Is China the New Atlantis between the United States and Europe?

As NATO gets back on friendly terms, Joe Biden wants China to be the golden thread holding the relationship together, but it is only a watermark.

As the new Biden administration’s China policy remains unsettled as does that of the European Union, the recent series of summits between the U.S. and the EU and the NATO summit may serve as a dry run for deeper dialogue. However, the summits provide an uncertain background without any convergence among a basic range of choices about how to proceed with respect to cooperating with China. Moreover, whenever Joe Biden has sought to impose definitive policy regarding China, Emmanuel Macron has continued to inject nuance, something that certain German and Italian politicians have translated into pronouncements of Europe’s continuing strategic independence.

A Detailed Review: A Debate That Is Taking Shape, but Still Vague

By inviting the Indo-Pacific powers of India, Australia, South Korea and South Africa into a new economic club including NATO and the EU as well as Japan, Britain has made it clear that it seeks not only a shift to a “D-10” team of top democracies favored by Boris Johnson, but also to accommodate America’s position on China. NATO was formerly preoccupied with the Soviet threat and is now focused on the threat from Russia in addition to problems with Turkey, and the U.S. has ended its discussion with the EU on the questions of human rights and systemic rivalry, issues that are really about technological supremacy.

At the press conference following the summit, the Group of Seven major industrial nations announced that it was “back on good terms” with China (as opposed to Donald Trump’s policy of being rivals) and also presented its position of “facing China.” However, the 27-page final communique only mentions China three times as opposed to Africa, mentioned 15 times, and specific African countries mentioned five times. It also failed mention recognized issues concerning Taiwan, Xinjiang, the South China Sea and Hong Kong, imposing sanctions or even dealing with existing sanctions.

One notable development is the absence of any reference to human rights violations right after the European Commission’s reference to forced labor in its investment treaty with China, a treaty that was later dead on arrival, which is one way in which the commission aligned with the European Parliament on this issue at the G-7 summit. But its leaders buried the issue altogether. In his final statement, Macron declared that France “is not to be made a vassal by China nor be aligned with the United States on this subject.”

An Alliance without China Would Quickly Show Its Limitations

France and Germany want to keep an open diplomatic channel with Beijing and not rely only on Washington, reminiscent of the position taken by George Soros’ pro-American and anti-China Open Society Foundation. Its mission is to defend and expand democracy, but its director recalled, several days after interference by the Aspen Institute, that “Europe does not want to be a ball tossed about between the two superpowers. We must include China in addressing global problems, since no solution will work if it is not at the table. An alliance of democracies without China would quickly show its limitations. It cannot be excluded from discussion, since its economic weight and its influence would be felt anyway in any negotiations about global challenges and issues. Europe must therefore play the role of a moderator open to discussions with both sides given its established relations with China and its different reasoning from the rivalry model that prevails in the U.S.”*

The Elysee apparently follows the same approach as the Germans in seeking strategic autonomy for Europe, as is evident in Macron’s statement refusing “an automatic alignment with Washington, particularly in its confrontation with Beijing.” Macron claims he wants “our partners to recognize this new European position and know that we are building a new relationship with the United States … down our own path with common values but an independent strategy in dealing with China.” He described a Europe “that needs to develop its own strategic capacity in economics, industry, technology and military power.”

NATO: China Is Not Our Enemy

This was the theme, along with economic decline, at the recent NATO conference in the absence of Indo-Pacific G-7 states, which are in a region where France pursues its own military doctrine. After a year of preparations, NATO’s strategic development is clear: Where Russia used to dominate its concerns and it dreamed of cybersecurity technology, China has rudely interrupted things since Biden’s election.

But here again Macron’s position differs slightly from Biden’s. When Biden found that China “poses a security threat” and that France is not cooperative, the French president responded, “not to confuse objectives,” asserting to the press that “NATO is a military organization, and the topic of our relations with China is not military. NATO is a … North Atlantic organization, and China has little to do with the North Atlantic. And so I think it is necessary not to divide ourselves, nor bias our relations with it.” For his part, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg hoped that “China is not our adversary, our enemy.”

In the NATO summit’s official communique, we read that “China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.” It does not state what the challenges are or how to address them. What international ambitions does it allude to? Does it mean the growing role of the U.N. as well as its policy model? Or does it mean retracting its claims on the South China Sea, or China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

None of these things are the same, and it would be helpful to at least outline the disagreements and the diplomatic discussions, since even the world’s foreign ministries are lost among them. Such clarifications are also needed to reach firm credible solutions for the global south nations that are affected by Chinese economic projections. NATO is quite hesitant about the Group of 20 industrial and emerging market nations’ restoration of economic aid to the IMF-EU-Africa conference on May 18. The G-7 pledged only $80 billion to African businesses when the African continent is still waiting for the $100 billion promised by the global north to finance the fight against climate change, which is a small sum compared to the trillions offered by the Belt and Road Initiative.

American Pressure on European Enterprises

Yet it is the EU-U.S. summit that cuts to the quick of the issue: technology and the rights to it. No one can be sure if European confidence has returned here despite the end of Trump’s astronomical tax expenditures.

A key point of the summit was the creation of the EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council to coordinate approaches to commercial, economic and technical issues at a high level, with a stated purpose that these will be “based on shared democratic values.” This is the least surprising aspect of the discussion, given the lack of liberalization or cooperation in globalization either in commerce or in technology and investment, but we are well into a world that follows the emergence of China, a development that is instructive for the future despite its uncertainty as there is quite a lot of competition among nations on the frontiers of technology. Cooperation is central, with the explicit choice being whether cooperation will take place among democracies or whether to include authoritarian regimes.

Such a new state-level approach leads to two inseparable questions. Do some European enterprises have a legitimate right to think that, for example, with certain environmental technology, the fight against climate change might include cooperation with China? And would the American approach affect such tech companies wanting partnerships with Chinese companies? European industry as it now stands does not wish to deprive itself of such cooperation, but it is unclear whether its American counterparts will oppose it. European industry decides everything out of fear of American reaction. More generally, the EU-U.S. summit ended in midstream on the issues of carbon taxes at the border and carbon prices, the very structural points on which sustainable cooperation depends.

No Trojan Horse

All of the above leads to the conclusion that European actors in the course of their negotiations want to continue dialogue with China, but should they do so with the U.S. in the meantime? There will be other summits, but now two points emerge.

First, NATO is still not completely reunified; its alliances, to the extent that they ever were alliances, will never exist again. Part of Europe wants to go forward with strategic autonomy, and European industrial and economic leaders are used to liberalization even though they are aware of a certain need to regulate technology. Thus, they are looking to the East and West at the same time. That Europe desires no Chinese or American Trojan horse is perhaps the lesson to learn from the failure of the investment treaty with China and of the lukewarm success of American proposals as it reflects on technology from one sector to another and this approach comes to the realization that there is a need for the capacity to regulate technology.

Second, there can be no doubt that we need a new way of discussing these issues, since it will soon become clear whether the U.S. can simultaneously cooperate with China on climate change while openly competing in technology, including the green kind. This approach is unlikely, so a reasonable way for Europe to follow would be a clear and finely detailed declaration on strategy, its technology programs and a list of strategic interests, rather like a detailed list of goods and services exchanged internationally. International dealings definitely operate by such lists whether or not they are made public, but in this case, the outcome of the summits is ambiguous and unconducive to progress. Relatedly, the role of multilateral negotiations, although often laborious and requiring patience and skill, also possesses a certain permanence, and cannot be underestimated.

China Is Now on NATO’s Map

Biden’s America is advancing steadily; it is worth considering that this approach is setting off anew toward its old allies, although Europe has new concerns, such as its lack of a clear perimeter for strategic autonomy, as well as the attending mechanisms and funding. Already, however, Angela Merkel’s apparent successor, Armin Laschet, has indicated that China “is as much a partner as a strategic rival” in an open challenge to a new cold war that America has proposed and that suggests this idea is widespread in Europe. Italy, leader of year’s G-20 summit, has, through its foreign minister, announced it is speeding up cooperation with China’s Belt and Road Initiative on energy, developing countries and industry even as it plans participating in a G-7 “counter-project.” The Indo-Pacific awaits promises that neither Barack Obama nor Trump saw the need to make, and Africa remains circumspect while China is no doubt watching and analyzing.

There is one final aspect of globalization beyond repairing the post-Trump situation; the redefinition of the world’s future at this moment in history. This is where the maturation of the Antony Blinken doctrine comes in, a doctrine which is clearly expansive but does not align with any particular policy. The only sure thing is that China is now on NATO’s map.

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, this quotation could not be independently verified.

About this publication

About Hal Swindall 78 Articles
A California native, Hal Swindall earned an MA in English from Claremont Graduate University and a PhD in comparative literature from UC Riverside, majoring in English and minoring in French and Italian. Since then, he has wandered East Asia as an itinerant English professor, mainly teaching writing and literature. Presently, he works as an English teacher trainer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Hal's interests besides translating, editing and literature include classical music and badminton, as well as East Asian temples.

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