Europe Struggles to Find Its Footing in US-China Clash

A European Union flag flies outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

(CN) — Europe finds itself at a highly disorienting historical moment: No longer the center of world geopolitics and adrift in a world increasingly defined by a conflict between the United States and China.

In this clash, the central stage is far from Europe’s borders on the other side of the planet but its progress carries serious consequences for Europe, a major political and economic power in world affairs in its own right but reluctant to simply follow American adventurism in distant lands against China.

“The central front of geopolitics is no longer in Europe, it’s now in the Pacific,” said Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, during a recent discussion. “That is a profound shock to the way Europeans think about themselves.”

This novel paradigm has left European elites utterly divided and confused about what they should do and it’s given rise to an explosion in sinology studies on a continent largely untouched by Chinese history and political forces until recently.

In just a few years, a library-sized amount of material on China has been accumulated in Europe in the form of conferences, books, talks, discussion groups, documentaries, quarterlies and scholarly papers. Think tanks focus increasingly on China and disagreements over China policy are regular features inside European political circles.

At its most basic, Europeans are wrestling with a basic question: Should they consider China and its ruling Communist Party a mostly benevolent rising superpower or does it pose an existential threat to world peace and to Europe? If the first, how can Europe work with it and not antagonize its old ally, the U.S.? If the latter, how can it constrain China but also not turn it into an enemy?

In this new global Sino-American conflict, Europe is caught in the middle of a fight between its two biggest trading partners and it can seem to flounder in a world now described as dominated by the law of the jungle rather than common rules.

With Washington increasingly consumed with its strategy to counter China, American diplomacy is turning its back on Europeans and not consulting its leaders even on matters of keen importance to Europe, such as its policies in Iraq and Ukraine.

“They are basically seen as chips which can be traded off against other things,” Leonard said about how U.S. diplomats view European interests.

The relationship between Europe and President-elect Joe Biden will be a big improvement from the toxic one that evolved with President Donald Trump. Biden will be more open to discussion with the European Union on issues such as climate change and countering Russia and China. But his administration will likely carry on focusing on China and seeing EU concerns as secondary, experts say.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with then-Vice President Joe Biden in Beijing in 2013. (AP Photo/Lintao Zhang, Pool, File)

Unlike the U.S., a big difference for Europe is there isn’t an ocean between it and China and in recent years China has rapidly begun to build rail-lines, sea links and commercial ties to Europe through its massive infrastructure project known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

It’s envisioned as one of the world’s biggest engineering projects ever undertaken and aims to link China to Europe and Africa through a series of ports, railroads, pipelines, airports, transnational electrical grids, fiber optic cables and economic alliances. China has built a military base in Djibouti, a small nation on the Horn of Africa, along with this scheme.

The project, announced in 2013 by Chinese President Xi Jinping, also had other motives. After the 2008 global financial collapse, the Chinese state went on a building spree to make sure its economy didn’t collapse. After that, this new global project was viewed as the next step in China’s development with the government saying it planned to spend $100 billion each year for a decade. That kind of spending was meant to keep its state-owned enterprises busy for years to come.

But there were other objectives too. China wanted to tap into Central Asia’s raw resources in places like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, rich in natural gas and oil, and thereby lessen the threat of being cut off from oil coming from the Middle East in the event of a U.S.-engineered blockade of the Strait of Malacca, a key shipping lane between the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Initially, China called it the One Belt One Road project, though it was commonly dubbed the New Silk Road, a 21st-century version of the Silk Road of Marco Polo. Later, China renamed it the Belt and Road Initiative. It’s been called China’s Marshall Plan, a reference to the U.S.-funded European rebuilding plan after World War II. Chinese propaganda calls its massive program, largely funded through Chinese bank loans, a great leap forward for humanity.

Bit by bit, European nations, eager to boost their stagnant economies, have joined China’s New Silk Road. For several years, China has been working on investment projects with 16 Eastern and Central European nations. In a major coup for China, Greece, desperate for investment, joined those discussions and by 2018 a Chinese-owned company, COSCO Shipping, had a majority stake in the Piraeus Port outside Athens, one of Europe’s largest harbors. China called the port its “gateway into Europe.” Its detractors called it China’s “dragon head” in Europe. Under Chinese ownership, the port’s activity has swelled.

In 2019, Italy joined the Belt and Road project too, angering northern European leaders. Italy’s addition signaled a major shift as one of Europe’s biggest economies and the first G7 nation bought into China’s scheme. China is working to turn the port of Trieste into a bustling entry point for its goods and in doing so largely fulfill the romantic idea it’s building a new Silk Road to the land of Marco Polo.

China’s influence is greatest in Serbia: Between Belgrade and Budapest, the capital of Hungary, it’s building a high-speed railway line that also connects China to Central Europe.

Serbia’s government is on friendly terms with China in no small part because of China’s support for Serbia when it tried to stop the Kosovo province from breaking away and gaining independence in a 1998-99 conflict. Their friendship was sealed for good after NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the conflict. The U.S. said the bombing was an accident, something China disputed.

Since then, Serbia has bought up Chinese surveillance technology, entered into agricultural deals, welcomed Chinese doctors to help with the coronavirus pandemic and rolled out the red carpet to Chinese diplomats. In 2009, China built its first major public works project in Europe with the construction of a bridge in Belgrade. After that, Serbia asked China to build a power plant, wind turbines and a ring road around Belgrade. Serbia is not an EU member but it is in talks to become one.

China’s global ambitions are wrapped up in this massive Belt and Road undertaking. Scholars and political experts in the West are deeply divided over what the ultimate aims and consequences of it will be.

The Chinese container ship Cosco docks at the Panama Canal’s Cocoli Locks in Panama City in December 2018. China’s expansion of its Belt and Road initiative to build ports and other trade-related facilities is stirring anxiety in Washington. (AP Photo/Arnulfo
Franco)

In the U.S., a school of thinking has arisen that sees the project as fulfilling the prophecy of Halford Mackinder, a British geographer and the director of the London School of Economics, who presented a foundational paper on geopolitics in 1904 called “The Geographical Pivot of History.”

In the paper, he told his audience at the Royal Geographical Society to consider how a future world empire could emerge by dominating Eurasia, what he called “the pivot area,” and by doing so defeat maritime imperial powers.

He called the early 20th century the beginning of a new era with the Eurasian landmass at the center. It was, he said, an era particularly challenging for the global sea power of Great Britain.

Mackinder, who is considered one of the founders of geopolitics, continued to develop his so-called “heartland theory” and posited that Asia, Europe and Africa should be viewed as a single continent, what he called “the world island.” Eventually, in 1919, he developed a pithy dictum that some historians and political scientists argue continues to define geopolitics today: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.”

Some historians see Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia as a catastrophic attempt to conquer this heartland and the American empire’s ring of military bases in Europe and Asia as a circle of steel to control the Eurasian landmass.

Fast forward to today and many experts, particularly those in Anglo-Saxon political science circles, see China as carefully and strategically putting into practice Mackinder’s famous dictum as it invests in the Belt and Road Initiative while also building up its maritime and military strengths and its technological capabilities in space and in the cyberworld.

For Americans, the fear is that China’s meteoric economic rise – based around a state-directed model many call “authoritarian capitalism” and often seen as unfairly outcompeting the West’s neoliberal free-market capitalism, in large part due to China’s low-wage workforce and undervalued currency – will lead China to dominate world affairs and eclipse the U.S.

Those fears have been heightened by an assertive change in China’s approach to foreign affairs under President Xi Jinping and his so-called “wolf warrior” diplomats who’ve discarded the country’s former non-confrontational approach to foreign policy of “hiding its ability and biding its time,” as Deng Xiaoping, China’s former supreme leader, put it.

In Europe there has been less panic over China’s rise, but that is now changing. In 2019, the European Commission labelled China a “systemic rival.”

Alexander Dukalskis, an Asia scholar at University College Dublin, called the EU’s shift in tone a jarring turn in rhetoric because Europe had been very eager to deepen trade with China, a huge market for European goods.

“Europeans are having similar debates as in the United States about the influence of China, except the difference of course is that most European states are a lot smaller and less powerful, so in some sense they are more vulnerable,” Dukalskis said in a telephone interview.

He said many European experts are concerned China is weakening EU unity by entering into friendly bilateral deals with the bloc’s members and tying them economically to China.

“That becomes relevant when the EU has to make a decision that requires unanimity,” he said. “If it only takes one state to object on a motion on human rights, for example, then having one state speak up and defend China is really useful.”

Europeans are becoming more critical of China. For example, several European nations, including France and Germany, are pushing to restrict the use of Huawei 5G technology, which is considered the next generation in digital connectivity. Major Chinese companies like Huawei, China’s technology giant, are required to have ties to the central Communist Party, raising questions about whether they act as tools for the Chinese state.

Sweden and the Czech Republic have entered into diplomatic spats with China over human rights issues. Sweden angered China for defending a Swedish publisher imprisoned in China for printing books critical of Chinese leaders. Prague stoked China’s wrath by signing a sister-city agreement with Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, a breakaway island republic China claims as its own.

A recent public opinion survey by the Pew Research Center found attitudes toward China in Europe worsening sharply since the coronavirus pandemic. In Germany, 71% of respondents had an unfavorable view of China and similar findings came from the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom. Attitudes were even harsher in Sweden and worsened in Italy and Spain where just over 60% of respondents said they didn’t like China.

“It’s very much turned much more sour, much more realistic from the EU side,” said Richard Ghiasy, an Asia specialist at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, a think tank, in a telephone interview.

Dukalskis said Europe is realizing there are serious risks in allowing China to have too much sway.

“China uses market access to enforce political speech abroad,” he said. He cited the example of how Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets NBA basketball team, was forced to issue an apology after writing a tweet in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

“You see that up and down in all kinds of different industries where there is an effort to use China’s economic power to enforce political red lines abroad,” he said. “I see that as a form of extraterritorial censorship.”

China is actively tampering with academic freedom too around the world, he said. “As China becomes much more powerful, it tries to extend its policing of academic discourse in a variety of ways. Again, by controlling or using market access as a leverage to get universities and publishers to censor.”

Many experts warn China’s growing clout is reshaping international organizations in a fashion that suits China’s anti-democratic worldview. If left unchecked, critics argue, more of the world may start looking like China and follow its illiberal example of state surveillance, state-dominated capitalism and attacks on human rights.

“It is running circles around the United States at the United Nations, for example, placing its people in high-level positions,” Dukalskis said. “To some extent this is what the great powers do, right. So it’s not particularly surprising in that regard. But the Chinese government has a very particular view of freedom of speech and how political decisions should be made. I think there are concerns about those kinds of norms leaking out abroad.”

There are, of course, big problems with the Chinese model, even though it can boast about lifting 850 million people out of poverty and more than doubling the size of its economy since 2000. Although that growth has slowed in recent years, it still far outpaces Western economies. Paradoxically, in the year that the coronavirus pandemic started in the Chinese city of Wuhan, China is expected to be an outlier and show a modest economic gain in 2020 while the U.S. and Europe are in recession.

Containers are piled up at a port in east China’s Shandong province. (Chinatopix via AP, File)

Behind China’s glittering economic statistics – a country that purports to embody “socialism with Chinese characteristics” but where private profit, foreign investment, billionaires and growing inequality dominate – there’s an abysmal human rights record, according to Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

Political dissenters are imprisoned and disappear, and it uses the death penalty as a state secret. Human rights activists and critics of the regime are harassed, imprisoned and disappear. Its judicial system is under the control of the Communist Party and the internet is strictly censored. State surveillance is pervasive and intrusive. Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Falun Gong practitioners are persecuted, their places of worship damaged and their religious leaders face imprisonment. Gays and transgendered individuals suffer widespread harassment and ill-treatment.

Then there is the Chinese state’s campaign against Uyghur Muslims in the remote region of Xinjiang where there are reports of the government rounding up people in re-education camps. Amnesty says an estimated 1 million people have been put in these internment camps.

“The European Union is a club of – however strained it is at times – democracies that value human rights and that is part of its identity and part of its rationale,” Dukalskis said. “And China is neither of those two things; so there is a natural kind of conflict there.”

But he said Europe has shown little willingness to press China on its human rights abuses. He said European and Chinese diplomats formally hold talks on human rights, but these discussions are typically handled in private.

“Sequestering human rights dialogues off-stage, behind closed doors, suits Beijing just fine,” he said. “They can read each other their prepared points and say they’ve talked about human rights and that’s it.”

Regardless of China’s obvious problems, many scholars see the future as belonging to Asia, and more specifically China, because of its population growth and rapid accumulation of wealth.

“China now also for the first time in contemporary times has become a tech leader,” Ghiasy said.

He said China has surpassed Europe in the development of 5G and this year completed its own global navigation and satellite system, called BeiDou. China now is a leader in medicine, space technology, high-speed trains and artificial intelligence.

“So China is not the entity anymore that used to just produce posters and plastic buckets but is now a serious tech contender,” Ghiasy said. “So, I think that has woken a few strategists in Europe and that new notion, or awareness of realism, is here to stay.”

He said Europeans are frustrated because they see China as not opening key markets, such as the energy, agriculture, aerospace and financial sectors, to European companies and accuse China’s state-dominated economic model of giving Chinese companies an unfair advantage.

Ghiasy said Europe’s tech companies are at risk of losing out on the big profits to be had in the tech field because they are in an unfair match. “What’s potentially at stake here is the Nokias and the Philipses and the Ericcsons and all the other European tech leaders losing out to China.”

On top of that, if Chinese tech companies become dominant that in turn could leave Europe reliant on Chinese technology and vulnerable to Chinese state interference.

“Anybody who produces, sells, operates tech is a potential security threat if it’s an external actor. So, in that sense, if servers, or the technology embedded in whatever they use, is foreign, there is always that risk of it being tapped or controlled,” Ghiasy said.

But still, Ghiasy, like others in Europe, was not ready to declare China’s model a risk to world peace.

“Yes and no,” he said about that potential. “No, because their canvas is totally different. They have a very distinct and historically quite isolationist civilization.”

He said China’s state model is not one-size-fits-all.

“It’s virtually impossible just to replicate it. But partially you can,” he said. “Because they have been very effective in the last 40 years, give or take, at alleviating poverty, at creating stability, at becoming an economic and gradually technological powerhouse: So, that is appealing to a number of other governments throughout the world.”

He doubted citizens in robust democracies would want to follow the Chinese model, but he wondered if future political leaders might be enticed by it.

But is the Belt and Road project China’s grand strategy toward world domination? The verdict is out on that.

World leaders, including President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, gather for a group photo at the start of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2018. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

Many experts see the project as an ill-defined and amorphous attempt by China to spread its influence around the world but which has yielded limited success. Some wonder if the extensive loans Chinese banks are handing out will potentially backfire as economies struggle and cannot pay back those loans.

But others see it as a grand scheme to enrich Chinese companies, bolster China’s security and bind much of the world to China’s economy.

Ghiasy said the project has aroused a wide range of responses. Pakistan, for example, has welcomed it but India hasn’t. “Sheerly in terms of success and failure, I would call it a mixed bag so far.”

As for it fulfilling Mackinder’s “heartland theory,” he was skeptical because China is building infrastructure that, at the end of the day, is not theirs.

“We are talking about sovereign states,” he said. “If you build ports there, or you build hydropower plants, you name it, ultimately they are on sovereign terrain. China can’t just take it away, or fully control them.”

Some experts question the military benefit of controlling vast expanses of Central Asia where there are few people and endless tracts of empty land.

“That China is building networks that try and crisscross Central Asia is quite normal: China has long borders with these countries,” said Frederic Lasserre, a professor of geopolitics and an Asia scholar at the Universite Laval in Canada, in an email. “Is that proof that it will get control of the so-called world island and then dominate the world? I am really not convinced.”

Anyway, Ghiasy doubted China is seeking world domination but rather trying to ensure it can satisfy its expanding appetite and security interests.

“When you are in charge of 20% of humanity, that’s the size of the population roughly, you have your hands more than full, so there’s no space for them to control the world,” he said.

On the plus side, China has not engaged in military adventurism abroad, except for a few border skirmishes, Dukalskis said. The last time China engaged in a full-fledged war was in 1979 when it invaded Vietnam.

“So, in terms of a threat to world peace, there’s something to be said for it not having invaded or overthrown governments militarily abroad,” Dukalskis said. “The question that is on everyone’s mind is a country’s security horizons expand with their power. So, the more that China is involved economically and politically around the world, then the wider its conception of security becomes. So in the next 20 to 50 to 100 years, will that same record of kind of restraint remain? I am not really sure.”

In this context, Europeans are trying to figure out how to deal with both China and the U.S.

“That is indeed the big question around Brussels and select EU capitals,” Ghiasy said. “Do we want to be sandwiched between these two increasingly more anxious and competing giants?”

He continued: “So where do we want to stand? Because obviously, historically, culturally, linguistically, religiously, there are very close links to the U.S., NATO partners, all that.

“China is distant; China is non-democratic; China has different values historically. But they are a very big trading partner and we have big economic interests. So, how do we navigate our way through that? How do we make sure our own interests are never at risk?”

The answer European leaders have come up with is something they are calling “strategic autonomy.” Since the rise of Trump and his trade war with China, Europeans have talked about the need to become more self-reliant and less dependent on both the U.S. and China in some critical sectors.

Ghiasy said China likely will seek to foster warm ties with Europe and entice it away from the U.S.

“If you don’t have Europe on your side, you most likely have them against you, and that would be on the U.S. side,” Ghiasy said. “They would be in a more strategically advantageous position if Europe is somewhat more in the center, slightly towards China, or slightly towards the U.S., but not fully in the U.S. camp.”

Lasserre said he doubted the EU will be able to develop a common policy towards China.

“So far China has been very skilled at playing divisions among the EU,” he said. “Especially with a few Central European states like Serbia indeed, but also Hungary.”


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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