Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Oct 29, 2020
As US-China confrontation gains ground, Transatlantic partners face difficult choices

America on the ballot>

The choice between Donald Trump and Joe Biden looks stark, and in many ways it is – in particular, for the United States itself. But regardless of who is elected as president of the United States on 3 November, important structural factors will continue to drive US foreign policy – with important implications for the rest of the world and especially for US allies and partners.

In particular, China will increasingly be the axis around which the rest of America's foreign policy is organised regardless who is chosen as the next leader of the United States. This will have consequences both for Europe and for Asia. It is clear that Europe has already lost ground as the centre of gravity for America’s foreign policy. Europeans are desperately hoping for a Biden Presidency, which will recommit to work with its European allies. But Europe may prove to be less important to the United States unless they can assist in this increasingly pressing geopolitical challenge, and America’s allies in Asia and other partners like India may matter more.

Trump has taken a more confrontational approach to China than President Barack Obama. He also reversed President Obama’s approach to Asia, withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the center piece of President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. President Trump has instead chosen to radically rethink the economic relationship between China and the United States. In doing so, he largely abandoned efforts, begun under the Obama administration, to work with European allies on Asia policy. Instead, the Trump Administration imposed tariffs on its EU partners as part of its tariff wars with China.

There is now a bipartisan consensus in Washington that the United States needs to be tougher on China. This has also been shored up by a hardening of US public opinion towards China, made worse by the pandemic – in the summer of 2020, 73% of Americans polled held an unfavourable attitude towards China.

But a tougher, bipartisan US position on China has not translated into a transatlantic consensus. In March 2019, China was described as a “systemic rival” by the European Commission, a move which led some to believe that Europe might be aligning its policies with the United States. But few in Europe wished to decouple from China, even if they do want to get tougher on China on issues like trade and investment. And, only France and the United Kingdom have participated in presence operations in the South China Sea. Other European states have demonstrated little interest in engaging in territorial issues in Asia and do not see their security interests at risk.

Instead, many EU member states may view US pressure to coordinate their China policies as a threat to “European sovereignty”, a concept that has gathered momentum since Trump imposed sanctions on Iran that prevented European companies from doing business there. The re-election of Trump could lead to further division within the European Union between France, which is a proponent of the idea of “strategic autonomy”, and Poland, which prefers a strategy that is based on bilateral security ties with the United States. This would inevitably undercut the move towards greater “European sovereignty”.

A Biden administration, on the other hand, will reaffirm the importance of shared values in the transatlantic community, and importantly, signal America’s renewed commitment to NATO – though pressure surrounding “burden sharing” is likely to persist, not least as the United States shifts its focus and its resources towards China.

It is on China, however, that there is real potential for conflict between Europe and the United States. The move by a Biden Administration to align its policies with its transatlantic partners will be grounded in the view that on China, the United States and its transatlantic partners face a common security challenge and also that China presents a challenge to shared values and democracy at the global level. America’s China policy under Biden would take place in a highly competitive context, defined by some Democrats, most notably Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, as “strategic competition”. But Europeans do not share the sense that their security is threatened by China.  Europeans – and in particular the EU itself – will likely continue to see competition with China primarily in economic terms.

There is, though, scope for the United States and Europe to cooperate on China, both in form and also in substance. Cooperation is possible in other areas that loom large, not least screening of Chinese direct investment and the export of sensitive technologies. If the United States goes further, though, and imposes secondary sanctions on European firms (an indirect effect of direction sanctions on Chinese companies), it is likely to cause friction, particularly with Germany.

Values may also be a source of transatlantic discord. The Biden team has announced that its approach to multilateralism will be grounded in shared values, and has announced plans to convene a Summit for Democracy. The intention behind the proposal is to coordinate America’s China policy not only with Europe, but also with a broader range of democracies, especially India, Japan, Australia, and South Korea — i.e. those where China matters most.

But America’s European partners may see the economic price of pressing China on human rights, previously seen as “European values”, as too high. Nor do America’s own domestic struggles with democracy make the idea of transatlantic cooperation on values seem easy, at least not just yet. Rising inequality, police brutality, an ongoing assault on democratic norms at home, and a president who has failed to confirm that he will commit to a peaceful transfer of power, threaten to complicate further America’s ability to press other states on their human rights records.

Nonetheless, under President Trump, and especially under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the United States has begun to draw a line in the sand between those countries that fall short of their own (democratic) principles, and those that fundamentally reject those principles.

Democrats, too, are increasingly framing the strategic competition with China in ideological terms – that is, as a struggle between authoritarianism and democracy. This is likely to continue under a Biden administration. The implications of this for Asia, and also Europe, could be profound. Even if a Biden administration takes a more pragmatic approach to human rights, and de-emphasizes the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, values will remain prominent in America's foreign policy. A Biden administration will almost certainly maintain and perhaps expand US sanctions against Chinese officials for their treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. And while the EU has adopted sanctions against China for the implementation of the Hong Kong National Security Law, they and many other key partners in Europe, most notably the United Kingdom, have not imposed sanctions against Chinese officials for human rights abuses in relation to the treatment of the Uighurs.

That leaves American partners in Asia. Some of America’s most important strategic partners are hardly role models when it comes to issues of human rights and, especially, religious freedom, an issue which has gained increased attention, especially among evangelical voters in the United States, and growing prominence in US foreign policy. India, in particular, presents a unique challenge, not least because of its growing significance to the US in a region dominated by the US-China confrontation. If India continues to backslide not only on democracy, but especially on its treatment of religious minorities, this will complicate and could eventually inhibit America’s efforts to invest in this strategic partnership.

Hans Kundnani is Senior Research Fellow in the Europe Programme at Chatham House. Leslie Vinjamuri is Director of the US and the Americas programme at Chatham House and Reader (Associate Professor) in International Relations at SOAS University of London

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Hans Kundnani

Hans Kundnani

Hans Kundnani isSenior Research Fellow in the Europe Programme at Chatham House.

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