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Transatlantic cooperation on China can and should not be taken for granted

Nicola Casarini

Transatlantic cooperation on China has never been as good as it is now. However, the history of this form of cooperation shows that periods of alignment have been followed by times of divergence.

Transatlantic cooperation on China has been re-booted since the arrival of Joe Biden in the White House, raising the question as to whether this time the U.S. and the EU will be able to fashion a joint approach to address China-related challenges, or whether - as already happened in the past - after an initial enthusiasm, the two sides of the Atlantic will revert to their own,  independent China policies – and this notwithstanding the risk that by doing so they will accelerate the relative decline of the West vis-à-vis the Asian giant.

Rebooting ties

Biden met with EU leaders in Brussels on June 15, 2021 to repair transatlantic ties, which had been severely damaged during President Donald Trump’s time in office. At the end of the meeting, the two sides issued the U.S.-EU Summit Statement, a final communique largely devoted to China, and launched the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council to foster transatlantic cooperation on digital issues, technology and supply chains, with the objective to create a Western united front to counter Beijing’s unfair trade practices.

Western allies also took steps to denounce China’s human rights violations. In March 2021, the U.S. and the EU – together with the United Kingdom and Canada – decided to impose restrictive measures against Chinese officials over human rights abuses against the Muslim Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang region.

Transatlantic cooperation on China has never been as good as it is now. However, the history of this form of cooperation shows that periods of alignment have been followed by times of divergence, including attempts – in particular by the EU – to promote ties with Beijing and advance Europe’s so-called ‘strategic autonomy’, at the expense of the U.S.

The early years

During the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. and its Western allies mustered a collaborative effort – through the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls, or CoCom – to create a web of export controls and sanctions intended to deny advanced technologies to communist countries, in particular the Soviet Union and its allies. China could not access Western technology until the rapprochement between Washington and Beijing in the early 1970s, when priorities changed in Washington. After Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, Europeans were granted permission – and were even encouraged – to sell advanced technology to Beijing, a move which was seen as a crucial factor in containing the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, Europe’s relations with Beijing were largely dependent on Washington. The only exception was France. In 1964, Charles de Gaulle officially established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), almost a decade before the United States and the rest of the West would establish diplomatic ties with Beijing.

In the aftermath of the People’s Liberation Army’s crackdown on students in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, the United States and the European Community, precursor to the European Union, issued strong statements condemning the massacre, imposed punitive economic and diplomatic sanctions, and suspended all military contacts and arms sales. In the months following the massacre, however, pressure from economic lobbies and China making some commitments to ratify a few human rights conventions convinced the Europeans – and to a lesser degree the United States - in summer 1990 to lift most of the sanctions, with the exception of an arms embargo.

Throughout the 1990s transatlantic cooperation on China would take place mainly through unofficial fora and focus almost exclusively on economic matters. In 1994, the Trilateral Commission published its report on how to integrate China into the global economy. In May of the same year, the Clinton administration extended the most-favored-nation trade status to China. The following year, the EU published its first strategy paper on China, putting forward a  policy of ‘constructive engagement’ that over the years provided the framework for European companies to expand into the Chinese market. The latter would gradually become the foremost battleground between U.S. and European companies, as demonstrated by the Boeing vs Airbus competition for China’s market shares.

Diverging views at the turn of the millennium

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the United States and the EU pursued their own distinctive policies towards Beijing, with little coordination between Washington and Brussels. The result was a transatlantic rift on how to deal with a rising China that reached its apex in October 2003, when Brussels and Beijing agreed on a strategic partnership. This partnership included a proposal of some EU member states – supported in particular by France and Germany – to lift the arms embargo on China. The United States strongly criticized and opposed the move. On 2 February 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously (411-3) to pass a resolution condemning the EU’s moves toward lifting its arms embargo on China, threatening retaliation in transatlantic industrial and defence cooperation. Pressure coming from Washington, coupled with growing uneasiness inside various national parliaments and the European Parliament convinced EU member states to shelve the proposal at the European Council in Brussels in June 2005.

Behind Europe’s approach to Beijing, including the proposal to lift the arms embargo, was the push for a more autonomous EU foreign policy as well as the idea that a sustained policy of engagement by the West would build trust and help China gradually transform into a liberal democracy. This fantasy – already built on shaky ground – was shattered by Xi Jinping’s accession to power in the early 2010s. The new Chinese leadership pursued a more authoritarian path domestically and increased Beijing’s self-confidence and assertiveness towards the rest of the world.

Finding a common approach towards a more assertive China

The U.S.-EU Summit in November 2011 framed relations with China for the first time as a matter of concern for transatlantic allies. A direct outcome of the summit was the joint EU-U.S. statement on the Asia-Pacific delivered by Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, and Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, on the margin of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Phnom Penh in July 2012. The statement focused on three areas: security, sustainable development, and trade. Clear wording was used with regard to territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea and to the promotion of a stable and peaceful environment in a region, which was at risk because of territorial and maritime claims between a rising and more assertive China and its smaller and weaker neighbours of South East Asia. The joint statement sent a clear political addressed at China, indirectly criticizing its socio-economic and political system tightly controlled by the Communist Party.

During the Obama years, various official U.S.-EU dialogues were created, including an U.S.-EU dialogue with the participation of the EU’s large member states (Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy). The transatlantic dialogue initiated by the second Obama administration was eventually downgraded during the Trump Presidency and then interrupted.

Under Trump, a few unofficial attempts were made to coordinate U.S. and EU policy on China. A notable attempt took place in Paris in January 2019, when a high-level U.S. delegation, headed by Matthew Pottinger (at the time Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director in the U.S. National Security Council) met with European policy-makers and experts to discuss ways to cooperate in the Indo-Pacific. Although the exchanges were frank and fruitful, it was clear that there was little appetite inside the White House to compromise with the Europeans on a joint approach vis-á-vis China, also in light of ongoing tensions between Trump and some EU leaders.

Notwithstanding the transatlantic spat during the Trump era, on 23 October 2020 – a few weeks before the U.S. Presidential elections – Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State and Josep Borrell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, launched a new bilateral dialogue between the Deputy Secretary of State and European External Action Service Secretary General to be held in mid-November 2020. However, the dialogue lost much of its appeal since Donald Trump was defeated in the Presidential election on November 3, 2020. The transatlantic dialogue on China under Trump would still be conducted towards the end of 2020, though more low profile than planned. Following the victory of Joe Biden, Josep Borrell declared that ‘we are ready’ for a Biden administration to engage the EU on joint action against the challenges posed by Beijing, adding that ‘we can expect the EU-U.S. dialogue on China that we launched only last month to continue, with renewed energy, under the next administration.’

Public opinion and the expert community

Backing for a renewed transatlantic dialogue on China came also from the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign relations, which issued the report The United States and Europe: A Concrete Agenda for Transatlantic Cooperation on China in November 2020 When Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th U.S. President, the conditions were thus ripe for launching a structured transatlantic dialogue on China. Support for such an initiative was found among the general public in America and Europe. Transatlantic Trends 2021 – a project by the Bertelsmann Foundation and the German Marshall Fund which includes the results of surveys conducted in 10 countries and the US – shows that there is a strong foundation for transatlantic cooperation on China-related challenges.

The expert community on the two sides of the Atlantic would contribute to the debate by setting up study groups and publishing reports, including the following (to name only a few): Charting a Transatlantic Course to Address China (Center for a New American Security and German Marshall Fund); The China plan: A transatlantic blueprint for strategic competition (Atlantic Council); Mind the Gap: Priorities for Transatlantic China Policy (Aspen, Merics and Munich Security Conference). At the beginning of 2021, the Wilson Center joined in the debate by launching a Transatlantic Working Group on China – the only initiative of its kind taking place regularly between the two sides of the Atlantic.

The future prospect

It remains to be seen whether all these efforts – the official U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council and the various unofficial Track 1.5 dialogues – will initiate an era of cooperation between relatively equal partners, as the Europeans hope, or be mostly led, and determined, by the United States. The unilateral moves by the United States in its withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 as well as the signing of the AUKUS pact (a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, announced on 15 September 2021 for the Indo-Pacific region) without informing France and the EU do not bode well in this regard. The AUKUS pact essentially squeezes Paris out of a submarine deal with Australia – an accord which was hailed by the French establishment as the “contract of the century”.

U.S. unilateralism has traditionally pushed the Europeans towards advancing the so-called ‘strategic autonomy’, including the promotion of ties with Beijing. It is no coincidence that the EU-China strategic partnership and Sino-European space cooperation were established during the early 2000s when the Europeans were in deep disagreement over the Iraq War.

An issue that could trigger the next transatlantic rift over China is the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), an accord that if ratified would boost trade and investment relations between the EU and China as well as have profound implications for the United States.

Beyond AUKUS and CAI

The announcement of the CAI at the end of December 2020 triggered an intense debate, as the CAI has found both supporters, but also opponents, inside Europe. The deal was met with harsh criticism from the United States, which interpreted it as a victory for China trying to divide the transatlantic allies.

To be ratified, the CAI needs unanimous support from EU member states and a favourable vote by the European Parliament. In July 2021, the European Parliament underlined the conditions that have to be met before the legislative can approve  the CAI. The parliament included a timetable for China’s ratification and implementation of key labour laws and concrete measures towards putting an end to human rights violations against the Uyghur minority in the country. It also demanded a recommitment by China to uphold its international commitments to Hong Kong.

The European Parliament’s decision to freeze the CAI reflects growing disenchantment with China among lawmakers who are determined to stand up more firmly to Beijing. Still, China remains Europe’s second largest trading partner and an important market for many European companies – a prospect that may push some EU governments to seek to resurrect the agreement, if Chinese sanctions are lifted. This is what France – which holds the EU presidency in the first part of 2022 – will want to achieve, in particular after the AUKUS pact disrupted – in the eyes of some French policy makers, including a potential French presidential candidate - the emerging U.S.-EU convergence on China-related matters.

Reconciling U.S. and EU views on China is possibly one of the most important and daunting tasks for policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic. Some differences – and competing interests – will inevitably always be there. However, failure to create a united front to deal with Beijing would weaken the world’s liberal democracies and be a win for China’s authoritarian model. It is crucial to continue to make headway among transatlantic allies and not let initiatives such as AUKUS and CAI disrupt the progress that has been made.

About the Author

Nicola Casarini

Nicola Casarini

Fellow;
Senior Research Fellow, Instituto Affari Internazionali, Italy
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