Europe Searches for Role in China as U.S. Pivots East (10/24)     Print Email

By Michael D. Mosettig, former Foreign Editor of PBS NewsHour

It is hard to walk around Washington these days without bumping into a conference on U.S.-China relations. There was even a well informed and lively panel assembled in a crowded auditorium at the French Embassy, of all places.   Finally, as the meeting was drawing to a close, I felt compelled to say, "We are on French soil, and Europe has not been mentioned."  The panelists responded with some remarks about the European Union's trade with China, which indeed does now surpass that of the U.S.  See earlier European Affairs piece on Europe and China.

But just as Europe was barely mentioned in a final presidential debate on foreign policy,  a crowded U.S. global agenda and an increasingly testy U.S.-China relationship threaten to leave European nations scrambling for attention in Washington, Beijing and other Asian capitals.

The surge of China and Asia are certainly omnipresent in the US capital. Even as they try to come up with the right word, whether pivot or re-balancing,  President Obama and his top officials make repeatedly clear that the U.S. is turning more attention and military power to the Pacific.   There's no dispute on this from the Romney camp. In private conversations, Asian ambassadors talk of the end of the “Atlantic era” in world affairs, between Columbus and the first decade of the 21st century, and the dawning of a new “Pacific era.”  With the U.S. a Pacific as well as Atlantic coast nation, that gives Washington a presumed weight.

But what of Europe, whose influence and control not that long ago extended from British India to the Dutch East Indies to French Indochina, to the Philippines and Malayan Peninsula, to the concessions in mainland China and to Hong Kong and Macao?

As China has developed into an economic superpower of 1.2 billion potential customers, the first instinct is to talk about a growing trade relationship. The total EU trade with China now runs over half a trillion dollars, surpassing the U.S. Germany's alone is more than $120 billion, a number dramatized in the August visit to Beijing of Chancellor Angela Merkel, with an entourage of seven cabinet ministers and dozens of corporate executives. As news reports then made clear, the Chancellor, like every western leader visiting China, had to balance the desire for expanding commerce with domestic and regional pressures not to give China a pass on its human rights record.

But trade alone is not enough, conceded one of Germany's shrewdest diplomats, Wolfgang Ischinger, the former ambassador to Washington and now running the Munich Security Conference. At a recent Wilson Center gathering, he said the EU's "efforts to come up with a unified China strategy have not been brilliant."

Ischinger said Germany has become increasingly important to China but that Europe would enhance its role and influence if it could come up with a more concerted set of policies. He cited as an example, Germany's developing bi-lateral relationship with Mongolia, but one that needs to be transformed into an EU relationship. The temptation is great for each nation to develop bilateral relationships in the region. "We need to fight it."

Of course, as Ischinger and British Foreign Secretary William Hague conceded in a recent Singapore speech, the influence will have to be something other than military, in contrast with U.S. Navy and base deployments around the Pacific. But Hague asserted that Britain's role is "far wider" than trade and said it could play a military role through NATO, the Five Power Defense Arrangements, its defense expertise and military dialogues with China and other Asian nations such as Vietnam.

France's new defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, said his country and Europe had a six-point regional commitment: counter-terrorism; counter-piracy; counter-proliferation; aid; response to natural disasters and peaceful mediation of territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Le Drian said he welcomed the U.S. commitment to regional stability, but containment (presumably of China) was out of date and that security had to be a collective arrangement.

While European leaders asserted they are paying more attention to China and Asia, there is no doubt European publics are as well.  The latest Trans-Atlantic Trends survey by the German Marshall Fund showed a sharp increase in critical views of China in several European nations.  Indeed European attitudes to China now approximate those in the U.S, with half the public in 12 European nations holding unfavorable views. China's favorable rating dipped six points from a year ago, to 41 percent overall and as low as 33 percent in France. The only slight difference in attitudes towards China these days between the U.S. and Europe is that 51 percent of the Americans surveyed saw China as a military threat in contrast with 53 percent of Europeans who did not. But in the two major military nations of Europe, Britain and France, the number edged up to 44 percent seeing a military threat.

Even at a remove of tens of thousands of miles and facing no risk of a military clash, Europeans clearly are growing more worried about China and thinking more about how they might expand their influence in Asia. The Chinese are adroit practitioners of triangular diplomacy, as shown by their now aborted feints to a collaboration with the euro to challenge the dollar and most famously opening to the U.S. in 1971, to balance a threatening Soviet Union. It remains to be seen how receptive they might be to European overtures as they seek counter weights to the Americans.