Could an EU-US Alliance Against China Work?

Al-Jazeera reports that the EU wants to form a new alliance with the US to end the tensions of the Trump era and confront the challenge posed by China.

The plan proposes rebuilding ties, with united stances on issues ranging from digital regulation to tackling the coronavirus pandemic. The plan will be submitted for endorsement by national leaders at a meeting on December 10 to 11, and the proposal which suggests the launch of a transatlantic agenda will be presented at an upcoming EU-US summit in the first half of 2021.

Will the EU Finally Start Taking the Chinese Threat Seriously?

It is refreshing to see European leaders finally begin to take the threat that Beijing poses to their continent seriously, and to show a willingness to collaborate with Washington when it comes to China. Earlier this year, EU leaders wanted to stake out an independent position between the two superpowers, but they clearly view Biden’s election as an opportunity to rebuild relations with the US.

As Donald Trump’s presidency looks set to come to an end, it is a shame that he failed to persuade his European counterparts to unite behind his approach toward Beijing, even though he consistently warned about China throughout his presidency. However, Biden’s administration could represent a fresh opportunity for both Europe and America to develop a coordinated response toward Beijing.

Germany is the EU’s Weakest Link on China

Noah Barkin wrote in The Atlantic last year that the US and Europe could work together to develop common transparency, environmental, and social standards for infrastructure projects, while also pooling their resources. At the top of the priority list would be a set of common rules for data privacy and regulating artificial intelligence.

However, the EU has a weak spot when it comes to dealing with China, and that is Germany. As Jakob Hanke Vela wrote in Politico, EU foreign policy may be decided by unanimity, but it is nonetheless difficult for smaller countries to push back against Berlin’s efforts at engagement. One EU diplomat told the publication that Germany is the one arguing for more cooperation with China.

Brussels and the German Government have also been reluctant to condemn the treatment of Uighurs, despite repeated calls for action from the European Parliament, including for targeted sanctions. Yet there is a reason why Berlin has been particularly soft toward China throughout this year: German Chancellor Angela Merkel is trying to sign an investment deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping before her presidency of the EU ends.

In September, the EU announced that it had made progress with China on an investment deal regarding issues such as forced technology transfer, but Brussels still wants Beijing to open up sectors such as telecoms and IT. China’s ambassador to the EU Zhang Ming recently confirmed that the agreement is likely to be signed by the end of the year. The EU’s dependency upon China for trade makes it increasingly unlikely that the former will be a reliable partner to the US when it comes to tackling Chinese human rights abuses and hegemonic aspirations.

Washington Must Also Look to Other Allies for Help on China

If Washington is serious about pushing back against Chinese threats to trade, it must work with other superpowers that are more reliable than the EU. For example, the United States could form a powerful coalition with Japan, Canada, the UK, Australia, and other like-minded democracies to thwart unfair Chinese practices, perhaps in a comprehensive joint complaint to the World Trade Organization.

As I wrote before, the Five Eyes alliance could also be expanded to include nations like Japan and India so that it can move beyond acting as merely an intelligence-sharing group.

The proposed US-EU partnership on confronting China may sound good in principle, but its scope is limited to just two areas: the coronavirus and digital regulation. The EU is likely to continue to avoid taking sides in any significant way, since it hopes to build up its economic ties with Beijing. If a Biden administration is serious about the threat that Beijing poses, it must look to other allies as well.