Charting a Transatlantic Course to Address China

October 20, 2020
Julie Smith
Andrea Kendall-Taylor
Carisa Nietsche
Ellison Laskowski
5 min read
Mounting competition between China and liberal democracies will shape the course of the 21st century.

Mounting competition between China and liberal democracies will shape the course of the 21st century. The gravity and scope of the challenges that China poses have permeated the transatlantic policy agenda and become a focal point in U.S.-Europe relations. Whereas China has long been a source of disagreement and even tension between the transatlantic partners, in the past two years views have converged. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) assertive actions—its “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, aggressive influence operations, human rights violations at home, and elimination of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong—have increased concerns in both the United States and Europe. There is now fertile ground for transatlantic cooperation on everything from reducing dependency on Chinese trade and investment to setting global norms and standards for the future. Yet, despite this convergence of views and interests, there is still no roadmap for how such cooperation should progress.

The breadth of the challenge means that the United States and Europe must compete with China across multiple domains. 

This report outlines such an approach. It is based on the premise that the time is ripe for greater transatlantic cooperation on China. It also recognizes the comprehensive nature of the task at hand. Today’s controversies with China over trade, investment, technology, and global governance are all part of a larger competition between political systems and worldviews. The breadth of the challenge means that the United States and Europe must compete with China across multiple domains. This report lays out a roadmap for doing so, outlining concrete recommendations across the four sectors of technology, investment, trade, and global governance. By working together, the United States and Europe can pool the resources and leverage needed to push back against the CCP in these areas and develop preferred alternatives that advance strategic priorities for both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, the strategies outlined in this report will also serve a second purpose: re-energizing the ailing relationship between Europe and the United States. 

In crafting a transatlantic approach to China, policymakers should consider the following six principles: 


The United States and Europe have no time to waste in coordinating their approach to China. Already, China has pulled ahead in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) and fifth-generation wireless technology (5G), and the CCP has set its sights on dominating additional sectors, such as quantum computing and genomics. More broadly, the CCP senses opportunity. The Trump administration’s abdication of U.S. leadership and the perceived weakness of U.S. alliances, especially in Europe, have emboldened the CCP to more aggressively seek to undermine liberal democracy to advance its own authoritarian vision. 


Given tensions in the transatlantic relationship and European concerns about mounting U.S.-China tensions, there is a strong push among many European officials for Europe to stake out its own China policy. But it is critical that these efforts be made in close coordination with the United States. Likewise, a go-it-alone approach in Washington will fail to produce results. The international community will be effective in shaping CCP policies and actions only if it builds a large and cohesive coalition of forces. Transatlantic cohesion and unity, in other words, will be critical to success.


The United States’ and Europe’s own competitiveness will be the primary determinants of success in the contest with China. The United States and Europe must ensure that they maintain advantages in key areas such as technology, clean energy, and AI, while at the same time ensuring that their underlying values of freedom and democracy are protected. Increasing transatlantic coordination is a key part of the equation, providing the United States and Europe with a critical advantage over Beijing. 


Building an effective transatlantic coalition to address China will require the United States to engage Europe at all levels—the European Union (EU), individual member states, and NATO. The EU will be the critical interlocutor, but U.S. policymakers must recognize that Brussels will not be a one-stop shop. Because EU member states are responsible for implementation of guidance from the EU, U.S. government officials must also engage with European capitals to improve what has so far been uneven implementation. The United States should also continue to push NATO to address the China challenge, including through greater coordination with the EU.


U.S. officials should look to broaden some discussions on China to include other like-minded democracies, such as Taiwan, Japan, Australia, India, and Canada—countries with considerable experience managing the CCP and countering its tactics. By widening the circle of countries at the table, the United States could help overcome some European concerns that the United States is attempting to protect U.S. interests in its competition with China. Broadening the conversation will also facilitate the sharing of best practices and risk assessments among liberal democracies.


Pursuing a transatlantic approach to China does not mean that Europe or the United States should forfeit all engagement with China. It is critical that the United States and Europe continue to engage China on shared challenges, including climate change, counter-piracy, arms control, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and peacekeeping operations. But as they do so, the transatlantic partners need to move China in directions that are important to the United States and Europe and to ensure engagement is consistent with existing norms and standards. 

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