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Euro tour notes for Biden: 'listen' on China, don't 'tell'

The president is bringing good — and bad — ideas for drawing partners into his East Asia policy in his suitcase. Will the right ones prevail?

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

As he laid out in his own op-ed for the Washington Post this weekend, President Biden is departing for Europe with an ambitious agenda of leading the Western democracies in confrontation with China, with economic reform and development as a key part of this plan.

 A better mixture, however, would involve less confrontation, more reform, and more willingness to listen to allies rather than insist on “leading” them. 

The President and his advisors would do well to remember that while former Belgian foreign minister Mark Eyskens famously said that Europe is a political dwarf, he also called  it an economic giant. As several U.S. presidents have discovered, the subservience of European countries to the United States stops as soon as European wallets are involved. This was demonstrated most recently in Germany’s adamant refusal to bow to U.S.pressure to abandon the North Stream gas pipeline from Russia.

A degree of common Western economic pushback against China is legitimate and necessary in two areas: Chinese behavior that clearly breaks universally accepted rules, as in the area of intellectual property theft; and control of vital national infrastructure. After all, the Chinese defend their own technological expertise, and they will never allow foreign control of essential sectors of the Chinese economy.

The Biden administration however seems to want to go much further than this, to effectively shut China out from any important say in shaping the rules of the international economy, and greatly restrict Chinese investment and infrastructural development outside China. This strategy is doomed to failure, and will cause deep divisions between the United States, Europe and Japan.

Even if Washington could gain the agreement of the Europeans and Japanese to such a collective strategy, the West is simply not strong enough economically to impose its will in this way. In the 1970s, the G7 countries (the four chief European economies plus the United States, Canada and Japan) represented around 80 percent of global GDP. Today, their share is less than 40 percent. China is the second biggest economy in the world (probably already the biggest by purchasing power parity), and has 28 percent of global manufacturing capacity compared to 16 percent for the United States.

In 2020, eight percent of Germany’s exports went to China, almost as much as to the United States (8.6 percent). In the Far East, Japan is crucial to America’s strategic position — but China is Japan’s largest trading partner by far. Remarkably enough, this is also true of Taiwan. Even as U.S. hawks talk about the need to abandon “strategic ambiguity” and commit the country to Taiwan’s defense, almost 30 percent of Taiwan’s exports went to China last year (more than twice the figure to America), and Taiwanese investment in China grew steeply in 2020 .

President Biden has quite correctly emphasised that the democracies must offer “a high-standard alternative to China for upgrading physical, digital and health infrastructure that is more resilient and supports global development.” It made no sense at all to oppose Huawei’s role in 5G development when the West had no viable alternative of its own. President Obama tried unsuccessfully to block China from attracting other countries to join the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and one of the reasons he failed was that in this case too, the USA had nothing at all to offer instead ) Developing such Western capacities must be central to legitimate and peaceful competition with China.

As the case of the AIIB illustrates, it is not true that Washington has only pushed back against illegitimate forms of Chinese economic activity. Since the “Pivot to Asia” in 2011, it has —albeit in a chaotic way —resisted the expansion of even entirely legitimate Chinese economic influence in the world. This has included the blank refusal to allow China a say in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) commensurate with its economic weight in the world. 

No rich and powerful Chinese state — whatever its political system —would accept this sort of a subordinate position in a Western-dictated global order. Nor of course have the economic rules laid down by the West ever had anything to do with democracy. There was no thought of boycotting Zairean copper when Zaire was under the loathsome rule of General Mobutu, or of ceasing to invest in South Korea, Thailand or Taiwan when those countries were dictatorships.

As to Washington’s hopes of turning NATO into an important help in confronting China, President Biden should remember the last part of Eysken’s aphorism, which was that Europe is a military worm. The only war that NATO as such has ever been engaged in has been Afghanistan, and its performance there was nothing short of pitiful. The British, French and Canadians did at least fight bravely (if ineffectively), but as to the rest, the less said the better. 

As more honest European officials sometimes admitted in private, the reason for their forces being in Afghanistan was not because Afghanistan as such was of any importance for them. These forces were a kind of tribute paid to Washington to ensure America’s continued military commitment to Europe, which the Europeans regard as necessary because of a combination of fear of Russia and a total unwillingness to pay and mobilize seriously for their own defense. It therefore made perfect sense for America’s NATO allies to do the absolute minimum required to secure that goal. The same is true of the NATO plan to deploy a single warship to the Indian Ocean and Far East in support of U.S. strategy against China.

Britain and France are partial exceptions to the European rule, because their troops will fight. Their capacity to do so has however declined greatly and is continuing to do so. The British army failed badly in both Basra and Helmand , and cuts to its numbers mean that it will soon be incapable of putting a single division in the field.

The British aircraft carrier group being dispatched to the Far East depends on U.S. warplanes and escort vessels In Libya in 2011, an aerial military intervention initiated by Britain and France ended up being carried out overwhelmingly by U.S. forces. The destruction of the Libyan state led to an explosion of Islamist extremism across France’s sphere of influence in Western Africa, where France also now depends increasingly on US help. 

 West Africa presents by far the greatest potential future threat to European democracy, through its combination of deep poverty, governmental corruption, steep population growth and growing extremism. By the year 2050, it is estimated that Nigeria alone will have a population of around 400 million people. Add in the projected impact of climate change, and there is the likelihood of a movement of migrants towards Europe that will drive European populations towards fascism and bring European democracy down in ruins.

Insofar as the maintenance of prosperous, stable liberal democracies in Europe is a vital U.S. interest, it is to West Africa that Washington should encourage its European allies to look if they are seeking a useful global role. They would at least partially relieve Washington of a serious and growing military burden. By contrast, to encourage token European deployments against China in exchange for real, unnecessary, provocative and dangerous U.S. deployments against Russia, is a fool’s bargain from both the American and the European point of view.

U.S. President Joe Biden walks from Marine One to a motorcade after a visit to Cleveland, Ohio at the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, U.S., May 27, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
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