Europe should side with US against China
JP: The US is urging Europe to side with it in the competition with China. Why?
Andrew A. Michta: If you take the European economies, the American economy, and the democracies of Asia – China doesn’t stand a chance in that competition. If we have a consensus on policy, we will be able to confront China now before it creates an indigenous basis for innovation. If we manage to do this, I don’t think the Chinese will be able to keep up. But what that requires are some very tough decisions on market access, intellectual property, and ensuring that international laws on freedom of navigation are maintained. That means that the West – together – should not allow the Chinese to do what they’re doing in the South China Sea. The problem is that Europe still does not see China as a national security problem, at most an economic problem, and, to a large extent, an economic opportunity. In the US we now look at China as a military and economic problem set. We urgently need to reach a degree of consensus on China with our European allies.
However, the strategic interests of the USA and Europe seem completely different. China’s growth is a fundamental threat to the US’s superpower status, not to Europe, which is not a superpower. Some Europeans view America as preventing Europe from doing business, from accepting Chinese 5G. etc. Why should Europe slow down its economic development in the name of American interests?
The question is: what do you want to become? The United States since 1945 has been the greatest supporter of what we like to call an open, international democratic community of nations and societies – the greatest supporter of the expansion of democracy. I don’t have to tell someone who is talking to me from Warsaw what a non-democratic existence entails. I mean, totalitarian regimes not only violate human rights and liberty, but they’re also antithetical to innovation, economic development, entrepreneurship, to everything that we consider to be a part of the grand Western tradition.
Through initiatives like the Belt and Road, 17+1, etc., the Chinese are trying to bring about what I’ve called in The American Interest a grand inversion of the relationship between the land and maritime domains. Throughout 5,000 years of its history, China existed as the center of the world, completely unconcerned with the threat of rising naval powers
How do you think the Chinese will undermine the European economy?
Through initiatives like the Belt and Road, 17+1, etc., the Chinese are trying to bring about what I’ve called in The American Interest a grand inversion of the relationship between the land and maritime domains. Throughout 5,000 years of its history, China existed as the center of the world, completely unconcerned with the threat of rising naval powers. Right now, most international trade moves by water. The US Navy guarantees these flows. The Chinese are trying to build an alternative supply chain across Eurasia – i.e., the Belt and Road. And, frankly, nobody knows what the real cost of this investment will be. Some analysts estimate it at between 1 and 8 trillion dollars: we might as well toss a coin into the air. These grand approximations mean little. But what’s important is that the Chinese are building special economic zones along the Belt and Road. And they will insist on settling accounts with countries in the region in their currency. If you look at its trajectory, it’s going to connect Europe, it’s going to connect Africa to the Chinese supply network, and probably we’ll have another connectivity through the High North.
What does this mean for Europe?
In my view, Europe – which right now is the entry point to Eurasia for the Atlantic community writ large, and benefits tremendously from that – would become the tail end of the Chinese supply chain. And you’re dealing with a non-democratic government, in fact, a totalitarian state. A strong country that does not recognize the values you and I agree on. That means a fundamental change. If Europe were to fall into the sphere of influence of the Chinese imperial state, the consequences of that for the Western civilization as a whole would be profound. So when I talk to my European friends, I tell them: “Yes, I understand you want to make money. We all do. But national security has to take priority over this.” When I taught at the US Naval War College, I would always tell my students: “The national security function of the state is an irreducible role that any government must perform. If you cannot provide for the security of your people, you cannot have any say on what your political system will be, on what your economic system will be, on individual liberties, etc.”. So, in my view, allowing the Chinese to continue to harvest technology and assets in Europe will lead to dangerous consequences. The Chinese have already acquired partial control over a number of ports in Europe. These are the kind of steps that we’ve seen for example, in Africa: Djibouti is a naval base that the Chinese are now operating off the coast of Africa. We’re seeing the same kind of activities in Europe. My position is that Europe has a decision to make: What kind of a continent do you want to be, to what community you want to belong, and is there a larger set of values that you want to protect? And if not – if your main interest is access to cheap Chinese goods and Chinese investments – then that’s a very different conversation.
However, I still don’t fully grasp the connection between doing business with China and the risk of Europe eventually becoming totalitarian itself. How does becoming a part of China’s supply chain threaten our democracies? Every country – the US too – does business with non-democratic countries.
I don’t have any problem with trade. If you provide for safeguards that protect your technology or your proprietary information, I don’t think there’s any problem with that. In fact, I tell my friends, for example at Airbus or Boeing, that Europe and United States should sell aircraft to China – that’s fine. But they should never be making aircraft in China! The Congressional Research Service conducted a study that showed one in five American companies doing business in China – not just selling to China, but manufacturing in China – has been extorted for intellectual property for market access.
We’re in a difficult situation right now – arguably in a much more difficult situation than we were during the Cold War. Back then, China was a relatively great regional power, but it was not a global power. It didn’t have power projection capability
For example, Germany, where I work now, woke up about a year and a half ago to realize that KUKA Robotics, one of the most sophisticated cybernetics manufacturing firms, had been purchased by the Chinese, with German engineers in effect now working the People’s Liberation Army. That is not the way things ought to operate. If you allow for the capture of your industrial base by the foreign capital of a hostile state, you should know that this will translate into political influence, into lobbying. People who work in these companies will look very differently at Chinese demands and Chinese preferences. Some of the contracts we have had in the United States, for example, for academics, doing research for the Chinese, had provisions in them that a) all the results had to be turned over to the Chinese partners and b) the researchers were not allowed to criticize Chinese policy. That is creeping totalitarianism, limiting the freedom that we in the West take for granted.
How should we protect ourselves against it?
Number one: having reciprocity. Right now we don’t have reciprocity in trade with China. This is a one-sided approach with a mercantile power on one side, and open market economies on the other. China should have never been allowed to join the World Trade Organization as a developing nation. I think that was a fundamental mistake. It allowed the Chinese to continue to protect its markets by subsidizing industry while benefitting from access to the West. This was the tipping point that brought us to the current situation.
Number two: intellectual property is something that must be protected, and so safeguards must be implemented. Democracies doing cross-investment and sharing technology is fine because they are governed by the rule of law.
For about the last six years, during the negotiation of the EU-China investment deal, the Chinese have not given an inch. This continues to be a one-sided, and increasingly aggressive, game. The Chinese believe that they can divide the West internally – by offering inducements to some countries, and ultimately playing the game the way they want to. That’s why I keep saying we need a consensus on strategy towards China.
Do you regard China as the most serious danger to the West? What is your opinion about the Russian threat?
We’re in a difficult situation right now – arguably in a much more difficult situation than we were during the Cold War. Back then, China was a relatively great regional power, but it was not a global power. It didn’t have power projection capability. Only the Soviet Union was a near-peer competitor, and only in the military sphere – the Russian economy could not compete, because their research and manufacturing base were too weak, and the ruble would never have been accepted in international transactions. We’re still about 60-62% in a dollarized global economy. So the US having the reserve currency retains a tremendous advantage.
Today, we have two near-peer competitors. The Russian economy is relatively small compared to the size of the state. But the Russians have invested in military modernization, while in the last 20 years Europe has effectively disarmed. Only a portion of Russia’s systems is truly modern today, but if you have on the one hand a modernizing military, and on the other hand, disarmament, then the regional power balances will almost certainly shift.
What should the European answer to this shift be?
Europe should, first of all, rearm and rebuild its military. But it continues to refuse to do it. We shouldn’t have a situation where after three NATO summits only seven or eight countries hit 2% of GDP on military expenditures. There is a rising threat from Russia to the flank of the Alliance and a rising threat from China in the Indo-Pacific. In the event there’s a confrontation in the Indo-Pacific, I would be absolutely certain that the Russians would try to leverage this opportunity when American attention is drawn to the Pacific and the US’s resources have to be shifted to some extent over there. In such a scenario, if Europe is not ready to deter and – if need be – defend itself, it’ll be blackmailed, extorted, or worse. So this is not a question of whether you like the Trump administration, or agree with its policy. There is a vital national interest for Europe at stake. Do you want to preserve your sovereignty? Do you believe in the critical importance of maintaining cohesive nation states in Europe?
We are talking about unifying the West, but what exactly is the West today? Where is the West when Trump threatens Europe with trade sanctions, when Steve Bannon is hired to undermine the EU? Where is the West when Trump supports a move away from liberal globalism, which was for years the center point of the Trans-Atlantic consensus?
This is a fundamental question, because the most important weakness we are confronting now is not the external power imbalance. The problem that we have is the internal fracturing of politics in Europe and in the United States. And that’s a larger topic that goes to the heart of our educational systems, of the impact of mass migration without integration into the mainstream of national life and national values. Multicultural ideology has dominated most of the liberal discourse and it constitutes an effort to disavow the importance of the nation state as a cohesive entity, one in which there’s a sense of mutuality of obligation, which – in my view – is absolutely foundational to the preservation of democracy and its continued success.
I still believe that there is a larger civilizational overlay that keeps the European cultural heritage and the American cultural heritage together. However, the West is now fractured, fragmented and weakened
What do you mean by “the mutuality of obligation”?
People need to have a sense that they owe something to each other – that democracy is not just about individual rights, but it’s also about individual obligations; that the right to lead is based on an obligation to serve. This idea – foundational to the West in the 18th century and later – has recently been seriously undermined, which constitutes a very serious internal problem. We should ask ourselves: do we actually agree on the fundamentals? What is the essence of liberty? Do we see value in our heritage?
And do we agree? What is your opinion?
I still believe that there is a larger civilizational overlay that keeps the European cultural heritage and the American cultural heritage together. However, the West is now fractured, fragmented and weakened.
Have we reached the breaking point?
I don’t know. We’ve been through a series of crises in the US and in the West. Broadly speaking, the question is, can we bounce back from it? The creativity of Western societies is unparalleled. But what we need to do is ask those fundamental questions about how we envision the world we want to live in. This is not just about economic transactions and trade. We’ve fetishized some of these liberal concepts over the last 30 years to the point that they’ve become almost a kind of self-licking ice cream cone, but there’s little discussion about the role of the state and international relations beyond the platitudes regnant in our universities for the last 30 years.
What should be done to put the Trans-Atlantic community together again?
We need to return to an understanding of what our grand strategy is. In the United States there are people working on this, both within and outside of government. We should also ask ourselves what connects us, rather than what separates us.
Andrew A. Michta is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The views presented are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.