Europe’s balance between the US and China is shaken on both sides

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EU countries generally view the United States as their closest ally, but do not share all of their concerns and priorities regarding China. The bloc has deep economic ties with China, both as an export market and as a supplier. European powers, led by Germany and France, have sought to balance their concerns about Beijing’s growing assertiveness with political commitment.

But in a repeat of the tensions that rocked the transatlantic alliance under President Donald Trump, European governments find themselves forced to choose between their decades-old US alliance and a China that has become the EU’s largest trading partner. for the goods.

“Our strategy is not a confrontation strategy. It is a strategy of cooperation, ”EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said last week when the bloc formulated a new approach for the Indo-Pacific region, including China.

Some in Europe criticize calls to confront or contain Chinese power. Others, more worried about Russia, such as Poland or the Baltic states, generally share Washington’s assessment of Beijing, but fear that the increased focus on Asia has distracted the attention of the tense conflict between Russia and Ukraine, political unrest within Belarus, a close ally of Moscow, and other tensions along Europe’s eastern borders.

Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said the EU’s problems stem in part from a lack of clarity on its own goals regarding China, making it reactive to US initiatives.

“If China is not really interested in cooperation, or only interested in cooperating on Chinese terms, then how do we think we can be different in politics and not just in tone of the United States?” she declared. “This is something we didn’t do. Correctly answered.”

The Biden administration spent its first few months discussing cooperation with Europeans in the face of the challenges posed by China’s rise to power. But last week’s defense pact, known as AUKUS, shows Washington will seize opportunities to contain China’s military prowess, even if it means ignoring European interests, according to European diplomats.

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Beijing, meanwhile, has paid little attention to criticism of Europe’s human rights record and regional musculature. Beijing has increasingly made it clear that Europe’s economic interests in China come with political conditions.

The impact of last week’s AUKUS announcement is still being felt in Europe, but some diplomats say it is eroding confidence in Washington. Concerns are widespread about how the pact unexpectedly sank France’s € 56 billion underwater deal, equivalent to around $ 65.5 billion, with Australia without any consultation. There are also fears that America’s growing pivot to Asia may weaken Washington’s focus on European security.

However, France’s furious reaction to the announcement – she recalled her ambassadors in Washington and Canberra – is also worrying some European capitals. With President Emmanuel Macron facing presidential elections next spring and France assuming the rotating EU presidency in January, some Europeans are pushing the argument not to cause a deep break in transatlantic relations.

“I think it’s important to say, given the ongoing talks in Europe right now, that I consider Biden to be very loyal to the transatlantic alliance,” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told Danish media on Wednesday. New York.

Mr Biden moved on Wednesday to heal the rift during a call with Mr Macron, the US president acknowledged in a joint statement that allies, like France, should have been consulted on the defense pact. The two leaders will meet at the end of October to discuss security cooperation, and the statement underscored the important roles of France and the EU in the Indo-Pacific.

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Since Mr Biden took office in January, Europe has been addressing US concerns about China while trying to draw an independent line. Europe has made an increased EU naval presence in the Indo-Pacific to protect freedom of navigation one of its priorities, building on an already significant French naval effort to challenge the grip of Beijing on regional sea lanes.

The United States and the EU have expanded official talks on China that began in the dying days of the Trump administration. Washington and Brussels both advocate reform of global trade rules to better protect Western economies from what they call unfair Chinese competition. A new US-EU trade and technology council was due to be launched next week in Pittsburgh.

Some of this work is now under threat. France pushed to delay the Pittsburgh meeting, and diplomats said the will of the EU’s three main actors in the Indo-Pacific region – France, the Netherlands and Germany – to work closely together with Washington could be put to the test after their exclusion from the AUKUS deal.

EU officials say France could now step up efforts to expand the EU’s ability to act independently of the US and other powers in defense and security matters. Dubbed strategic autonomy, the long-discussed concept has resurfaced in the wake of the disorderly exit of the United States from Afghanistan, although EU members show little sign of willingness to increase military spending to cover new ones. major military charges.

Mr Macron has also previously expressed concerns about allowing NATO to focus more clearly on threats from China.

With Britain out of the EU and German Chancellor Angela Merkel planning to retire after Sunday’s German election, some observers in London and across Europe fear that Mr Macron’s positions will put further emphasis on straining transatlantic relations and NATO.

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“A partnership works when the two parties are honest and honest with each other,” European Commissioner for Internal Markets Thierry Breton, who is French, said in a speech Tuesday in Washington. “But trust is not a given. And after the latest events there is a strong perception that trust between the EU and the US has eroded.”

Meanwhile, the EU’s efforts to insulate its economic interests from political tensions with China are struggling.

The European Parliament voted in May to suspend approval of an investment deal reached between the EU and China in December. The deal aims to expand European access to the Chinese market and tackle some of what Europe considers unfair trade practices. The European Parliament vote came after China imposed sanctions on EU lawmakers, diplomats and academics in response to the EU’s blacklist of four Chinese officials for alleged oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang.

China withdrew its diplomats from Lithuania and asked EU and NATO members to withdraw their ambassador from Beijing after Vilnius upgraded the diplomatic status of the Taiwanese mission in the country. Tensions have also grown between the Czech Republic and China over the European country’s emerging ties with Taiwan. Last month, former Chinese foreign ministry officials publicly assaulted France’s EU ambassador to Beijing, Nicolas Chapuis, after criticizing Chinese diplomacy towards Europe.

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