One of the astonishing aspects of the war on Ukraine has been the solidarity of Western countries in their response to Russia’s egregious invasion. It was not so long ago—notably during Donald Trump’s presidency—that the “West” seemed like a spent force, as Trump lambasted allies and friends alike, and flattered authoritarian leaders.
But, perhaps less visibly, the West has also been moving in unison in its response to China’s shift from soft authoritarianism towards a more totalitarian regime under the leadership of Xi Jinping, as Andrew Small argues in his recent book. The new consensus on China policy has emerged with remarkable speed. Today, a really broad swathe of industrialised countries has revisited their fundamental assumptions on China, and are openly cooperating with each other in their collective response.
China pivots away from being a system stabiliser
During previous years, China had acted as a “system stabiliser” by responding constructively to the Asian financial crisis, 9/11, the global financial crisis, Euro crisis and even the Russian annexation of Crimea. China was motivated to contribute to global stability in order to protect its export markets and economic growth, and its relations with the West more generally.
But the Chinese leadership interpreted the global financial crisis as a sign of weakness and decline of the US. It began to believe that it was time to shed Deng Xiaoping’s maxim that China should hide its strengths and bide its time. Thus, Xi Jinping’s leadership saw China becoming more assertive in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea, and launching challenges to the West through the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Made in China 2025 programme.
At the same time, it became obvious that the Chinese economy was catching up faster than expected, and was threatening the West’s economic future. China was benefiting from private sector technologies which were widely available, and the growing integration of the US and Chinese tech sectors was facilitating the catchup of military capabilities. And it was the very openness of Western systems that was making this possible. All these factors contributed to a big rethink of US policy towards China under the Donald Trump administration. This led Trump to describe China as a strategic “competitor” in his first national security strategy, in 2017.
Europe also labels China a strategic competitor
A very significant development occurred in 2019 when Germany’s influential industry association, “BDI”, also labelled China a systemic competitor. This was surprising because in Europe, Germany had been the great beneficiary of the fast-growing Chinese market. BDI also called on the European Union (EU) to adopt a tougher policy towards China and urged companies to reduce their dependence on the Chinese market as concerns mount over price dumping and technology transfer.
And then, in a departure from its usual softly-softly approach on Beijing, the EU called China “an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.” This type of language now routinely appears in G7 and NATO communiques, and opeds by the German chancellor, something which is really a dramatic shift. The change in attitudes in Europe has also been driven by public opinion, and analysts who previously favoured constructive engagement with China (“disappointed doves”), rather than hawks.
It was astonishing that China should let its relations with Europe deteriorate during the Trump presidency. It would have been smarter to befriend Europe, and thereby drive a wedge between Western countries. On the contrary, Europe was delivered a rude shock during the early days of COVID-19. France gave China some top grade PPE equipment, and French President Macron naively remarked that “they’ll remember it when the time comes”. But they didn’t! When Europe was suffering from COVID, China sent faulty PPEs and masks, and insisted on being paid and showered with praise.
The Europeans were shocked to be treated like Americans, and to learn that you can no longer expect China to be helpful during a crisis. But China tried to use COVID to demonstrate the superiority of their system and vaunt its coercive power, in order to show that Western democracies were failing and incapable of dealing with the problem. Indeed, COVID highlighted the risks of dependence on medical and other supply chains, as China weaponised them.
Europe joins the US in its strategic competition with China
Europe has become central to the US’ strategic competition with China. When the US/China relationship was mainly about military balancing, Europe was much more peripheral. In a context where economic, technological and ideological competition are much more important, Europe weighs much more heavily, in light of its concentration of economic, financial, regulatory and technological power.
China’s main 5G competitors are European, namely Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia. And when it comes to semiconductors, key players are the Dutch and the Japanese, not Americans. There has been a complete revolution in how the US and the EU deal with each other on China, and how Europe thinks and deals with China.
This is why the Biden administration has channelled so much energy into forging a coalition which is not just Asia and the Indo-Pacific, but includes European allies as well. True, there are still differences between the US and Europe – but there has been a huge level of convergence, and there is a lot more cooperation. In particular, the issue of 5G and Huawei became the biggest political campaign that the US had ever run on a China related issue in Europe.
As with any chain of events, there have been opportunities to dial down and course correct. But these have been mainly cases of missed opportunities.
For example, in 2019, Xi Jinping rejected a draft trade deal with the US that had been painstakingly assembled by officials from both sides over five months of negotiations. This meant there was no longer any prospect of resolving the trade issues between the two sides.
Just 20 days before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Putin and Xi signed a statement proclaiming there were “no limits to Sino-Russian cooperation … no forbidden zones”. While Xi is clearly not happy with how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has proceeded, there is no prospect of China taking sides with the West against Russia.
In recent days, Vladimir Putin invited his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to make a state visit to Russia next spring, as Moscow seeks to deepen its ties with China amid growing international isolation over the war in Ukraine. Xi, in turn, said his country was ready “to increase strategic cooperation with Russia”, and continue to “be global partners for the benefit of the peoples of our countries and in the interests of stability around the world”.
And as I write, Chinese tourists are now fanning out across the world, following China’s sudden abandoning of its zero-COVID policy. But almost half the passengers on two flights to Milan (Italy) were found to have COVID. Thus, it remains to be seen whether this marks a move back to living with COVID, or a renewed spreading of COVID and possibly new variants, and thus heightened tensions between China and the West.
John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).