Policy Paper

Transatlantic Cooperation on Asia and the Trump Administration

October 30, 2019
3 min read
Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com

Transatlantic cooperation on Asia, and on China in particular, is still characterized by missed opportunities and self-imposed obstacles. Yet it would be a mistake to underplay the constructive developments that have occurred during the Trump administration. At the working level, a great deal of groundwork has now been laid for the joint efforts that will be necessary on a range of Asia policy issues.

While efforts to build closer coordination between Europe and the United States in this field go back to the mid 2000s, the shift in U.S. strategy toward greater competition with China in trade, economics, and technology—rather than military balancing alone—have given Europe greater salience in U.S. policy. The EU is a potential force multiplier and a source of additional leverage in some areas for the United States, from infrastructure finance to joint actions on Chinese economic practices. In others, such as investment screening and export controls, cooperation with Europe is a precondition for the effectiveness of U.S. policy.

As a result, despite continued differences in approach, the two sides have intensified their interactions in several areas over the last two years. China has naturally been a major focal point, in areas ranging from trade policy to Huawei’s role in European telecoms networks. But there have also been efforts to deepen cooperation in the broader Indo-Pacific, from the connectivity agenda to hard security.

The trade agenda has still been held hostage to U.S. tariffs, and threats of tariffs, on the EU itself, as well as divergences over the future of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Practical progress in these areas has varied considerably. The trade agenda has still been held hostage to U.S. tariffs, and threats of tariffs, on the EU itself, as well as divergences over the future of the World Trade Organization (WTO). The exchanges on 5G have been a cautionary case study in the challenges of dealing with an issue that cuts across economics, technology, values, and security. Both sides still need to resolve— internally and with each other—the right balance to strike in the openness of their economic, technological, and scientific interactions with China.

Other areas, such as the proposals for closer coordination on infrastructure finance have been easier to move forward. The considerable crossover between the EU and U.S. approaches on connectivity—including the focus on mobilizing private-sector finance—and the relatively latent state of their respective efforts have made this a rare case where the two sides can collaborate closely at the inception of their planning. In the coming years, they will similarly need to join up their emerging—yet largely parallel—debates over how China reconditions European and U.S. approaches to industrial policy, data policy, supply-chain security, the defense industrial base, standard-setting, competition policy, and other areas.

As these examples illustrate, the transatlantic agenda on Asia and China is now vastly wider than it was when consultations between the United States and the EU were first put in place. Formerly niche or specialist issues have moved to the core of both sides’ political, economic, and security interests. While elements of the more traditional agenda—agreeing a joint statement on Chinese militarization of the South China Sea, for instance— still have value, there is likely to be greater scope for traction in dealing with many of these geo-economic issues.

It will be difficult to achieve this without deeper-seated adjustments on both sides. Removing the existing irritants will open the door to closer cooperation on several fronts. But the prominence of these divisive issues has also delayed the reckoning on a set of hard choices—whether the United States is able to develop an approach that genuinely commands the support of a broad spectrum of partners beyond its traditional security allies in the region, and whether European countries are willing to accept that defending their values and interests is not going to be a cost-free proposition.