Menu Close

As Trump fades, the EU and US find common cause in facing up to China

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, connected via video with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hold a news conference after a virtual summit with China’s President in Brussels on September 14, 2020. Yves Herman/AFP

On October 23, a new transatlantic coordination mechanism, the “EU-US Dialogue on China” was officially launched. The European Union and the United States worked for four months to establish it after confirming each other’s willingness at the end of June.

The process was complicated by the arduous transatlantic relations and the numerous disagreements that accumulated between the EU and the US under the Trump administration. While the relations between Brussels and Washington were anything but easy over the past four years, the new dialogue did finally come to fruition. When it comes to China, at least, the two shores of the Atlantic have come to recognise the importance of their coordination and cooperation.

Convoluted triangle: EU-US under Trump-Xi’s China

For Washington-Beijing relations, this set of bilateral relations turned sour in mid-2017. The Trump administration identified Xi’s party-state as “strategic competitor” in the National Security Strategy, and phrases like US-China “trade war”, “tech war” and even “new Cold War” have often hit headlines on news and analytical pieces.

A shift in EU’s strategic thinking took place in recent years. In March 2019, the European Commission and EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy indicated that China is not only a “cooperative or negotiating partner”, but also an “economic competitor” and a “systematic rival”. The COVID-19 pandemic further made EU and its member states realise the ambition of Xi Jinping’s China on which they are over-dependent.

Read more: Covid-19: Lessons from China's public diplomacy in the EU

In October this year, the 27 EU heads of state or government officially endorsed the strategy on Beijing set out in March 2019.

The EU-US-China triangle, therefore, has been complicated by the explicit rivalry between the United States and China, the bumpy transatlantic relations, and the awakening EU, which found itself with an naïve or even inexact understanding of China over the past decades.

EU’s direction ahead: autonomous but closer to Washington

In response to the dilemma, the EU’s Josep Borrell expressed that the EU opted to be its own captain – navigated by the union’s values and interests – and move forward together after the EU-China Strategic Dialogue in mid-June.

In September, some expressions from the EU side on EU-US-China trilateral relations were heard for the first time. These include:

  • China’s support for “multilateralism” is, in fact, selective and incoherent.

  • It was incorrect to assume that political openness in China would naturally follow economic openness.

  • The Chinese Communist Party actually controls the state as illustrated by the end of the “high degree of autonomy” in Hong Kong and ongoing cases of human right violations.

The last two coincided the discourses often made by the United States under Trump in regard to Xi’s China.

European High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell
European High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, during a video press conference on the 10th EU-China Strategic Dialogue, at the European Commission in Brussels on June 9, 2020. Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

The paramount element but one not so much discussed in the media or analyses in the past three months is that Josep Borrell made it perspicuous: even if not choosing sides, the EU is still closer with Washington than with Beijing. With this short but straight-forward sentence, it provides the light at the end of the tunnel. The EU is still clear in mind that the US albeit being an impolite partner or even a cavalier competitor under Trump for leaders in Brussels and some national capitals, Washington is at least not a systematic rival that is promoting an alternative model of governance.

On the Chinese side, the “United Front” tactic has been in the blood of the ruling body of the state – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – since Mao’s era. One main principle and spirit of such a tactic is to build an alliance – including working with the secondary enemy – to fight against the primary enemy. The iconic example was CCP’s collaboration with the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) during the war of resistance against Japan before the CCP turned to fight against Kuomintang and later against the government of Taiwan hitherto.

Under Trump, it is not hard to see China’s endeavours to align itself with the EU by stating the two sides’ “common” aspiration to multilateralism and creating the “win-win” fashion of comprehensive strategic partnership. Leaders of both sides of the Atlantic would not want to get trapped by Beijing’s tactic. The key is to look into Beijing’s real actions – particularly the honouring of commitments – rather than the façade shown or the words provided.

EU-US partnership remains critical for engaging Beijing

A crucial distinction in interpretation has to be made when understanding EU’s aim to follow its own way among the rivalry between Washington and Beijing. It may be understood that the EU decides not to align fully with the US in its approach of interacting with China – even under the incoming Biden administration.

There are voices calling for EU-US “renewed cooperation” with Washington’s leadership from Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. At the same time, some other founding EU capitals set their sights on a more “European approach”. For example, French President Macron has recently reiterated the urge for the EU to pursue its sovereignty under the contemporary context of international political arena. Furthermore, Berlin and Paris have also started their systematic and constructive exchanges on the making of an up-to-date EU-as-a-whole policy on China which stresses the need to work with the US while maintaining EU’s strategic autonomy.

Observers in Washington expect that the Biden administration will continue the hard-line strategy toward Beijing but will accentuate and step up efforts to work with allies on issues related to Beijing. Biden’s appointment of Antony Blinken as the designate Secretary of State may be a good reason to expect such scenario. Blinken has already emphasized the importance of the US taking Europe as a “vital partner” in facing global challenges and to team up with allies on linking shared values – in competition with Beijing’s – to the strategy toward China.

Meanwhile, two EU documents in progress were reported to advocate reuniting the transatlantic alliance to cope with global challenges, including Beijing. Moreover, other news sources also covered the invitation by the EU side to President-elect Biden for 2 direct dialogues in the first six months of 2021.

Therefore, it does not mean that EU-US coordination and cooperation on issues concerning China will not take place or work out. In reality, Brussels and national capitals as well as Washington need each other more than ever before to face Xi’s China that is “more assertive, expansionist and authoritarian”.

United in Specificity: partners with non-identical interests or resources

Two shores of the Atlantic might not adopt fully identical approaches to interacting with Beijing because they possess non-homogeneous interests or resources. Yet, it also means that the EU and the US own respective comparative advantages which, if coordination shall augment, can lead to the most vigorous effect on China.

Fair trade and reciprocal investment practices, geo-strategy in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific, capabilities and standards regarding cutting-edge technologies, commitments to work together on the fight against coronavirus pandemic as well as the protection of Planet Earth, and strengthening the alliance of the democratic system of governance are all prime examples in need for transatlantic joint efforts when engaging Beijing.

No matter whether it is Trump in the White House in the past 4 years or the forthcoming Biden presidency, on issues related to Xi’s China, it remains critical for the EU and the US to be “united in specificity” as a force for good, together with other like-minded partners in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 185,700 academics and researchers from 4,983 institutions.

Register now