Source: Global Times
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
US president-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday talked about China for the first time after his election win. He said he is “not going to make any immediate moves, and the same applies to the tariffs.” Biden said he wants to consult with traditional US allies in Asia and Europe “so we can develop a coherent strategy” before making moves on tariffs.
The Biden team will spend its efforts to repair relations between the US and its allies. This is already a common prediction in the international strategic community. Repairing US-Europe relations seems particularly promising, because over the past few years, Washington’s relations with its key European allies, except the UK, have suffered the largest damage.
But in our opinion, the atmosphere of US-EU relations is the easiest to fix. US President Donald Trump used to harshly criticize European allies and did not show enough respect when meeting European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Washington has also forced NATO to increase military spending, suppressed European countries on trade issues and threatened its allies on Huawei and the Nord Stream 2. European countries eagerly look forward to Biden’s rebuilding of close relations with allies. Europe and the Biden team have the strong will to show their close ties after Biden assumes office.
But the US and Europe’s joint response to the so-called China challenge remains a question mark. What is China’s common challenge to the West? And what is the real “China challenge” faced by the US and European countries? This is hard to clearly and consistently grasp.
For the US and Europe, China’s rise is the common “China challenge” they have perceived. But their sense of crisis is different. The US and Europe feel uncomfortable about the West’s relative decline. However, the US feels its hegemony is being challenged by China’s rise, while Europe sees more economic competition.
The relative decline of the West is a major historical issue. The Western political system determines that stopping such decline cannot be a long-term policy for the US or Europe. However, there can be specific levers to safeguard US hegemony and enhance European economic interests. This shows that the US and Europe have very different strategic considerations and points of interests. It would be hard for the US and Europe to coordinate to oppose the so-called China challenge.
Revising the power mechanism of the US-Europe alliance would also be hard. The Western structure is led by the US, and Europe acts as a subordinate. By strengthening such a structure, the US hopes to contain China’s rise and make Europeans more obedient.
But for Europeans, revising the alliance means further legitimizing Europe’s strategic autonomy in the Western world, reducing frictions between the US and Europe in this regard, and achieving an upgrade in US-Europe unity on this basis.
To maintain hegemony, Washington has often placed geopolitical competition with China above the economic interests over the past few years. But Europeans are not as extreme. They hope to reach a political and economic balance in relations with China. This can be reflected in their hesitation on Huawei and the Nord Stream 2 issues.
Europe may be reluctant to promote new Western unity with the US at its center, and on the basis of the Trump administration’s radical policy toward China. New frictions will be inevitable. But if, on the other hand, Europe gets to define Western unity and the US makes fewer decisions and provides more resources, then Washington will never accept it.
After all, this is not the time for Washington to promote a “Marshall Plan.” The US used to generously provide resources to Western allies. But now, it is calculating to earn more from them. This has undermined the Western alliance’s dividends, and has become harder for the US to act as a leader.
More importantly, the so-called challenge and threat brought about by China are, to a large extent, imaginary.
In the short run, the US and Europe have nothing to deal with in terms of the “China challenge.” And in the long run, the so-called China challenge seems like a hollow concept. Chinese people need not to worry too much about the strengthening of the US-Europe alliance. Relations between Washington and its Asia-Pacific allies have not deteriorated much in the past four years. The US and Europe’s closer relations will create more psychological pressure on China, and the significance of their policy changes will be limited. The most important thing for China is to increase its own strength.