There is no inherent reason for a global pandemic to trigger a geopolitical crisis, but COVID-19 has significantly worsened tensions between China and the US, and Europe risks being caught in the middle. China senses an opportunity to become the dominant power of the era, as its rivals struggle with the health and economic effects of the coronavirus. The US is floundering in its response to the pandemic, beset by political dysfunction and polarisation, and distracted by the prospect of its presidential election in November. Most EU member states are focused on recovering from lengthy lockdowns and avoiding a prolonged recession.
In recent months, China has imposed a new security law on Hong Kong that effectively ends the ‘One country, two systems’ arrangement set out in a treaty with the UK prior to Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control in 1997. Beijing has stepped up its persecution of the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. It has clashed with Indian troops on their disputed border, and made territorial claims against neighbouring Bhutan. It has aggressively pressed its claim to almost all of the South China Sea, sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat in April and attacking another in June. And it has suggested that it might take control of Taiwan by force, while making increasingly aggressive military manoeuvres near the island. It has imposed tariffs and other sanctions on Australia for proposing an international inquiry into the origins and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, Chinese diplomats have used strident language to respond to any foreign criticism of China.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump has repeatedly lashed out at China, slapping tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese products and blaming Beijing for the pandemic. But he has also railed against America’s traditional allies in Europe, criticising them for not spending enough on defence and accusing them of unfair trade practices. According to his former National Security Adviser, John Bolton, Trump described the EU as “worse than China, only smaller”. The transatlantic partnership is fragile; if Trump is re-elected it might not survive another four years of his hostility to alliances and multilateral diplomacy. Even if the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, wins the election, however, there is no guarantee that transatlantic relations will instantly return to ‘business as usual’, or that Europe will be at the centre of the new administration’s attention. Like Trump, Biden is likely to focus on developments in the Asia-Pacific region and the threat to American primacy that China poses. In an article setting out his foreign policy, Biden said that the US needed to get tough with China. One of his main Asia advisers, Ely Ratner, put his name to a bipartisan report to Congress that stated that “the erosion of conventional deterrence in Asia would threaten to undermine the full range of US economic and political interests in the region” and called for a “new American way of war” to counter the threat from China.
The US and China both have a tendency to treat the EU as an object of international relations rather than a subject – competing to enlist it on their side, or to prevent it aligning with the other side, but not treating it as having agency. The EU often plays to this image of passivity, seeming always to follow others in reacting to crises – its initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic being an example of that. But in reality, the EU has power, if it can agree internally on how to use it. As Charles Michel, President of the European Council, said after the EU-China leaders’ videoconference on 14 September, Europe needs to be a player, not a playing field. In this context, the EU faces a difficult task: to manage its complex relationships with Beijing and Washington in a way that protects the rules-based global order from further harm. The consequences of failure could be fatal to an international system already suffering from many serious underlying problems, ushering in an age without rules, where undemocratic and unscrupulous governments can flourish.
Europe should not get sucked into a contest between China and the US for global hegemony. Instead, the EU should use whatever influence it can to ensure that both sides exercise their power with restraint and in a framework of rules, not simply on the basis (as Thucydides wrote) that “the strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must”. Europe should also accept that China is not converging with the West politically or in terms of its values: the ‘responsible stakeholder’ era is over almost before it began. Chinese and Western interests will sometimes align, but Xi has shown less willingness than his predecessors to slot China into the existing international system.
At the same time, it is impossible to know where Xi’s policies will lead China in the long term. Some scholars argue that the Chinese Communist Party’s rule has been made dysfunctional and brittle by Xi’s centralisation of power. Other analysts believe that China’s rise is world-transforming and its growing influence irresistible. Europe should remember the (possibly apocryphal) story of Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai’s 1972 verdict on the results of the French revolution: “Too early to tell”. It will be a long time before Xi’s policies can be judged successful or otherwise. Meanwhile, the EU should remain open to economic and other forms of co-operation with China where they are to Europe’s benefit; resist Chinese activity that harms European states and institutions or their allies; and invest resources and diplomatic effort in enabling international organisations to adapt to the rise of China without breaking.
The Trump era has made the EU’s job harder: Trump has deprived Europe of its most important partner in defending the rules-based international order and universal values. But the EU cannot afford to leave the future of the world to be settled in a series of trials of strength between Beijing and Washington. When relations between the US and China looked rosier, there was talk of a ‘G2’ to deal with the problems of the world. That was never a realistic construct. For the foreseeable future, the three big economic and political powers in the world will be China, the EU and the US, and the triangular relations between them will contain elements of attraction and elements of hostility. Western firms will still want to tap the Chinese market, while governments worry about threats to national security; Chinese families will still want their children to study in the West, while the Communist Party worries about the ideological contamination they might bring back; and Europe and the US will still be each other’s most important security and economic partners, while bickering about defence budgets and food safety. In the absence of a friction-free utopia, the EU’s best option is to work with Beijing and Washington to pursue pragmatic policies that maintain stable relations between the three.
‘Europe, the EU and China: A Love-Hate Triangle?’ – Policy Brief by Sophia Besch, Ian Bond and Leonard Schuette – Centre for European Reform / CER.