China’s Divide-and-Rule Game: Exploiting EU-US Tensions in the Era of Trump

Written by | Monday, June 11th, 2018

Over the past year, Berlin has toughened its stance on China as its businesses expressed concerns about Chinese economic practices. But during Angela Merkel’s last trip to Beijing – her eleventh as Chancellor – she struck a more conciliatory tone. She acknowledged that both Germany and China wanted a rules-based, fair, and free trade system that both sides were ready to work on together.


Apparently, Ms. Merkel’s attempt to improve relations with China could have been one of the indirect consequences of Donald Trump’s unilateralist policies on things like steel and aluminum tariffs and the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Even until just recently, Ms. Merkel and some European leaders still hoped that the US president could be swayed on central issues. The dream is now dead as we can clearly see how Mr. Trump blatantly disregards European concerns.


As a result, Germany feels the need to hedge against America’s increasingly reckless policy by cultivating stronger ties with other major players, such as like China, for example. Germany and China both have faced attacks from President Trump for running trade surpluses against the United States. The main difference is that whereas Xi Jinping and Donald Trump have a strong personal relationship, Ms. Merkel has struggled to get along with the US president.


Moreover, China has been able to leverage the North Korean crisis to ease some of Washington’s pressure on trade issues, whereas the US President has repeatedly doubled down on Germany. Chancellor Merkel’s Beijing trip, therefore, was intended as a push on behalf of German businesses for greater access to China’s markets. China still ranks only fifth among Germany’s largest export centers, but its share is growing and will become increasingly important, especially if the American marketplace becomes more closed for German products such as cars.


In addition to trade, Berlin seeks to attract support from China for the EU’s attempts to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive following the US withdrawal. Since the Trump administration seems to be aggressively going after European businesses in Iran, China could step in to fill some of the void to give Tehran an incentive to remain part of the deal. While it is understandable that European capitals want to improve relations with China when transatlantic relations are in shatters, most of the German elites don’t think of Beijing as a true alternative to Washington.


Yet, this common analysis has not translated into practical cooperation. Despite the US national security strategy’s call for greater collaboration with America’s friends and allies on addressing the China issue, Donald Trump has repeatedly rebuffed European overtures to Washington on coordinating approaches. For China, this is mostly good news. While Beijing is still concerned with the prospect of a greater transatlantic resistance against its economic policies, Merkel’s change of tone gives China a window of negotiation, just weeks before the EU-China summit that is going to take place this coming July.


Although Germany remains fundamentally a pro-transatlantic country, the contentious Berlin-Washington relationship is a welcome gift for China, enabling Beijing to excel at its favorite game: playing a real-life version strategic diplomatic game.


‘How Angela Merkel’s ‘Gift’ of Goodwill Could Boost Beijing-Berlin Trade Ties at Donald Trump’s Expense’ – Op-Ed by Erik Brattberg and Philippe Le Corre – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(The Op-Ed can be downloaded here)

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