US-China rivalry: what’s expected EU’s stance

China and the USA are competing for global supremacy. Europe needs to define its stance in the context of this geopolitical struggle and the ongoing Russia’s war in Ukraine.

According to Rolf Mutzenich in his article for JPG Journal, Europe can only survive if it speaks with one voice and does not allow itself to be taken over.

“Let China sleep, for when she awakens, she will shake the world.” – This is a quote often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte. Regardless, one thing is sure: after more than 150 years, China has reawakened and become a major world power. 

The “power quake” that China’s rise has triggered can be felt around the world. After centuries of Western dominance, global power poles are shifting towards the East. Classical great power and geopolitics are on the rise again.

The liberal, rule-based order that lasted for the last 70 years seems to be finally coming to an end. World is currently witnessing a turning point in politics and the emergence of a new global power structure.

Is China a threat to the US?

There is no question that the strategic rivalry between China and the US has intensified significantly in recent years. In Washington, there is now a bipartisan conviction that China wants to replace the US as the world’s leading power, and there is a determination to put limits on Xi Jinping’s power ambitions. 

On the other hand, Beijing suspects that the US wants to encircle China and pursue a new policy of containment. In addition to political and military challenges, questions of technology development and trade policy are increasingly at the centre of the competition between the two great powers.

It is also about forming new alliances and alliances, such as AUCUS (Australia, the UK, and the US) and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.

China’s foreign policy

China is also expanding its strategic partnerships within the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and with authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Iran. 

Only a few weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping were still invoking the “borderless friendship” between the two countries in February 2022. 

To date, Beijing’s leadership has not condemned Russia’s invasion. Only in March of this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced during a visit to Moscow: “At the moment, there are changes like we haven’t seen in 100 years. And we are the ones driving these changes together.” 

The signs are currently pointing to confrontation on both sides of the Pacific. It was acknowledged in Washington and Beijing.

Hidden confrontation between China and the US

In Europe, some contemporaries believe that the West is already engaged in a new Cold War with China. This historical comparison may be evident to some, but it is based on a fundamental misjudgement of the current world political situation. For one thing, the People’s Republic of China is not comparable to the USSR. 

Unlike the Soviet Union, Beijing is deeply integrated into the liberal world economic order. For many states in the world, China is now the most important trading partner.

The fundamental conflict between autocracies and democracies exists but does not shape the system. At the same time, the global balance of power is no longer divided between two poles of power alone. 

The incredible power competition between China and the USA is indeed structure-forming, but the times of uni- or bipolar systems are over. Instead, we live in a world with different centres of power, in which many states reject thinking regarding zones of influence or new bloc formations.

Beijing rises as a challenge to liberal democracies

The rise of China is and remains a challenge to liberal democracies – perhaps even a greater one than the Soviet Union ever was. That is why the world needs a wise foreign policy that does not just copy the old concepts from the past but recognises the changed realities of today. 

These realities include that we need practical cooperation with China to solve global human tasks such as combating hunger and climate change and ending wars, as well as arms control and nuclear non-proliferation issues. 

Peacefully managing the Sino-American rivalry and finding common ground is therefore crucial for global stability and the future of humanity.

To keep the peace, it is essential to understand the core interests and fears of the US and China. Nowhere do the interests of the two great powers collide more directly than in the Indo-Pacific and the conflict over Taiwan. 

Since September 2022, President Biden has repeatedly reiterated that the US would stand by militarily in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. From Beijing’s perspective, this is an interference in China’s internal affairs. President Xi Jinping has threatened several times to “reunite” the island with the mainland militarily if necessary.

Taiwan dispute 

Even though Beijing repeatedly emphasises that it would prefer a “peaceful solution” in the dispute over Taiwan, these threats should be taken very seriously.

An escalation or even a war over Taiwan would have disastrous consequences for global security and the world economy. Taiwan is a critical state in global supply chains, especially in the chip and semiconductor industries.

Moreover, the US is closely allied with the Republic of Korea and Japan and has military bases in Thailand and the Philippines. A Chinese invasion could therefore spark a regional war between China and the US. 

Meanwhile, both sides have manoeuvred themselves into a strategic impasse in which there is hardly any tactical leeway left to move toward each other without either side losing face.

The experts say that there will be no grand bargain for the solution to the Taiwan question in the nearest future. To avoid an escalation, the focus should therefore be on maintaining the status quo.

It means that it is essential to continue to support Taiwan, but at the same time, also take China’s interests and fears into account. For example, the question of high-level political visits to Taipei should always be weighed against whether or not they ultimately contribute to peace and stability.

And it’s not the only conflict point in the region. The People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines are fighting over the Spratly Islands alone. Incidentally, this also shows that Asia is much more than just China. 

Europe’s Stance in the Context of US-China Rivalry

Europe can only survive the tension of the strategic rivalry between China and the US if it speaks with one voice and does not allow itself to be divided by any of the global forces.

The goal must be to expand and strengthen Europe’s independence and strategic sovereignty. For this, it is essential to reduce dependencies, increase competitiveness and further improve coordination between the EU institutions and the member states.

A European-China strategy could be extended or complemented by a joint transatlantic approach. At the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, together with the other G7 heads of state and government, succeeded in doing that.

There, the G7 decided not to disengage from China but to diversify their trade relations and engage in targeted de-risking. The aim is not to prevent China’s rise but to minimise economic dependency on China.

But it is also true that American and European interests are not always and everywhere identical. This in no way means that Europe should adopt a position of equidistance between Beijing and Washington.

However, the US is and remains the EU’s closest ally. It shares with the US a common interest in a rules-based order, open societies, democratic standards, fair trade, and free sea lanes. The US and the EU backed Ukraine in its war with Russia, while China spoke from a neutral position and failed to condemn the Russian invasion. 

That is why Europe must coordinate closely with the Americans but, at the same time, develop a genuine European approach to future engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, primarily with China.

The EU could advocate for establishing arms control forums between China and the USA. That such efforts are not in vain was shown by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during his visit to Beijing last November, where President Xi Jinping also reaffirmed the nuclear taboo. 

At the beginning of June, the US government also called on Russia and China to hold talks on nuclear arms control without preconditions. The SIPRI report of June 2023 also shows that this is urgently needed: According to it, the People’s Republic of China continues to arm massively and could have as many intercontinental ballistic missiles as the USA and Russia by the end of this decade.

In addition to a new start in arms control, there is also an urgent need for new trilateral formats and mechanisms that minimise the risk of military confrontation and unintended escalation and enable dialogue even in critical phases.

So far, there are few open communication channels between Beijing and Washington. In this context, the meeting between US Secretary of State Blinken and Chinese President Xi Jinping in mid-June 2023 was a significant signal. The first visit by a US Secretary of State to China in five years shows that people are finally talking to – instead of just about – each other again. 

On the other hand, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz received Chinese Premier Minister Li Qiang in Berlin, while French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen travelled to China this year.

Direct talks, embedded in a European and transatlantic China strategy, are ultimately indispensable to make the competition between great powers and mutual relations more predictable again. EU and EU state leaders’ dialogue with Beijing is vital to ensure that a direct confrontation between China and the West is not inevitable.

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