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Can Europe help US-China rapprochement?

March 3, 2022

Despite the EU's limited clout in Asia, some reckon the bloc's "hedging" position between the two superpowers provides it with some influence.

The national flags of China and the United States
Europe is 'increasingly squeezed' between China and the USImage: Dwi Anoraganingrum/Geisler-Fotop/picture alliance

Fifty years ago, Richard Nixon, then US president, set off on a secret visit to Beijing, a trip that ended decades of American opposition to communist China and helped exacerbate the split in the communist world between China and the Soviet Union, a cunning scheme by Washington to weaken its main rival in Moscow.  

But in his biography of the then-national security advisor Henry Kissinger, historian Niall Ferguson speculated that possibly the Americans didn't come up with this idea.

From the late 1960s onwards, Kissinger would meet regularly with Europeans at conferences that brought together scientists and political thinkers from across both sides of the Iron Curtain.

One such Eastern European was Antonín Šnejdárek, a former head of Czech intelligence operations in Germany. In one discussion, he made an observation that Kissinger later wrote "had never occurred to me" — whether the US and China would ever make a deal. 

"It was not Americans who thought of it first," Ferguson wrote. "It was the strategic thinkers of the Soviet bloc who foresaw the new world conjured up by the Sino-Soviet split." 

Lack of political and security influence

Albeit limited, Europeans played a role in securing dialogue between Washington and Moscow amid the Cold War. In the late 1970s, US-Soviet relations entered a "détente" and a driving force behind this was the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. 

The third phase of the conference, held in Finland in 1975, produced the Helsinki Accords, committing the West and the East to dialogue and partial acceptance of each other's strategic interests.

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Today, as a "New Cold War" simmers between the US and China, experts are divided on whether Europeans can play a similar mediating role between the two superpowers.

"It is mistaken to think that Europe can play the role of mediator in the US-China conflict," said Noah Barkin, visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

"Neither the US nor China has any appetite for this. And European member states are too divided on where they stand in this superpower standoff."

The case against a mediating Europe is strong. The EU and individual member states lack the security or political influence in Asia to deter China. Many American policymakers regard Europe as too soft on Beijing, while Chinese officials view Europeans as isolationists and caring only about making economic gains.

Worse, Europeans themselves are bitterly divided on this question, with the region split between those states — such as Hungary and Greece — that are seemingly pro-Beijing and those — including Sweden, the Czech Republic and Lithuania — that are increasingly opposed to China, said Barkin.

In the most likely scenario, as tensions between Washington and Beijing rise, Europe is "increasingly squeezed between the two, and under pressure to choose sides," he added.

The continent is seemingly leaning closer towards Washington. Some 71% of Germans and 66% of French now hold unfavorable views of China, according to Pew Research Center surveys. 

Playing an intermediary role?

Last month, the EU took China to the World Trade Organization in response to Beijing's trade war on Lithuania, a dispute over the small Baltic state's relationship with Taiwan. A Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) between the EU and China, agreed in late 2020, has been sidelined after both sides traded sanctions on each other's officials last May.

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During the Donald Trump presidency in the US, European public opinion took a considerably negative turn against America. But under President Joe Biden, things have improved. So, too, has political cooperation between the US and Europe on China. Recent years saw the inaugural sessions of the US-EU Dialogue on China and the US-EU Trade and Technology Council.

Despite the EU's limited clout in Asia, some reckon the bloc's "hedging" position between the two superpowers provides it with some influence. "Europe can and has to play" the role of an intermediary, said Lizza Bomassi, deputy director of Carnegie Europe, a think tank. 

"Because Europe hasn't been in the driver's seat blaming Chinese firms, like the US has, it theoretically has more legitimacy to facilitate some form of tense — but stable — compromises that would allow our interconnected global system to continue functioning," she said. 

Brussels has been in a convenient position since 2018 when it branded China a "cooperation partner, a negotiation partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival."

On the one hand, this has meant the EU can take a "full frontal" approach, for instance by recently taking China to the WTO, Bomassi said. On the other hand, it gives the EU flexibility, such as with the political overture needed to agree to the now-stalled CAI in 2020. 

"We will continue to see these pendulum swings over time because the relationship — given the varying economic dependencies on China — cannot be neatly siloed," Bomassi added.

Promoting crisis management and conflict prevention

In December, two analysts from Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center, Robert Williams and Moritz Rudolf, took on this question when they published an influential essay titled, "Can Europe Avert a US-China War?" 

"The EU should consider launching a diplomatic initiative reminiscent of the Helsinki Process," they wrote, referring to the 1975 accords. "Through such a process, Europe could broker agreements to promote de-escalation, risk reduction, and crisis management, thereby reducing the likelihood of armed conflict."

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Williams, one of the authors, told DW that the argument was "that European actors could play a narrow but important role in Indo-Pacific security affairs by promoting crisis management and conflict prevention diplomacy."

For Williams, Brussels could start by convening a series of quiet discussions focused on specific domains, such as maritime, cyber, and outer space — "areas where crisis communication and risk reduction protocols are currently deficient."

"This doesn't mean Europeans can or should seek to mediate substantive disputes over Taiwan and the South China Sea, or that they can realistically resolve longstanding differences between China and the US."

Instead, Williams said, Europeans should focus on improving "mechanisms like communication channels and safety protocols — procedures that can reduce the risks of inadvertent war." 

"The point is specifically about conflict prevention and de-escalation."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru