With the prospect of a trade deal between China and the United States all but dead, the Trump administration is no doubt weighing its next steps in its quest to rein in Beijing’s rise. President Trump should try something he hasn’t yet: call Europe.
Just five years ago, such a suggestion would have raised eyebrows. Europe’s relationship with China has traditionally been one of close economic cooperation, especially for an export-led country like Germany. To the extent that Europeans saw political and security challenges in working with China, they kept faith that growing economic ties with the West would temper the country’s worst instincts.
Over the last few years, though, Germany, along with several other European countries, have experienced a strategic awakening. German policymakers, along with industry leaders, have become much more vocal about China’s predatory trade practices, in particular forced technology transfers. They have begun to refer to China as a “systemic competitor.” So has the European Union.
This should make the countries of Europe, historically among America’s closest allies, well placed to work with Washington to confront China over trade, its destabilizing policies in Asia, and the authoritarian political model it is promoting around the world. Instead, Europe and the United States are consumed by cyclical arguments over — to name just a few issues — military spending, trans-Atlantic trade imbalances and the Iran nuclear deal. That’s exactly where the Chinese want the two sides of the Atlantic to be: distracted and divided.
On the subject of China, Europeans feel like they have been relegated to observer status. Trump administration officials have made few efforts either to brief allies on their China policy or to propose anything like a unified trans-Atlantic strategy. When the Trump administration has engaged Europe on China, such discussions tend to focus on tightening investment screening and preventing the Chinese telecommunications provider Huawei from constructing 5G networks. Those two important issues merit trans-Atlantic consultations. But the Trump administration’s approach — which includes threatening to limit intelligence sharing with any ally that proceeds to build its next generation of mobile infrastructure with Huawei — is a losing strategy. Europeans are tired of taking orders from Mr. Trump’s America, which makes them more inclined to ignore American directives on issues like Huawei.
The president should start over. The United States and Europe need to come to the table as actual partners and begin a much broader dialogue about China’s political, economic and technological ambitions. At the very minimum, the two sides of the Atlantic should be sharing insights on everything from Chinese influence operations to human rights abuses to investments in artificial intelligence and other disruptive technologies. More ambitiously, the United States and Europe should aim to fortify their trade relationship; coordinate American and European policies on China’s human rights abuses; and create alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The best way for the United States and Europe to compete with China would be to resolve their own bilateral trade disputes. The more the two sides bicker and threaten each other with more tariffs, the more space they allow for China to continue ignoring international trading rules. When — or if — the two trans-Atlantic partners turn down the heat on their simmering trade war and focus on strengthening trade ties, they should reach out to Japan and other allies that could bolster the West’s economic strength and influence.
Better coordination should be the next item on the trans-Atlantic to do list. In March, when President Xi Jinping visited Paris, President Emmanuel Macron of France invited the chancellor of Germany and the president of the European Commission to join him. Mr. Macron’s intended message was clear: Instead of picking off individual European Union members, China would have to deal with a united Europe. The United States and Europe could send a similar message. The two partners could begin coordinating their messaging on issues like China’s continuing persecution of the Uighurs, or the two Canadian citizens that China is detaining.
One specific area of focus should be China’s Belt and Road Initiative — a vast network of infrastructure and connectivity projects, underwritten by China, across Asia, Africa and Europe. Some of those projects provide much needed investment. Many, however, lack transparency, leave the host country riddled with debt, and require political favors in return. Given the scale of China’s investment, it is tough for Europe and the United States to offer viable alternatives. They should still try.
They could also do more to help countries avoid the Belt and Road Initiative’s many pitfalls. Last year the United States Treasury sent a team of evaluators to Myanmar to help it navigate the challenges of a Belt and Road project. Europe should be doing the same thing. They could start that work not halfway around the world but in Portugal, Greece, Italy and Serbia, which have already signed on to Chinese projects and are looking at more.
It may be hard to imagine the Trump administration doing any of these things. This is an administration, after all, that has undermined, not strengthened, America’s network of alliances from the start. It prefers to see the world, as two administration officials put it in a 2017 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, as “not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”
Mr. Trump is right to claim that America finds itself in an era of great power competition with China. Where his administration has repeatedly missed the mark, though, is in its determination to deride the very “global community” that could help America in its challenge. If the president were serious about competing with China, he would be doing more to get as many allies on his side as possible.
Working with Europe will not be easy. The two will never be in perfect lock step on China, especially when it comes to security issues. Europe doesn’t have anything resembling America’s forces in Asia nor does it share America’s security commitments. Even inside Europe, there will continue to be different approaches to China. Nonetheless, the smartest thing for Europe and the United States to do would be to find areas where they can come together. Right now, they are not positioning themselves for even modest levels of success. They aren’t competing, and China wants to keep it that way.