Stronger US-Europe alliance needed to rein in China, says Washington group

Sarah Zheng
·4-min read

An American think tank called for a stronger US-Europe transatlantic strategy to counter Beijing’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, amid a heightened risk in Asia of military conflict between the US and China.

The Washington-based Atlantic Council published a blueprint on Monday for a “necessary and urgent” transatlantic response to stop China reshaping the international rules-based order to its own advantage, at a time when European leaders have “done an about-face” and grown more concerned about Beijing’s policies, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Beijing’s political world view, of course, is at odds with the democratic ideals traditionally cherished by the Euro-Atlantic family and thus a source of tension between China on the one hand and the United States, Canada and Europe on the other,” the report said. “To counter China’s divide-and-conquer policies, the transatlantic partners should develop an overall unified comprehensive policy toward China that combines confrontation where necessary and genuine, implemented cooperation where possible.”

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The report – “The China Plan: A Transatlantic Blueprint for Strategic Competition” – comes on the heels of coordinated sanctions by the European Union, United States, Canada and Britain against Chinese officials to send “a clear message about the human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang”, prompting counter-sanctions from Beijing.

Increasing tension between China and Western nations in recent months coincides with fears that China’s rise threatens the US-led international order and growing concerns over Beijing’s domestic repression and combative foreign policy. But Europe has been reluctant to act alongside the US on China policy. The EU signed a landmark investment deal with China in December and European leaders were keen to avoid the G7 summit in February being seen as a “so-called coalition against China”.

The Atlantic Council’s report outlined a strategy for transatlantic cooperation, detailing common goals on China where the US and Europe converge, such as on human rights issues and in countering Beijing’s coercive diplomatic practices. It also stressed the need to minimise differences between the allies, including the varying security commitments in the Indo-Pacific region between Europe and the US and differences in their military capacity to counter China.

“Europe needs to strengthen its role in deterring conflict in Asia and carry a larger military load for deterring Russia in Europe should the United States need to divert more of its forces to Asia,” the report said. “There is significant transatlantic convergence with respect to the impact of Chinese strategic penetration in and near Europe, but there is, thus far, limited consensus in European capitals about how to respond.”

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The report warned of at least six scenarios for possible military conflict in the Indo-Pacific region between the US and China: in the South China Sea; East China Sea; over Chinese military efforts to gain control of Taiwan; from an incident involving US freedom of navigation operations in the region; relating to North Korea; and over China-India border disputes.

“Given the number of plausible scenarios for conflict in the Indo-Pacific, including some in which direct conflict between the United States and China is possible, transatlantic allies need more routine discussions about the knock-on effects for European security,” it said. “A war with China would probably be unlike the United States’ earlier wars in Asia – in Korea and Vietnam – where conflict was geographically limited.”

The report said European countries should declare that they would employ a significant political and economic response to China if there were a military conflict with the US in Asia, and that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) should form new partnerships with Indo-Pacific countries. It also called for a “Transatlantic Coordinating Council on China” comprising EU and Nato countries to coordinate policies on China, as well as gather intelligence.

While the report said cooperation with Indo-Pacific powers would be challenging given there were greater differences between Indo-Pacific countries than between European nations, there were still shared concerns about China’s growing military power.

“Countries in the Indo-Pacific, as in the West, have been subject to coercive and aggressive Chinese diplomacy,” it said. “Joint attribution and collective pushback, or countermeasures, by coalitions of like-minded states could discourage China from targeting individual states with coercive measures.”

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