There's No Unified Front Against China

Cracks are emerging between Europe and America.

Joe Biden went to Europe in June for the first foreign trip of his presidency. But he mostly wanted to talk about China. No one found it very surprising: Everyone understands that when it comes to foreign policy, the Biden administration is intensely focused on China.

So Europeans listened respectfully and even nodded vigorously at times. The European Union labeled China a “systemic rival” and, for the first time, the members of NATO included language about the Chinese threat to the alliance in the NATO summit communiqué. The United States and the European Union agreed to set up a trade and technology council to improve coordination on supply chains, export controls, and technology standards—a direct challenge to China. The G-7 summit of industrialized economies set up a “Build Back Better World” investment program to counter China’s Belt and Road initiative. These are mostly symbolic acts, but they still amounted to a statement from Europeans that they support the United States in the emerging competition with China.

But almost immediately, cracks began to appear in the West’s Chinese Wall. President Emmanuel Macron of France questioned NATO’s relevance to China, noting that “China has little to do with the North Atlantic.” Armin Laschet, the heir apparent to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, warned Biden not to start a new cold war with China. Luigi di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister, committed to work with China to promote “Belt and Road” construction. Rishi Sunak, the U.K. chancellor of the Exchequer, pointed out that Brexit means that the U.K. needs to bolster its trade ties with China. 

Since then, the trans-Atlantic blow-up over Afghanistan has further encouraged the idea that Europeans will not support the U.S. in its efforts to deal with China. For many Americans, European inconsistency reflects a common European complacency when it comes to threats generally and China specifically.

The truth, however, is that Europeans don’t really feel any better about China than the United States does, even if economic ties with China remain quite important. In recent years, Chinese arrogance and its wolf warrior diplomacy have deeply eroded the country’s standing in Europe. Even the German Industry Association, or BDI, long a fierce proponent of economic ties with China, has warned about unfair Chinese trade practices and human rights violations.

Europe’s hesitancy to toe the American line reflects less a different assessment of China than a discomfort with the United States. To many Europeans, America’s China policy amounts to its latest ideological crusade. Having just seen the last crusade collapse in Afghanistan, Europe does not want to join the next one.

Biden describes the China challenge as a global, ideological struggle between democracies and autocracies. Like the Soviet Cold War before it, the struggle with China will involve competition across many spheres of human endeavor—military, economic, technological, ideological—and in every corner of the Earth. Any event from the pandemic to the Olympics will occasion commentary, particularly in the United States, of who “won,” China or America, and what it means for the epic struggle for global supremacy.

This framing makes sense. China is a fierce, autocratic competitor that may soon overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. It is becoming ever more technologically advanced, has a rapidly expanding military, and already controls many of the key resources and supply chains that the United States and its allies depend upon. If liberal democracy is to emerge once again as the world’s dominant political model, it will take a long, even generational, struggle.

There is no longer much debate in the United States on the need for this struggle. Both Republicans and Democrats see the competition with China as the axis around which international politics will rotate for the next several decades.

Despite the real challenge that China poses, one might legitimately ask whether America really needs an all-encompassing ideological contest. Such a contest implies that China is not only a threat to America’s power on the world stage but also a threat to democracy’s very survival and the American way of life. By this reasoning, China cannot be managed; it needs to be defeated.

In theory, the United States could avoid the language of ideology altogether. It could approach its struggle with China as a geopolitical contest over power in which ultimate victory is neither possible nor necessary. This would not be an easy struggle, either: It would require demonstrations of power and possibly even military confrontations before some new balance was struck. But at least it would not require changing the political regime of the most populous country on earth.

In practice, such an approach seems downright un-American. America does not fight wars—it embarks on crusades. Its leaders seem to have little choice. The central problem in U.S. foreign policy, dating back at least to World War I, is how to mobilize an apathetic population to confront distant threats. Surrounded by oceans and friendly neighbors, protected by powerful armies and nuclear weapons, it can afford to ignore messy geopolitics for a very long time. As in World War II, the Cold War, or the War on Terror, one can only mobilize such a public with a narrative of good versus evil and by pointing to an existential threat that needs to be confronted and ultimately defeated.

From the United States’ perspective, Europe would ideally play a significant role in the crusade against China—a role with clear economic, ideological, and military dimensions.

The EU has a similarly sized economy to the United States and China. It has demonstrated the capacity to set the rules of the global economy in a struggle that will feature competition in technology standards as much as in naval forces. Ideologically, Europe is the main global repository of democratic legitimacy. If Biden is to define the struggle against China as a contest between democracy and autocracy, he needs to demonstrate, to the American people and the world, that other democracies are part of the fight. And militarily, European countries still have some power to contribute, even in the distant Asian theater.

These roles for Europeans are familiar from previous American efforts. In the aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush proclaimed that “every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” The strong European response, including an Article V declaration by NATO, was central to establishing the ideological basis for the War on Terror. It also led many European nations to follow America into disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The current American appeal on China uses the same Manichean logic as the War on Terror, even if it is less starkly put. In an ideological war of democracy versus autocracy, Biden implicitly asks: Are you on the side of democracy or autocracy? Put that way, Europeans know whose side they are on. But they would rather not put it that way.

“Do we need a new adversary?” Laschet told The Financial Times. “Yes, China is a competitor and a systemic rival. … But it's also a partner, particularly in things like fighting climate change.” The European public seems to agree. Polls show that the majority of Europeans favor taking a neutral stance in any U.S.-China conflict.

After more than seven decades of joining American crusades, the old continent seems weary of their constant drumbeat. Europeans agree that China is a threat, but they don’t want to follow America into distant proxy wars that they don’t understand. Such appeals worked during the Cold War when Europeans were the central front and desperately needed American protection. They won’t work to confront a distant China that also offers Europe important opportunities for trade, investment, and climate protection.

In the end, if America is to find committed partners for a crusade against China, it will do so in the new central front in Asia. Japan, Australia, and possibly even India all seem to be lining up to play this role.

From Europe, the best any US administration can hope for is to avoid any public blow-ups over China, while pushing behind the scenes for the Europeans to be tougher on key economic and technology issues. The Biden administration already seems to sense these limits. The US-China struggle may be the defining struggle of our age, but for better or for worse, Europeans will not have a central role in it.

Jeremy Shapiro is director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings.