced U.S. interests and hindered China’s development as a great power. In contrast to the Soviet Union, China appears to be mounting a challenge to the U.S.-led international order from within.

Moreover, and also to a much greater extent than the Soviet Union, China has the economic mass and potential to give the United States a good run for its money. Its pragmatic strategy of selective engagement provides Beijing with a platform to lure other countries into its orbit and away from the United States. Are the international order and U.S. geopolitical interests parting ways? Should the United States try to reform and protect the existing international order? Or should it conclude that the order that served it so well in its competition with the Soviets is unsuitable in the context of the competition with China and pull the plug? These difficult questions underscore the key link between great power competition and international order. But what does this debate bear for Europe?

European Equidistance Is Not an Option

Some analysts have argued that Europe and, more specifically, the European Union should strive for some form of geopolitical equidistance in the context of a competitive international environment allegedly dominated by the United States and China, and should also strive for equidistance between those two and another great power that affects Europe directly: Russia. But is this even possible, let alone desirable?

For starters, Russia may well constitute a more immediate and explicit threat to U.S. allies and interests in Europe. But it is not in a position to compete in the same global league as the United States or China. It is the Sino-American competition that is likely to provide most states and actors in the international system with the main compass when deciding how to align themselves, and Russia is not exempt from that dilemma. In fact, Russia is perhaps the one European power best positioned to operationalize a strategy of geopolitical equidistance between the United States and China, even if it now appears to be much closer to China. This is because of its equivocal relationship with the West — driven by ideological aversion and security considerations related to its immediate eastern European neighborhood — and its reservations about Chinese power, which poses a direct threat to Russian influence across Eurasia.

It is hard to imagine how the European Union could strive for some form of geopolitical equidistance between the United States and China, not least because European integration is largely a by-product of U.S. power in Europe. American power and strategy played a key role in the genesis of the European Community through the Marshall Plan, support for the re-industrialization and re-militarization of West Germany, and the NATO security guarantee. And this is not just ancient history. The United States has also played a critical role in the configuration of today’s European Union, notably through its support of German reunification and eastern enlargement. Today, Central and Eastern European states form an integral part of the European Union, and most of them see their bilateral relationship with the United States as the foundation of their security and political autonomy.

As a historical and institutional reality, the European Union is wired into U.S. power and strategy. More broadly, in terms of interests and values, the entire Western Hemisphere is a historical and cultural extension of European civilization and constitutes the main source of strategic depth for the West and its political future. And that complicates any potential E.U. efforts to strive for geopolitical equidistance between the United States and China.

European Strategic Autonomy

On a related note, and regardless of its specific positioning vis-à-vis Sino-American competition, is the European Union even capable of autonomy in the conduct of its security policy and foreign affairs? The concept of European strategic autonomy constitutes the underlying theme of the 2016 European Global Strategy and has framed most discussions on E.U. foreign and security policy in Brussels over the past three years. But it is not a new concept.

Ever since the European Union’s Common Security and Defense Policy was launched in 1999, most discussions on strategic autonomy were associated with the idea that the union should be autonomous from NATO and the United States when conducting external crisis-management operations. The theme of strategic autonomy was thus intimately associated to that of out-of-area operations. However, the world has come a long way since the early days of the Common Security and Defense Policy, and Europe’s emphasis on out-of-area operations. Notably, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 put deterrence and defense back in Europe’s security agenda. More broadly, the return of great power competition globally is shifting the emphasis away from expeditionary operations in secondary theaters and toward great power deterrence and defense. This means that any discussion on European strategic autonomy will be hollow — i.e. purely rhetorical — unless it takes on the challenge of deterrence and defense.

But it is not the same to be operationally autonomous in the context of relatively modest out-of-area operations conducted against non-peer adversaries than it is to be autonomous operationally when it comes to deterring a great power, or defending against it. The implications in terms of the capabilities and structures needed for each contingency are very different indeed. If we’re talking about deterrence or defense, the nuclear question immediately comes up. A power can only deter — and have a credible defense — if it is able to match its opponent’s (potential) moves at every step up the escalation ladder, from hybrid to conventional warfare to nuclear. Deterrence cannot be compartmentalized. It requires an integrated response and an integrated command-and-control infrastructure.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has put deterrence and defense back on Europe’s security agenda. In addition, Moscow’s ongoing efforts to modernize its nuclear arsenal underscore the renewed importance of nuclear weapons for European security. This means that any serious discussion on European strategic autonomy must address the problem of nuclear deterrence. And that leads to a critical question: Given widespread reluctance around the idea of a German nuclear deterrent, are Paris and Berlin ready to reach some sort of sharing agreement over the French nuclear deterrent, whether bilaterally or through some sort of E.U. proxy? This is unlikely.

The idea of national strategic autonomy is embedded in France’s political DNA, and an independent nuclear deterrent is the jewel of France’s autonomy crown. Germany, for its part, may have come to terms with its de facto strategic subordination to the United States through NATO. But it is unlikely to sign off on a serious European defense scheme if its role is to be relegated to playing second fiddle to France, let alone Britain. This red line was already set by former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt during the Cold War. For Brandt, any European defense scheme independent from NATO would require a serious discussion about the modalities for including West Germany in the process of decision-making concerning the French nuclear deterrent; Germany’s role could not be “restricted to infantry tasks.”

Ultimately, the debate over European strategic autonomy forces Europeans to grapple with such questions as the need for a Euro-deterrent or, for that matter, for European technological-industrial champions that are able to compete with American or Chinese ones — an issue considered by many as the real barometer of strategic autonomy in the era of big data and artificial intelligence. Will (most) Europeans accept to cede Europe’s nuclear or technological command to any given (European) country? If yes, which one? If not, are Europe’s key powers ready to accept their dissolution into a European super-state? Ever since the beginning of the European integration process, the answer to all those questions has been a resounding “not now, but perhaps in the future.” Insofar as autonomy is a relative concept, Europeans will do well to continue to lever their economic and security policies (including through the European Union) to mitigate the specter of total dependence on Washington. However, as long as they are not ready to sign off on to a European state, their strategic relationship with the United States, and the broader framework of the West, remains for them the worst possible path with the exception of all others. And that effectively rules out the idea of equidistance between the United States and China.


About the Author

Luis Simón is research professor at the Institute for European Studies (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) and director of the Brussels office of the Royal Elcano Institute. He has a PhD in International Relations from the University of London (Royal Holloway College).

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