Europe’s Trump-China dilemma
A multilateral order with China and without America is simply impossible.
This is where the EU stands at the start of 2017. To the West, Donald Trump governs in tweets, berating Nato as obsolete and predicting new Brexit-like departures from the EU. To the East, Xi Jinping, in majesty at Davos, takes up the mantle of cheerleader for globalization, multilateral institutions, rule of law, and universal nuclear disarmament.
US presidents have always acted in the interest of the US, but Donald Trump’s insistence on ‘America first’ and his slights of European allies are disquieting. He forgets Bismarck’s admonition: “always try to be à trois in a world governed by five powers”. And many of his positions are abhorrent to so-called liberals – indeed to supporters of mainstream politics since the end of World War II.
Xi Jinping’s rousing endorsement of globalization and multilateralism, meanwhile, should raise more than an eyebrow. This is the same China, after all, that applies steeper tariffs than its main Western partners, and that actively supports indigenous companies by limiting opportunities for others. It is the China which is making a mockery of its non-binding climate commitments by increasing coal consumption and exporting coal-fired thermal plants, and that openly disregards international law in maritime Asia. It is the China that punishes any criticism of Mao, and that is currently cracking down on providers of virtual private networks (VPNs), which help people access any site outside China – effectively shutting off its own citizens from the international system that Mr. Xi so ardently defends.
At first glance, then, the rational and sane response is to side with neither. But what appears as rational and sane is only so in the intellectual realm. Reality, on the other hand, often implies hard choices. And while European liberals may find siding with Trump hard to stomach, the argument for doing so is clear, given that we cannot retreat to Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain.
We did not elect Donald Trump, but we need America as a partner and an ally. As it is now, the European Union would be incapable of any collective exercise of hard power against almost any enemy. This is especially important at this juncture, as we leave behind the utopian post-1989 era of shared values and interests. That now seems a historical interlude, and with the re-emergence of realpolitik, hard power attributes will increase in value.
The most dangerous enemy in this regard – for both Europe and the liberal order – would be a Sino-Russian alliance. While there are fears that Trump’s focus on China will strengthen Russia, Europe can leverage its support for a muscular posture in Asia in return for American respect for European interests with regard to Russia. However, it is worth noting that neither Russia nor America will fully respect these interests until we give clear signs of improving our autonomous defence capacity.
Europeans have a tendency to wallow in lamentations about Mr. Trump’s illiberalism. But a great part of our electorate demands realism and interest based policies. If these are not delivered, the shift to nationalist and so-called populist politics will continue. Standing firm on our principles is fine. Parting ways with the United states in a strategic way, if it damages European interests, will not be supported by European electorates in this political climate.
Equally on trade, European free-traders are appalled by Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). They are right that this will hurt both America and Asia. But TPP did not include Europe and in fact was competition for the EU. As such, the correct response for Europe is not to condemn Trump’s decision but to accelerate the EU’s own free trade deals with Asia, in particular an EU-Japan FTA with ambitious features beyond trade in goods.
When it comes to China’s encroachments in the East and South China Seas, many in Europe are equally concerned about a Trump ‘provocation’. If he puts China on warning that America will enforce international law in this area, should we weaken his hand? Most Asians have been waiting for a stronger response to China’s moves, and it is out of a sense of their weakness that some bandwagon with China. One also hears a suggestion that Europe should signal the option to lift the arms embargo against China to gain leverage with Trump. But this would not only endanger our relations with America; it would be the worst possible signal to send to China’s many neighbours.
Finally, it is Trump’s brutal shift of immigration policies that have caused the greatest outrage. This is reasonable given the extremity of the measures introduced this weekend, which resemble the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But they should be regarded with the proper perspective. There is no prospect of a united Sino-European stand on open borders, which all Asian countries reject for themselves. Indeed, it is Europe, not Trump, which is the odd one out in terms of attitudes to immigration. The enduring weakness of Europe’s border controls is unique among developed countries. Putting Europe’s own house in order – in terms of controlling arrivals – is a pre-requisite for saving pro-refugee policies, lest more European voters follow Hungary and Trump in building walls.
Nor will China cooperate on human rights or on protection from cyber snooping, when it is the world’s most advanced Orwellian state.
We have no certainty on the fabric of the new administration in Washington, and it could well end in failure. But betting on failure entails danger for us – because we depend on the United States, and because Europe’s unfinished federation would be a very poor geopolitical poker player. Europe does not have the means of countering effectively the retrenchment on values and on international good causes that Donald Trump – and Theresa May – are now announcing.
Until a major Chinese policy revision happens, a multilateral order with China and without America is simply impossible. A speech by Xi Jinping is not enough to make China a true supporter of the liberal world order, and our long reliance on the United States leaves us with no alternative. The rest is merely talking for the sake of talking.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.