It’s in the interest of the European countries that Washington not take for granted an automatic solidarity in the event of war. Their interest is to avoid a new and uncontrollable escalation of tensions. The best way for the Europeans to prevent hawks from taking the lead in Washington is to tell America that their appreciation and behaviour depends on that of the US, writes Valdai Club expert Pascal Boniface.
Before going to the G7 and NATO summits in June 2021, Biden stated, “My trip to Europe is about America rallying the world’s democracies”. Just before taking off in Air Force One, he declared that his goal was to make clear for Moscow and China that the United States and the European countries were bonded. But it was not a very easy sell.
European countries are often split between those for which solidarity with Washington is not negotiable and constitutes the axis of their diplomacy, and others, for which being an ally does not mean being aligned. The French president has commonly been one of the more vocal leaders in the latter camp. Following the end of the G7 summit, Macron said straight away that he rejected “an automatic alignment with Washington, particularly in the confrontation with Beijing... We should have our own way. Common values, but independence when our strategy on China is at stake.” To emphasise, he added that European posture regarding this matter should be neither that of a Chinese vassal, nor alignment with the US. After the NATO summit, he insisted upon a clarification of his goals: “NATO is a military organisation. The topic of the relationship with China is not only a military one. NATO is an organisation which concerns the North Atlantic, and China has little to do with the North Atlantic.”
Meanwhile, there were a lot of passages related to China in the official communiqué of the NATO summit. One of these reads: “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.”
Clearly, the United States wants to create a broad alliance in order to put in place a policy to contain China.
The European countries share some concerns with Washington regarding China. They condemned the Hong Kong crackdown, are horrified by the fate of the Uyghurs, call for more freedom in China, and disapprove of the threats over Taiwan. They call for freedom of navigation to be respected in the South China Sea. They consider China’s trade policy problematic, and assert that the huge trade deficits with China aren’t just a product of its competitive advantages but also its unfair practices. They are cautious regarding the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), which could be damaging due, among other reasons, to the debt trap.
It is an understatement to say that the creation of AUKUS (Australia — United Kingdom — United States), with the obvious and declared goal to contain China, was not well received in Paris. The first side effect of the creation of this alliance was the cancellation of a major sale of French submarines to Australia; US submarines would be purchased instead. On top of that, negotiations between Canberra and Washington were carried out behind closed doors. Paris was only informed once the deal was reached.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister, stated that Biden was “Trump-like without Twitter”, meaning that unilateralism remained the guiding line of US diplomacy.
Since then, Franco-US relations have been mended. The United-States has apologised, but it is far from sure that this kind of behaviour will never happen again. The extraterritorial application of US national legislation is a weapon which has been turned against Washington’s European allies. European firms have paid 40 billion dollars to the US Treasury over the last 10 years due to decisions made by the US Department of Justice.
At the very least, it can be said that extraterritorial legislation contradicts the concerns of a true alliance. Such a relationship may only exist between a boss and his surrogates, one who is reluctant to obey international law while at the same time wanting to impose its own national law on the rest of the world.
Biden’s strategy consists of enlisting the European countries under the flag of a democratic league facing authoritarian regimes, namely China and Russia; Iran will probably be added eventually.
For some American strategists (Mearsheimer, Waltz), if China is the main challenge, it is a mistake to push Moscow into Beijing’s arms.
In 1972, Nixon and Kissinger’s gambit consisted of establishing a de facto strategic partnership with China in order to cope with the Soviet threat which was, at this time, the most important one.
However, Biden’s calculus is different. Trying to mend the relationship with Moscow in order to contain China could be efficient from a geopolitical standpoint, but would deprive Washington of a main argument, the political one.
Washington is, deliberately for some leaders and unconsciously for others, reinforcing the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership in order to legitimise a global alliance of democracies under US leadership. This strategy is a self-fulfilling prophecy: it consists of antagonising the relationship to promote the need to be protected against a rising threat.
There is no doubt about the dire situation of human rights in China. There is absolutely no free press, the regime is a one-party system, criticising the Communist Party leadership or Xi Jinping is a risky business, and the Uyghur minority is fiercely repressed. China has mostly abolished the “one nation, two systems” policy in Hong Kong, and has instigated a crackdown of freedom of speech in the city.
While all of this may indeed be true, these facts are not the main explanation of the rise of the opposition between Beijing and Washington. They merely suit the American political legitimisation of the extant strategic rivalry.
When Nixon and Kissinger established a strategic partnership with China in 1972, China was far from democratic. At the time, it was a totalitarian regime where, even inside the family inner circle, it was dangerous to show some reluctance about Mao’s leadership.
When Clinton decided to resume economic ties with China, which were wiped out after the Tiananmen Square bloodshed, when the US accepted China’s integration into the World Trade Organization in 2001, and when Trump declared that Xi Jinping was a close friend in 2017 in his private club Mar-A-Lago, China was not a model of democracy.
For 30 years, there has been a gentlemen’s agreements between the United States and China. Washington neglected to pry into the internal policies of Beijing, and China did not contest US international strategic supremacy. This gentlemen’s agreement is now broken.
Deng Xiaoping’s motto was: “To hide its strengths and to bide its time.” Today, Xi Jinping heralds openly that China wants and deserves to be the world’s number one power.
For the US, it is easier to gather other nations by denouncing the authoritarianism of the Chinese regime than complain about being overtaken.
The same logic prevailed after World War II. Whatever nature the Russian regime would have taken, it would have been impossible for Washington to accept that a single country controls the Eurasian continent. However, it was more comfortable to draw the attention of the world to the dangers the Soviet Union posed to freedom.
Could NATO’s Article 5 work in the Indo-Pacific? Could automatic military solidarity be relied upon if a member nation is attacked in this area? Essentially: would China be able to launch an attack against NATO countries?
It would not be automatically an attack on US interests or troops requiring European solidarity. It could also be an attack on a UK or French vessel to contest freedom of navigation in the South Chinese Sea. Regarding NATO’s Article 5, the first reaction is to think about US guarantees of European security. However, in the South China Sea, the main scenario of war is a military confrontation between the US and China.
Another question: who would be the first to open fire? Is Article 5 eligible for pre-emptive defence? If the US fears an imminent attack by China and chooses to attack first, what would happen?
It is, of course, the worst-case scenario for the European countries. For some of them, solidarity with the US must prevail, but for others, the assessment of national interest, the true responsibility of an escalation and decision to launch a war must be the key factor.
Actually, it’s in the interest of the European countries that Washington not take for granted an automatic solidarity in the event of war. Their interest is to avoid a new and uncontrollable escalation of tensions. The best way for the Europeans to prevent hawks from taking the lead in Washington is to tell America that their appreciation and behaviour depends on that of the US.