The closure of consulates the previous week will not have been the apogee in a series of clashes between Washington and Beijing. Instead, the last remaining hegemonic power and the aspiring superpower will keep the world busy with its ongoing showdown — while the European Union is destined to watch.
Since the violent suppression of the democratic movement on Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has waged an ideological war against enemy forces. Under the new head of party and state leader Xi Jinping, the conflict is intensifying. In a 2013 speech on “Defense and Development of Socialism” to members of the CPC Central Committee, he said that the Chinese system would ultimately triumph over capitalism. However, the party had to prepare for “long-term cooperation and debate between the two systems.” In the end, the CPC also tries to win the duel between the political systems in order to legitimize its authoritarian rule in China.
Of geostrategic importance are China’s claim to Taiwan — a democratic state that is not recognized by China and supported by the United States — as well as Beijing’s territorial aggression in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Here, China is attempting to extend its sovereign rights over the internationally determined airspaces and territorial waters.
It builds infrastructure on uninhabited or artificial islands in order to claim sovereign rights and natural resources in the South China Sea — despite an international court ruling that puts China in violation of international law.
As a result, several dangerous military situations with warships and military jets from neighbouring countries as well as the United States and European countries have occurred during attempts to force China to respect international airspace and international trade waters. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a keynote speech to democracies in Europe and Asia asking to oppose China in a joint effort with the United States.
Compared to previous US governments, President Donald Trump has tightened the approach towards China – albeit not in regard to human rights and religious freedom. President Barack Obama acted more conciliatory and sought cooperation with Beijing in the global financial crisis. Trump, on the other hand, is using punitive tariffs to exert pressure on China to open its markets to Western products, just as China claims access to its goods in western economies. Trump’s constant attacks on China regarding COVID-19 — though justified — have further exacerbated the situation.
In addition to Trump’s combative course, the objective situation has also changed. Two decades ago, China had still been seen as a developing country, the kind of which does not question the technical and geostrategic dominance of the West — which is why one can react with caution if China does not adhere to the same standards in terms of trade rules, social regulations, environmental and climate requirements hold. Today China is technically and economically as strong as the USA or the EU. Unequal rules are considered a competitive disadvantage at the expense of America and Europe. Whoever believes that the conflict between China and the US will disappear once Joe Biden is in office, might be in for a rude awakening.
The EU, meanwhile, is a bystander in this clash between the world’s two dominating forces. Its member states have such different interests that it is difficult to position them jointly on key issues. It would have been Germany’s task in its current EU presidency to find a common position for the EU-China summit initially planned for September. However, the summit has now been postponed due to the pandemic, and without a joint declaration, there will be no common European position – a further increase in tensions between Washington and Beijing notwithstanding.
The previous EU commission was cognizant of these aforementioned issues. In March 2019, it published a ten-point paper that aimed to counter China’s political and economic struggle for power in many fields. China is a partner, competitor and systemic rival, it says. However, national governments are often not guided by the EU decision, which emphasizes the importance of human rights and demands a level playing field. At the same time, China is influencing and dividing the EU. Investments from Beijing are very welcome in Italy, but also in other southern and eastern European countries. These investments make these governments mildly friendly when it comes to criticizing China.
The EU’s Lack of Unified Foreign Policy
When it comes to geopolitical interests, the EU does not fulfil the global political role that ought to be expected from an economic powerhouse. It simply is not capable. Accordingly, the idea that the EU could act as a global political pole between the United States and China is utterly preposterous, mainly as no real EU foreign policy even exists.
It also explains why Germany is not inclined to follow the US blindly. Berlin has emphasized that China remains an important partner in international politics, such as climate protection and the nuclear deal with Iran, and an important economic partner. The USA, on the other hand, is essential for Germany as a guarantee of security and shares common values, even if the friendship has suffered severely under the current administration.
With that being said, the conflict between China and the US will continue to exacerbate in the foreseeable future. And while the tone and decorum in the White House could significantly elevate from January 2021 onward if Biden is elected, American geopolitical interests will remain the same.