China as a Transatlantic Challenge

The coronavirus pandemic has triggered a global crisis that impacts all areas of our lives. Besides creating innumerable new problems, the pandemic has exacerbated many of the global problems and challenges with which the world was struggling prior to the current crisis. Few issues have been made more adversarial more rapidly than the challenges posed by China.

Late February, just days before Covid-19 forced the world into a lock-down, 43 thought leaders and China specialists from the United States and eleven European countries met in Berlin to take stock of the most recent China policy debates on both sides of the Atlantic and explore possibilities to enhance cooperation. The symposium was jointly organized by Bertelsmann Stiftung, the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society and the China Policy Program at George Washington University.

In ordinary times, such gatherings are meant to create momentum for more joint research, consultation, and political action. Under the current circumstances, however, with the attention of policy makers and businesses focussed predominantly on short-term crisis management, there are concerns that the momentum for medium- to long-term strategic thinking and planning on this important and rapidly changing topic is being lost. This is regrettable, because “getting China policy right” and improving transatlantic cooperation at this critical time is one of the core challenges for confecting a recipe for recovery and stability.

A comprehensive conference report has now been published, offering a number of the symposium’s key findings as guidelines for formulating practical China policies in the U.S. and Europe. Drawing on the expertise of all participants of the Symposium, it details various perspectives and policy recommendations in areas such as trade, investment, technology, connectivity, human rights, security, global governance, and influence activities:  

  • Despite growing transatlantic tensions, U.S. and European views on China—both its behavior and policy responses—overwhelmingly converge. Despite intense debates on both sides of the Atlantic, American and European relations with China have much more in common than they diverge over. China’s party-state that the United States and Europe now face is a very different one than the one that both sought to work with in partnership over the past four decades. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has become considerably more assertive, in its international posture. Internally, China has become substantially more repressive in multiple domains.
  • The U.S. embrace of the “strategic competition” framework has directly and indirectly affected European perceptions and polices. On some issues, Europeans feel pressure to “choose” between America and China, on others they feel more closely aligned with the U.S., while on some other issues, such as trade, they feel invested in their ties with China. Many Europeans believe that Europe must find its own autonomous path between America and China. Whether European positions - e.g. on 5G - influence political considerations in Washington remains an open question. Europeans appear less inclined to think of China in terms of geopolitics or national security than people in the United States, and more in terms of commercial interactions—while the American approach tends to “securitize” (to view through a security lens) issues whereas in Europe commerce with China is seen more neutrally.
  • While respective U.S. and European interests and perspectives on China continue to substantially overlap, the Trump administration’s (and President Trump’s own) behavior towards European allies and partners has substantially eroded transatlantic trust. Europeans are concerned about a lack of predictability and stability on the part of the United States under Trump and increasingly feel “on their own” when facing China and other international challenges. Shared concerns about China could be a catalyst for repairing transatlantic ties.
  • “Engagement” can no longer be the sole paradigm for framing policies toward China. Americans now routinely call China a “strategic competitor” and the EU has officially designated China as simultaneously a partner, competitor, and “systemic rival.” For both U.S. and European policymakers, the balance between cooperation and competition has shifted starkly in favor of the latter.

The report finds that there is an urgent need to strengthen exchanges on China between Europe and the United States. Transatlantic dialogues on China should be regularized - not only at the “Track 2” level among academic and think tank experts and “Track 1.5” (mixed official/unofficial), but also better institutionalizing Track 1 governmental interactions. Indeed, over the past several weeks, high-level officials on both sides of the Atlantic have expressed a desire to strengthen transatlantic coordination on issues related to China.

Such an effort would build on the long and close relationship between European countries and the United States, which share a common set of values and systems. Orville Schell, who heads Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, said: “As the dimensions of China’s global challenge continue to grow, it is critical that liberal democratic countries with open market economies come together in a more coordinated way to present a unified stand in support of both our political and economic systems.”

Volker Stanzel, former Ambassador of Germany to China, echoed this: "75 years ago, a liberal world order was created giving greater freedom, less poverty, and more justice to many people in the world. Today that this order is challenged by the People's Republic of China, the nations standing by the values supporting it need to actively develop it further.”

The report is being launched at a time when the European Union is working towards a policy on China that allows all its member states to act better in unison. "A strong, unified European China policy would be a huge step towards establishing the EU as a serious foreign policy actor. And the more unified the European position, the better the chances for reinvigorating the transatlantic partnership,” says Bernhard Bartsch, Senior Expert at Bertelsmann Stiftung.