Europe is not an easy ally against China, former US trade representative Charlene Barshefsky says

·4-min read

The United States should realise that it is not going to be easy to get European allies on board to fight China because of the different priorities each country faces, a former top US trade negotiator said on Wednesday.

“Europe might think of China differently from the United States, and therefore might be less capable of joining the United States’ effort” in its battle against China, said Charlene Barshefsky, former United States trade representative under the Clinton administration, at an event hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce.

“As we look at the European picture, the constraints they are under, the general interests that we hold in common, Europe will end up doing a balancing act,” said Barshefsky, who had led the negotiation with China for its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. She is now chair at Parkside Global Advisors.

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And a balancing act “implies the US doesn’t get everything it wants”, said Barshefsky, referring to the difficulty the US is likely facing in convincing its European counterparts to curtail trades in technology, restrain business transactions and join in on sanctions against China.

For one, Europe is highly dependent on China in its exports. In 2020, China overtook the US to become the top trading partner with the European Union, with goods and services traded reaching US$709 billion, compared to the US$671 billion traded between the EU and the US, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office.

“The US may want to retain its status as the sole superpower or as a superpower in the world. Europe is not going to fight with China in order to preserve America’s unique role in the world,” Barshefsky said. “That’s a US interest. It is not an interest Europe would necessarily fight China over.”

Other considerations include the disagreement between northern Europe and southern Europe in their views about China, which could prevent the continent from speaking with one single voice when it comes to its stance against the Asian country.

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Europe’s ambition to become strategically autonomous would also make the region less incentivised to follow the US.

“If Europe wants to embrace strategical autonomy, how could it follow the United States?” Barshefsky asked.

More importantly, many countries across the Atlantic have a different perception of threat regarding China, she said.

“Europe does not feel a security risk from China,” she said. “Europe is not positioned in the Pacific the way the United States is. And the result is that Europe does not feel a sense of imminent threat, as the United States might be feeling.

“Many Europeans believe, even indirectly, there is no threat from China.”

Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo lobbied for years for European countries to exclude Chinese tech company Huawei from their 5G infrastructure for national security reasons. Germany held out for a long time, saying the right way to deal with China on 5G was to come up with new rules to ensure security.

Even after Germany fell in line with the EU in April to pass stricter legislation on Huawei, critics doubted the rules would be fully implemented.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed for an investment agreement to be signed with Beijing in December, sending a signal to the Biden administration of strong economic ties between Europe and China shortly before the new president was sworn in.

Barshefsky warned “the United States may find, even with the best of intention on the part of all parties, that cooperation falls short of achieving particular goals”.

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“You can be close friends but have significant differences with respect to certain interests,” she said. “You’re under different pressures and every country has its politics.”

Europe has made it clear, however, that it is disturbed by China’s behaviour on human rights related issues, Chinese distorted trade and economic policies, and on fundamental values. The leaders in Europe are growing increasingly torn between its economic interests and the obligations to hold up human rights.

European Union lawmakers plan to vote on Thursday to formally halt the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment it signed in December, in response to China’s human rights issues related to Xinjiang.

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