China-US tensions offer EU new opportunity

Photo: Xinhua


Leaders of European Union (EU) countries recently agreed on plans for massive post-epidemic spending. Despite the difficult negotiations, the EU has reached a deal more efficiently than it did during the European debt crisis. So this is also a moment of time for Germany and France to show common leadership, plus a good start to the German presidency. 

But the EU still faces a series of major strategic challenges, one of which is how it should respond to increased strategic competition between China and the US. In the face of major adjustments in the structure of international power and order, the EU has been rethinking its strategic positioning in the international strategic landscape. But it is difficult to find the right answers in a short time.

The US is an ally of Europe. Indeed, the political, security, ideological, and economic foundations that maintain the US-Europe alliance system still exist. However, the impact of the “America First” doctrine has created widening cracks within this alliance. 

The US government has adopted an increasingly demanding foreign policy toward Europe. It has been pressing hard on a series of issues concerning the vital interests of Europe, include tariffs, NATO spending sharing, climate change, and the Iranian nuclear issue.

The US government has been strengthening its diplomatic control over its allies. In fact, it is requiring its European allies to be in tune with it in diplomatic and strategic spheres. This can be seen from the UK’s and some other European countries’ back-and-forth on Huawei. In addition, after Brexit, London could rely more on Washington for diplomacy, security, and strategy, further tilting toward Atlanticism.

It is in this context that French President has repeatedly raised the issue of European strategic autonomy, and that German Chancellor has noted that Germany will rethink its trans-Atlantic relations if the US is unwilling to assume the responsibilities of a global power. More recently, Merkel has begun to use the concept of “sovereignty” more frequently, which is a core of France’s European policy. These new strategic thoughts reflect the EU’s strategic dilemma in the relationship with the US.

The EU’s strategic positioning of China is also undergoing complex changes. The bloc has begun to rethink its comprehensive strategic partnership with China. This reflection has taken place in the wake of China’s rising power and international influence. 

Many in Europe argue that China has not undergone the political and social changes they hoped for. On the contrary, China has entrenched its system with a rising appeal. After integrating into the international community, China has not been constrained by the existing international order. Instead, China has made good use of the international system and benefited from it. 

On this point, Europe and the US have a high degree of consensus. However, the bloc is eager to gain access to China’s huge markets. Simultaneously, in the field of diplomacy and global governance, the bloc also has an urgent desire to develop a multilateral partnership with China.

Therefore for the EU, “China is simultaneously (in different policy areas) a cooperation partner, a negotiation partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival.” But different countries’ distinct policies toward China also show the bloc’s dilemma with China-EU relations.

In the contrast, China’s position on China-EU relations is very clear. Beijing has repeatedly pointed out that China is an opportunity, not a threat, and a partner, not an adversary to Brussels. China and Europe are not institutional competitors, but long-term comprehensive strategic partners. China and Europe should be two major forces for global peace and stability, two major markets for global development and prosperity, and two major civilizations for upholding multilateralism and improving global governance. This positioning has clearly gone beyond the scope of bilateral relations at a global strategic level.

For the EU, the escalating strategic competition between China and the US is both strategic dilemma and opportunity. Macron said France and Europe need to avoid being forced to choose between Washington and Beijing. 

Taking rotating presidency, Germany will bring major agendas and strong leadership to the EU. The new leadership of the EU is also formulating a strategy for its external relations, and China-EU relations are still quite flexible.

If the EU wants to become a pivot in the world order, it needs to transcend the scope of bilateral relations and the old system. It should grasp the major changes in the international pattern, focus on the construction of the new order, and find an appropriate position among them.

The author is assistant to the dean of the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University.


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