The Rise of China: Pondering the Future of Transatlantic Relationship

Written by | Friday, September 6th, 2019

The growth of Chinese wealth and military power, combined with a more diplomatically and militarily active regime in Beijing, represents an epochal change?in international politics. The potential for a more powerful and assertive China to transform the post-Second World War international system has sparked much discussion among leading stakeholders in the current international order, notably the US, Canada and Europe. How will China’s rise affect their transatlantic relationship? 

While some observers fear that a rising, authoritarian China will significantly undermine the goals and unity of the transatlantic relationship, others argue that Chinese, North American and European interests do not significantly conflict: that all of these actors have an interest in stable trade and financial relations, and that the ‘liberal international order’ can peacefully accommodate China. Trying to understand the extent to which China’s rise undermines transatlantic goals or unity is plagued with uncertainty. 

However, two decades of revisionist behavior on the part of the authorities in Beijing have shown that China’s values and priorities diverge from those of North America and Europe, and that the country’s rise challenges transatlantic interests in several areas: trade, cyberspace, international development, security and human rights. Rising China presents a serious challenge to transatlantic relations because of asymmetric interests among the different actors, and because of Beijing’s skilled use of ‘wedge’ strategies that exploit this asymmetry.

China’s rise has been a positive development in so many ways – for the half billion Chinese who have been lifted out of poverty, and for people all over the world who benefit from Chinese products, culture and talents in global governance. Yet, China’s rise also has some worrying implications for the future of the liberal international order, and for the ability of the transatlantic partners – notably, the US, Canada and Europe – to work together to protect that order. 

Americans should recognize that, perhaps more than ever before, the US has a strong interest in European unity. Washington should put an end to any ambivalence it may have about the emergence of Europe as a powerful global actor. It should throw its support behind tightening economic and political union, because ‘a chaotic, unstable Europe’, notes Jeremy Shapiro, ‘would be unable (and probably unwilling) to help the US confront geopolitical challenges around the world’.

A comparison with the Cold War era provides valuable insights. Dealing with the China challenge will prove far more difficult for transatlantic partners today relative to Cold War cooperation, which itself was beset with inefficiencies and divisions. In Cold War Europe, countries shared a serious security threat, and geography encouraged collective security. Despite this, as regards economic containment, for example, the transatlantic partners, Japan and others struggled to coordinate what was a contested and porous sanctions regime. 

Any attempt at economic containment of China today faces far greater problems of coordination and defection, particularly given that China, unlike the Soviet Union, is a major trading partner and lender for most of the countries that would be asked to cooperate in sanctioning it. Furthermore, the desire to preserve the liberal order has faded over the years since it was first created by leaders traumatized by economic depression and a savage world war. As Elliot Cohen notes, for example, the US ability to eschew nationalism and embrace a globalist agenda ‘required the lived experiences of those who had witnessed the poverty of the Depression and the destruction of the war years firsthand. Today, however, those lessons are no longer living truths.’

Cold War cooperation is instructive in another sense. During that time – though US leaders took great pains to obscure it – the Europeans faced a much more direct and serious threat from the Soviet Union. However, because American leaders decided that the US shared an interest in containing the Soviet Union, the US and European countries bound themselves together economically and militarily to reduce the asymmetry of their interests. Today, the situation is reversed: whereas the US’s Asian alliances put it on the front lines with respect to China, the Chinese threat to Europe is much less direct. 

However, some recent signs suggest that Europe is starting to take a harder line towards China; French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, recently declared that ‘[t]he period of European naivety is over’, and that the relationship between the EU and China must not be primarily about trade, but ‘a geopolitical and strategic relationship’. If European leaders agree that China poses a significant challenge to the global order, then they will need to decide if they want similarly to bind themselves to the US (and liberal countries in East Asia) to condition – albeit not yet contain – China’s behavior. 

‚The Rise of China and the Future of the Transatlantic Relationship‘ – Briefing by Jennifer Lind – Chatham House / The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

(The Briefing can be downloaded here)

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