Caught in the Middle: Europe’s Role in Sino-Chinese Relations

The tensions between the United States and China are well-chronicled, unfolding on the front page of newspapers across the world. Under U.S. President Donald Trump, America has cracked down on Chinese trade practices it sees as unfair, including the theft of intellectual property and the loss of American jobs. Although the President’s much maligned tariffs posed one solution to this issue, it’s likely that trade will be a contentious issue between the Chinese and Americans for years to come.

Currently, the primary dispute between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping stems from disputes on backend production of goods. Manufacturing jobs disappearing is a tangible aspect of backend production, but conflicts with shipping, labor, and materials also plague the economic relationship between the two superpowers.

This issue will persist, but in the coming decade, the United States faces a larger and more worrisome threat to its economic well-being: The Belt and Road Initiative. This program, which aims to extend front end sales of Chinese products around the world, threatens the delicate balance that the United States and China have informally reached over decades of free trade: Americans receive inexpensive goods, while the Chinese can maintain questionable business practices and standards.

The economic conflict is further complicated by friction in the South China Sea, the Chinese alliance with Russia, and China’s rapid growth and institutional change towards a monolithic controlled capitalist state. The Belt and Road Initiative and its associated soft power plays incorporate parts of all three tensions, but that tension is felt most in Europe, where the Belt and Road lead to. Having given up on selling direct-to-consumer in America, Chinese manufacturers and the Chinese government see the Belt and Road as their opportunity to fully capture profits in the European Union market.

As both sides of the conflict become increasingly polarized, Europe is placed in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, the Chinese government offers the promise of cheap goods, delivered directly to the European Union. On the other hand, the United States, whose position in the world has become increasingly reliant on Europe, has been a longtime ally of Europe and likely offers benefits as Europe’s status as a world power continues to fade.

Europeans appear to be unsure of how to play their political chips, and their confusion is natural. Europeans are facing many crises of their own, which may have an impact on their global positionality. Brexit is the most pressing of these issues and threatens to derail some implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative. Should Brexit cause Europe to be less desirable to the Chinese, it is likely that Europe would align more closely with the United States, due to the political and economic ties that Europe shares with America.

The Russian issue may be the most confounding and hard to isolate. Given the European Union’s push into Eastern Europe, and its anticipated expansion following Brexit, the EU and Russia are already each preparing for some friction on Moscow’s western border. Memories of Crimea are still fresh, and Russian expansion is certainly on the minds of Europe’s lawmakers. Europeans would likely be concerned with how close ties the Chinese and Russians share, and in fact outright reject Chinese expansion if Russia appears to be politically too close to China. This is the primary “pressure point” for Beijing – the Belt and Road requires some market acceptance of Chinese companies, and Chinese expansions would likely fail if the EU implements its weighty and restrictive trade controls on Chinese firms.

The American influence on Russia, and vice versa, are topics the Europeans need to consider. President Trump’s erratic behavior, especially when dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin, presents an unknown quantity in European alignment. Trump may balk to respond at another Ukraine-like invasion, whereas the Chinese may possibly be able to intervene and stop a potential unlawful expansion. But abandoning the United States isn’t an option either. China is an illiberal regime and is only headed towards being more undemocratic. The United States has the military power to protect Europe if necessary, and even with the rise in American populism, Europe is too intertwined with the United States.

But equidistance is impossible as well. China and the United States are preparing for a showdown, and it is possible that a bipolar alignment may be the global order for decades to come. To avoid conflict and serve its best interests, Europe likely needs to narrowly define its relationship with both superpowers and hold fast to their commitments. It must clearly demarcate how its defense, economy, and foreign policies are allocated, and it must not mix its affairs between the United States and China. Both superpowers want to take a larger slice of the European pie, but Europe must push back to preserve its standing in the world order.

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