The U.S. Factor in Sino-European Relations
Excerpts from chapter "The U.S. Factor in Sino-European Relations" in China-EU - A Common Future edited by Stanley Crossick and Etienne Reuter. The entire book can be found here.
For Europe and China alike, the most important bilateral relationship is with the United States. Although often described as a ‘strategic triangle', neither the Chinese impact on the transatlantic relationship nor Europe's role in the Sino-US relationship is remotely comparable to the significance of the United States for the Sino-European relationship.
It is not much of an exaggeration to suggest that major developments in EU-China relations over the past few years have been a subsidiary consequence of the fraying and strengthening again of the transatlantic relationship. The 2003-4 ‘honeymoon' period in EU-China relations, during which the two sides launched the ‘strategic partnership' concept and agreed, in principle, to lift the arms embargo, was substantially driven by a major transatlantic falling-out over Iraq.
The end of the honeymoon, in 2005, coincided with Chancellor Schroeder's fading from the scene, and the efforts from both Europe and the United States, largely successful at an elite (if not a popular) level, to put transatlantic relations back on track.
More important than these particular twists though is the basic structure of the two primary relationships. Despite their differences, Europe and the United States have a long tradition of strategic cooperation, a fully-fledged military alliance, deeply integrated economies (not least in the defense sector), and shared commitments to a number of basic values. China and the United States have an increasingly integrated - if sometimes testy - economic relationship but despite growing diplomatic coordination over issues such as the North Korean nuclear crisis, the broader political and security relationship is still characterized on both sides by hedging, mistrust over intentions, and a perceived gap in values. Most obviously, the US security commitment to Taiwan and Chinese threats of force against the island ensure that the two sides are engaged in ongoing preparations for the eventuality of war with each other. The net result is a mix of cooperative and competitive elements that amounts neither to full partnership nor to overt rivalry.
Deep transatlantic cooperation could not coexist with these structural tensions in the US-China relationship without certain implied constraints being placed on the scope of Sino-European relations. The United States expects that even if the Europeans are not going to provide active support to US security policy in East Asia, there will at least be no serious moves to undermine it through selling arms or key technologies to China that could place US targets at greater risk during a war.
A similar expectation is seen in the case of Israel, another key US ally without security responsibilities in East Asia, whose potential arms sales to China have been treated by the United States as inconsistent with the maintenance of strong US ties. Both Israel and Europe have faced the prospect of restricted transfers of US military technology, blocks on Pentagon purchases, and other steps with serious repercussions for future military cooperation.
The imbroglio over the lifting of the EU arms embargo clarified one issue - in the near future, the Europeans are not going to inflict serious damage on transatlantic relations for the sake of a deepened ‘strategic' EU-China relationship. But although there are many shared views between Europe and the United States about China, this apparent transatlantic comity conceals many underlying questions that are unresolved:
•- To what degree does Europe agree with US strategy in East Asia?
•- To the extent that it does, is Europe prepared to move to align itself more closely with the United States in its strategy towards the region?
•- To the extent that it doesn't, are there circumstances over the longer term where Europe would adopt a competing strategy to the United States in East Asia?
Focusing on East Asia can sometimes appear restrictive to Europeans. China is now a global actor and its policy towards Sudan is in many ways closer to home than its policy towards Vietnam. But aside from the fact that China is, first and foremost, an East Asian actor and its global role will be significantly defined by the nature of its rise in this region, European attitudes are gradually starting to change.
The debates over the arms embargo have already stimulated broader EU-US dialogue about policy in the region and this is only likely to intensify as the embargo question resurfaces, as it is likely to in the run-up to the agreement of the EU-China Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA). This coincides, moreover with two other major drivers. First, the transatlantic military alliance, NATO, has been shifting its focus to deal with new global threats and take in new global partners. This has already brought European troops into combat in Afghanistan, China's neighbor, and seen the deepening of ties with East Asian security partners, Australia and Japan. Decisions are looming for the European side as this more global NATO moves into its next phase and the argument for a more closely integrated role for these new partners becomes harder to resist - however implausible it is to imagine the extension of article 5 commitments. Second, China's economic rise has been transforming East Asia into an ever more important region for European economic and commercial interests. As well as being by far Europe's largest regional trading relationship, it is now the major source of new growth for European companies and of inward investment flows to Europe. Europeans are increasingly conscious of how little influence they have over strategic questions, such as Sino-Japanese or cross-strait relations, in a region whose stability is vital to the European economy.
The net effect of these developments will inevitably be to site Europe's China policy in a broader political and security context - with greater attention now being paid to its impact on key allies and to the regional picture.
The chapter goes on to explore four plausible scenarios for transatlantic relations vis-à-vis East Asia, and the factors that are likely to drive them - absence of European strategic policy; tacit European alignment with the United States; active European cooperation with the United States; and European competition with the United States.