China's Europe Game Should Worry the United States
AP Photo/Jens Meyer
China's Europe Game Should Worry the United States
AP Photo/Jens Meyer
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It was not long after U.S. President Trump’s disastrous trip to Europe in May that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made his own journey to Brussels. Recently, Beijing has taken actions to strengthen its trading relationship with the European Union and to cooperate with Brussels on other issues, including climate change. The timing of these endeavors is not a coincidence. China appears to be looking to exploit the growing rift in the Transatlantic relationship to forge closer ties with Europe and to improve its own status on the world stage -- a triangular strategy of diplomacy.

At the moment, there remains apprehension and skepticism in Europe regarding closer ties with China, and trade disagreements between Beijing and Brussels probably will not disappear anytime soon. Nonetheless, the United States should pay attention to China’s rhetoric and actions regarding Europe. President Trump’s “America First” principle is not resonating with Europeans, and China is attempting to present an alternative message that appeals to Europe’s trade and climate agendas. If Beijing and Brussels forge a closer relationship, it would inevitably be at the expense of the United States.

The European Union is China’s largest trading partner, with roughly $1.6 billion of goods and services moving between the two mega-economies every day. This trading relationship has been contentious at times. A dispute over whether or not China should be granted market economy status by the World Trade Organization plagued the recent EU-China summit, as did accusations of steel dumping. China, however, remains persistent. Over the years, Beijing has strengthened its economic bonds on the Continent, most notably in Central and Eastern Europe through its controversial Belt and Road Initiative and with 35 billion euros of foreign direct investment  heavily concentrated in Western Europe. Disagreements between Europe and China will not reverse this trend, nor will they dismantle the growing interdependency between the two economies.

China is also capitalizing on the protectionist rhetoric emerging from the United States to paint itself as a defender of global free trade, a message that resonates in Brussels. President Xi Jinping’s January speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos was praised for condemning protectionism and promoting globalization. In similar remarks at the Silk Road Forum in May, Xi added, “[i]n a world of growing interdependency and challenges, no country can tackle the challenges, also the world's problems, on its own." China is marketing itself not only as a fierce advocate for global trade, but also as a multilateralist -- exactly what Europeans are looking for in the age of “America First.”

From the European perspective, the United States is isolating itself from the global trade regime and international order it built and defended for decades. Multilateralism is at the heart of the European project and is the European Union’s primary tool for pursuing its priorities on the world stage. The fact that China hosts the world’s largest population and is the world’s second-largest economy, in addition to the country’s growing influence in geopolitics, make it an attractive partner.

The same Trump administration policies that are driving a wedge in the Transatlantic relationship are also creating space for greater cooperation between Europe and China. During a recent trip to China, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said “[i]n times in which others pivot to nationalist isolation and advance protectionist tendencies ... China and Europe stand for an open global trade order and for multilateralism.” After President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement in June, EU Climate Action and Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete said, "No one should be left behind, but the EU and China have decided to move forward.” While this rhetoric could be purely reactionary, it should worry Washington.

The United States can ill afford to lose Europe to China. America has already strengthened China’s geostrategic position in Asia by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and giving Beijing the opportunity to pursue its own trade deal in the Pacific region. The last thing the United States should do is facilitate China’s endeavors in Europe. While America’s increasing isolation is largely self-inflicted, it will be accelerated and exacerbated by partnerships forged in its absence. Historically, Europe has been instrumental in advancing America’s political, economic, and security interests abroad. If Beijing’s courtship of Brussels is successful, however, Europe may hesitate to support U.S. actions that could damage its burgeoning ties with China. America will need the backing of its traditional European partners in possible future crises, such as a trade war with China or a conflict in the South China Sea. Yet a Europe that is less inclined to act in favor of U.S. interests will make America weaker and more isolated and could encourage a more confident and stronger China on the global stage.