In the Fight against China, Europe Offers the US no Special Advantage

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While the trouble brought by the Trump administration to the US-EU relations was expected to disappear on its own after Trump’s defeat in 2020 US presidential elections, this has not happened even after 5 months of Biden’s inauguration as the US president. While Europe has on the whole welcomed Biden presidency, it remains that the continent, during the four deeply tumultuous years of the Trump administration, underwent a crucial change in terms of increasingly asserting its own ‘strategic autonomy’ as a player in the increasingly multipolar world, with the US, EU, Russia and China positioning themselves as competitors. It is the increasing multi-polar competition that explains why the US even un-sanctioned the Nord Stream-2 as a means to re-calibrate its ties with Europe (Germany) as well as Russia in view of the US’ growing ‘ideological rivalry’ with China. However, even though the US president is preparing to start his maiden visit to Europe and is looking to revamp the rotten ties, it remains that the particular trajectory of the Biden administration’s foreign policy is developing in ways in which Europe’s traditional role as a primary US ally has only marginal space.

To begin with, the most important question is: what role can Europe/NATO play in a global US-China rivalry, which is actually unfolding far away from Europe? The epicentre of the US-China rivalry is, unlike the Cold War in which Europe was the focus, Asia. Besides it, the on-going US-China ‘trade war’ also shows that a significant part of this rivalry lies within the domestic political and economic structures of both the US and China. Europe’s role in this growing rivalry is, therefore, not more than that of an auxiliary that the US can rely on to check China’s rise in the European continent. Europe, in other words, holds no specifical significance in the execution of US policies vis-à-vis China, expect that the US would want the Europeans to follow in its footsteps.

The US’ increasing focus on China also leaves the NATO, the core institutional mechanism that binds the US and the EU in a common defense and security apparatus, in a challenging position. When NATO’s core ‘strategic concept’ was last revised in 2010, it did not mention China even once, let alone describe it as a potential challenge for the US domination.

In the post-Obama era, however, a tectonic shift in the US strategic mindset took place, which started to perceive China, rather than Russia, as the most important challenge for the US. Although there is no gainsaying that the US continues to see Russia as a major challenge, there is equally no denying that the former undoubtedly sees China embodying enough economic and military potential and global clout to effectively challenge and even undo the US-built and the US-led global economic and financial order. It leaves the NATO’s core institutional framework facing an existential crisis — a problem of completely redefining its operational concepts in the 21st century when the locus of ‘West versus East’ rivalry has shifted to completely un-chattered territories. For a military alliance that was established to fight a completely different enemy, the Soviet Union, this shift presents the NATO with the challenge of reinventing itself completely.

While NATO was able to re-invent itself after the dissolution of the Soviet Union as it saw in Russia a major contender, China’s rise and its ability to challenge the US has left NATO in tatters. A number of NATO officials and ambassadors have been quoted to have said that crucial questions like how much and where the regional trans-Atlantic alliance should try to counter China, or deciding what capabilities NATO needs and how many of them should come from common funding or remain the responsibility of member countries, remain undiscussed, let alone resolved.

What is further adding to the NATO’s growing irrelevance is the fact that even the US itself is not looking to formulate its China policy in a coordinated and integrated manner with Europe. It explains why Joe Biden, instead of addressing a NATO summit to recover US-EU ties from the trauma caused by the Trump administration, was quick to call a QUAD summit within less than two months of his inauguration. The fact that Joe Biden is only now going to visit Europe shows Europe’s position within the existing US global posture.

That Europe is no longer a priority for the Biden administration is also evident from his administration’s staffing and policy choices. Biden created powerful new “coordinator” positions on the National Security Council staff for the Indo-Pacific and for the Middle East and staffed them with experienced officials, Kurt Campbell and Brett McGurk respectively, known for their capacity to drive the bureaucracy. But the same administration has created no similar position for Europe. It reflects that for the Biden administration, too, the Middle East is more important than Europe. And the US’ QUAD (‘Asian NATO’) allies in Asia and the Pacific – India, Japan and Australia – are absolutely crucial in the US’ tussle with China.

The net effect of Trump’s distance from Europe/NATO and Biden’s growing obsession with China has been a continuously growing wedge between former allies, with the number of issues between them pending resolution increasing enormously. Therefore, when Joe Biden will arrive in Europe, he will be facing an increasingly assertive and a sceptic Europe.

If the trauma caused by Trump years has taught Europe a lesson, it is that of the inherent fragility of the US-European ties, which, as many policy -makers in Europe believe, are not only vulnerable but can also be undone very simply and quickly whenever a populist leader like Trump comes into power in the US seeking to implement his/her ‘American First’ and willing to sacrifice the decades-old transatlantic ties in favour of a more nationally oriented foreign policy that makes no difference between Europe and the rest of the world.

Therefore, notwithstanding the way the EU is itself engaging in a tussle with China over the latter’s supposed ‘genocide’ of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang region, it remains that US and EU are finding it a lot harder to find a ‘common ground’ vis-à-vis China than was the case with their joint concerns vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, or Russia later. Even if they do succeed in finding a common ground vis-à-vis China, Europe is certainly not oblivious to the fact that the US and China, despite their ‘trade war’ and growing rivalry, remain deeply inter-dependent as trade partners. It will only encourage the EU to balance its criticism of China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims with trade ties and the investment deal, which Germany’s Angela Merkel defined as a truly path breaking pact because of China’s growing importance as a global economic player and Europe’s need for investments. At the same time, the US’ growing distance with Europe because of its focus on Asia and the Pacific means that Europe will continue to find ‘indigenous ways’ of dealing with China, a country that certainly poses no security/defense challenge to the continent.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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