The United States and the European Union have long been considered strong allies, sharing common interests and values. However, in recent years, there has been a growing divergence in their approaches to dealing with the perceived threat posed by China. This divergence could have significant implications for the future of the US and Europe partnership and global geopolitics.
The United States sees China as a major strategic competitor and a threat to its national security. This view has been reflected in the Trump administration’s policies, which focused on countering China’s economic and technological rise, particularly in the areas of 5G and artificial intelligence. The Biden administration has continued this approach, with a particular emphasis on addressing China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
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The European Union, on the other hand, has taken a more cautious approach to China. While acknowledging some of the challenges posed by China, particularly in the areas of trade and investment, the EU has generally been less confrontational towards China than the United States. The EU’s position is based on the belief that China is both a competitor and a partner, and that engagement is the best way to address issues of mutual concern.
This divergence in approach has become particularly evident in recent months, with the United States taking a more assertive stance towards China while the EU has been more hesitant to confront China. For example, the United States has banned Huawei from its 5G networks and imposed sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The EU, on the other hand, has been more cautious in its approach, seeking to maintain its economic relationship with China while also expressing concern over issues such as human rights abuses.
This divergence in approach could have significant implications for the transatlantic relationship. If the United States continues to take a more confrontational stance towards China, it could put pressure on the EU to choose between its economic interests and its security relationship with the United States. This could lead to a further erosion of trust between the two sides and undermine the transatlantic partnership.
US courts EU
This is precisely why, to combat China, the United States has upped the ante in actively courting and luring Europe. Ursula von der Leyen, the leader of the European Union, and President Joe Biden will meet on Friday in Washington. US officials have been warning Europe about Beijing urgently and promising to settle trade problems.
On the warning side, the U.S. government has been sharing intelligence with Europe suggesting China is considering arming Russia in its war on Ukraine — overtures that Europe has met with a mix of caution and toughness. Some European leaders — like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — have issued stern warnings to China against doing so, while others — including von der Leyen — have been more careful about broadcasting the U.S. claims.
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The new intelligence, which has been briefed to U.S. officials in the last month, indicates that China is considering sending drones, ammunition and other small arms to Moscow in an attempt to aid its effort in Ukraine. The intelligence also touches on the extent to which Russia is running low on certain weapons and ammunition and is becoming increasingly desperate for foreign help. Moscow has in recent months brokered deals with Iran and North Korea to help prop up its battlefield operations. U.S. officials are concerned that Beijing could be next.
On the pledges side, U.S. officials are assuring Europeans their companies will get access to some tax credits and subsidies from a landmark U.S. climate bill passed last year.
But, Europe’s response has been mixed, with many nations reluctant to leave the lucrative markets of China, not least Germany, which has close trading ties.
The back-and-forth has shown the persistent differences between the United States and European nations over how to deal with China’s expanding economic might and military might.
“The Europeans have already experienced deep economic trauma because of cutting off Russia. They cannot imagine cutting off China,” said Heather Conley, a former State Department official overseeing European and Eurasian Affairs in the George W. Bush administration.
But as the U.S. pressure on Europe mounts and intelligence on China becomes more concerning, there are signs the American campaign could be bearing fruit. Germany has said it is reviewing whether it should continue to use equipment from China’s Huawei and ZTE; the Netherlands said on Wednesday it will block the sale of advanced chips printers to China.
This is where the United States has to create an alternative where we’re working to strengthen Europe and our allies in Asia,” said Conley, who’s now president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She argued that means designing legislation on technology, critical minerals and supply chains that keeps the needs of allies in mind — something recent U.S. legislation, with its emphasis on American industry, has not done.
European officials are hoping to make progress toward securing an agreement on EU access to the made-in-America subsidies program created by the Inflation Reduction Act. The two sides are now hashing out a special exemption that would give EU companies the same access to the incentives the U.S. is offering free-trade partners like Canada and Mexico. A final agreement is not expected this week, however, with any changes possibly needing a presidential executive order, given that there is no appetite in Washington to re-open the IRA.
In exchange, the EU is touting the idea of a critical raw materials “club” — a group of like-minded countries who would get together to combat China’s dominance in the field
Europe in particular has a dearth of raw minerals such as lithium and cobalt — crucial materials that are components in everything from car batteries to solar panels. Von der Leyen focused heavily on the idea during a visit to Canada on Tuesday, suggesting that Canada could offer Europe badly-needed resources. “China produces 98 percent of Europe’s supplies of rare earths,” she said. “Europe needs to de-risk this dependency.”
The Biden administration wants to economically isolate China, but any actions Europe takes may still fall far short of that goal. Americans wager that Europe will seriously step up and significantly help deter China. But the heads of Europe’s biggest economies publicly declare that they are not interested in decoupling, and consequently, meaningful sanctions on China in the case of a confrontation. In view of the Chinese threat, there is a major gap if the Biden administration believes that its policy on Europe is effective.
This divergence could have implications for global geopolitics. If Europe and the United States cannot agree on how to deal with the perceived threat posed by China, it could lead to a fragmentation of the Western alliance, which could weaken its ability to address global challenges.
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