WASHINGTON – Europe has been at the center of nearly every great-power competition of the last 500 years, either as home to one or both of the protagonists or as the decisive theater of struggle. No longer: The world wars of the last century saw to that. Yet Europe’s nations are still capable of playing a critical role in the defining contest of this century: that between China and America. Or, they can allow the continent to be reduced to a weak, divided region that struggles to make its influence felt.
China desires the latter, and has a strategy for achieving it. The U.S. should prefer an active and capable set of European allies, but its policies have too often played into Beijing’s hands.
The world’s center of geopolitical gravity has been moving steadily eastward for decades. The Asia-Pacific now significantly outstrips Europe’s shares of global GDP and global military spending. And although the rivalry between Russia and the West is significant, the trans-Pacific struggle between China and America is epochal.
Europe could be a critical swing power in that competition, defending the U.S.-led system that has benefited the continent so greatly. The European Union is still the world’s second-largest economy after the U.S., no small asset in an intense geo-economic competition. A few allies — especially France and the United Kingdom — still are still somewhat capable of projecting global power, and a relatively rich Europe could improve its militaries impressively if it chose to do so. European countries can also wield considerable diplomatic influence, especially through the EU and NATO. Perhaps most important, Europe remains the most coherent group of democracies in the world, which counts for a great deal in a rivalry between a liberal and an illiberal power.
There have been some moves toward greater European activism vis-a-vis China. The U.K. and France have sailed warships through the South China Sea in response to Chinese aggression. Germany’s leadership has become more concerned with Chinese human-rights violations and efforts to dominate high-tech industries. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited France earlier this year, his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, said that the time of “European naivete” on China was over.
The European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, has started to consider the idea that China is, as one strategy paper put it, “an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.” Proposals to strengthen scrutiny of Chinese investment and fortify European telecommunications, industry and innovation against Chinese influence and predation are gaining traction.
Similarly, Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of NATO, has warned that “China is coming closer to us” and called for increased European cooperation with U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific. Looking to the future, one can imagine Europe, the U.S. and the democracies of the Asia-Pacific cooperating to expose and counter Chinese political influence operations, and perhaps coordinating more explicitly on how to manage military threats in multiple regions at once. Yet the impact of European action on China will depend on how much unity the continent can muster, and on that issue there are signs of trouble.
Even as some of Europe’s leading powers — Germany, France, the U.K. — have become more skeptical of China’s policies, many of the continent’s smaller, poorer members, particularly in the south and southeast, have come to see Beijing as a source of badly needed commerce and capital. In 2017, for instance, Greeks were more likely to name China (53 percent) than the U.S. (36 percent) as the country’s second-most-important partner, after the EU. A surge of political illiberalism in countries such as Hungary and Poland has created cracks in the continent’s democratic unity. Not least, the EU is on the verge of losing one of its most important members, as Britain moves toward Brexit. Europe has the potential to be an effective strategic player, but it may not have the cohesion.
This is good news for China. A cohesive, prosperous, democratic Europe will not take China’s side in a contest with the U.S., because the fundamental clash between liberal values and Beijing’s authoritarianism will stand in the way. A Europe that has thrived in an American-led world would not be particularly comfortable in a system led by a mercantilist China that demands strict deference from lesser powers. What China can hope for is a divided, dependent Europe — one that is unable or unwilling to side decisively with Washington because of its own internal rifts, decaying commitment to liberalism and reliance on Beijing’s largesse. China can’t win Europe over, but it can neutralize it by fracturing the continent and co-opting some pieces.
This is just what Beijing is doing. Following the precedent of its coercive economic behavior in Asia, China has used the lure of trade and investment to discourage European countries from criticizing its political abuses at home or its policies overseas. China is cultivating the smaller, poorer and often less-liberal states of the EU to undercut European unity and improve its leverage with individual members. Beijing scored a coup this spring by inducing Italy to join its “Belt and Road” initiative. Where economic influence goes, political and diplomatic influence will follow.
You might think that Washington would be responding by bucking up a democratic, unified Europe. Unfortunately, you would be at least partially wrong. The Trump administration has pursued a typically inconsistent policy toward the continent, calling on Europe to get tough on China, even as the U.S. gets tough on Europe.
The U.S. president and his advisers have vocally supported Brexit, which will weaken the EU and remove a pro-American voice from that body. Trump and diplomats such as Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, have sought to empower illiberal populists across the continent.
The administration has forged closer diplomatic and military ties with Poland — which makes sense in terms of containing Russian influence, but not in terms of stemming Europe’s erosion of democratic values — and Trump hosted the decidedly illiberal Viktor Orban of Hungary at the White House. The president has spoken of the EU as a foe (“worse than China”) and used tariffs as a cudgel against European economies.
To be fair, the Trump administration has also tried to mobilize Europe against China’s geopolitical gambits. It has pressured European states not to partner with Chinese firms in developing 5G telecommunications networks, and called for NATO to play a greater role in meeting the rise of Beijing’s power. After initially resisting entreaties from Brussels, the administration now seeks to enlist the EU and Japan in a common front against Beijing’s unfair economic practices.
Yet many European countries remain worried about aligning too closely with Trump against China, because they fear that he will eventually cut a bilateral deal with Beijing. Just as important, any U.S.-European cooperation against China is occurring in a broader context in which the U.S. has often worked against a strong and united Europe.
Trump has his reasons for this approach. He believes that the U.S. can get a better bilateral trade deal with a post-Brexit U.K., and seems to think that America can maximize its influence with individual European countries by weakening the EU. He surely sympathizes with those European politicians who rail against integration and globalism in the same way he does. This strategy may help him win some negotiations with European allies. It won’t help the U.S. win the higher-stakes game with Beijing.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg columnist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.