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What Americans Don’t Get About Our Relationship with China and the European Union

In February, Carla Freeman, the Library of Congress Chair in US-China Relations as well as Director of the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University, participated in a conference in Madrid, Spain, looking at the relationship and power dynamics between China, the United States, and the European Union. This conference took place before COVID-19 was a crisis in Spain or the US, though it was in China at that point. I interviewed her about this conference when she returned.

Credit: Eva Garrido Ortiz de Urbina

Andrew Breiner: Tell me about this conference.

Carla Freeman: It was titled “New Power Dynamics Between China, the US, and the EU,” and was hosted by two foundations that are affiliated with the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One works with the European Union. The other works specifically on Spain-China relations.

They hosted a trilateral debate. Ambassador Fidel Sendagorta from Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs represented the European Union perspective and Dr. Jinghan Zeng, who directs the Confucius Institute at Lancaster University, represented the Chinese perspective. I represented the US. Christina Manzano, Editor-in-Chief of Esglobal, moderated.

AB: What was the topic of debate?

CF: The main thrust was that Europeans look at this set of relationships as a triangular relationship, which is something that I don’t think the US perceives at all. We don’t think of ourselves as in a triangular relationship with China and Europe.

We see our relationships in bilateral terms: the EU and the US, or even European countries separately and the US. The US and NATO. The US and China. But because of the importance of the US to Europe, they think a lot about China in terms of the US-China relationship.

There were a lot of different topics on the table, but the main topic was how Europe should navigate the growing US-China strategic geocompetition. With that broad rubric, there were a whole lot of questions related to the Belt and Road Initiative, in which Europe has its own set of interests.

We talked about technology, including Huawei, and about how Europe should handle that complex situation. Europe has an interest in providing low-cost 5G but is under a lot of pressure from the US not to go the Huawei route and has its own sets of misgivings.

And generally there was the question of how to manage all of this given the pressure that the whole European project is under as it faces Brexit.

Credit: Eva Garrido Ortiz de Urbina

AB: What were some of the different perspectives brought by debaters?

CF: It was interesting. I’ve spent a lot of my life overseas, including my childhood, and I tend to see myself as someone who takes a more international view of many issues. But boy, I sounded really American there.

I ended up feeling that I needed to explain that the US had genuine concerns about some of China’s behavior in the international system and especially in the arena of international property theft and high technology. We have low trust where China’s concerned, for real reasons, and there are real reasons we didn’t adopt Huawei technology.

Dr. Jinghan Zeng, the scholar representing China who runs the Confucius Institute at the University of Lancaster, argued that the US was being overly alarmist about this. He thought the US position on Huawei was principally an effort to constrain China’s success and rise and that the United States was treating China unfairly by singling Huawei out. He said in effect that Huawei could be used as technological plumbing (my words) for a 5G network and that it did not pose a threat to our national security interests.

Ambassador Fidel Sendagorta, the speaker representing the European Union, a seasoned professional diplomat, took a different view. He voiced concerns about Chinese technology and the potential security breaches that it could create and, as I recall, affirmed what I said about intellectual property theft and worries about that, which all advanced economies share.

But I also got a sense that he also felt that there was a middle ground that could be pursued in an environment in which that different European countries were going to have different views of adopting Chinese technologies, including about Huawei, not just from Washington but from each other.

The British decision to integrate Huawei into its economy is a harbinger of the challenges of developing a unified European policy on this, especially since some countries had signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative, while other had not. My sense is he felt there would have to be some give and take on this. And although he acknowledged American concerns and affirmed that more advanced economies would share those concerns, he felt there would have to be a way of dealing with this because of the limited alternatives.

Notably he did not raise European options, like Ericsson and Nokia, which surprised me. I’m the one who brought those up. Nobody said “yeah, you’re right, those are available,” raising questions for me about why—perhaps it’s about price.

Credit: Eva Garrido Ortiz de Urbina

AB: How did you explain the American position?

CF: I shared my view that for the United States, a lot of its trade policies and investment policies vis-à-vis China are targeted and specific to concerns we have about reciprocity and other issues specific to bilateral trade and investment. But I also think they’ve now become part of a broader strategic and security competition with China, with a growing sense among US policy makers that constraining trade and limiting Chinese investment in the United States, basically to decouple the two economies as much as possible because they feel that it will cripple China’s rise, is necessary for the US to meet the challenge posed by China’s growing global competition.

The US doesn’t have a coherent policy. But I think there are voices in our government, in Congress and also in the executive branch, who are very worried about a world in which China is the lead player in certain technologies, and are concerned that letting China become the go to country for 5G would accelerate the narrowing with China of the power advantages that the United States has.

AB: But constrainment is not an official US policy?

CF: It isn’t an official US policy On the one hand we are adopting policies that put us on a course to decouple from the Chinese economy, but on the other hand our president says Xi Jinping is a great guy and he wants to work with China and become a better friend to China, leaving the door open to working with China. So it’s not coherent, but the Chinese view is that the US is not friendly to China’s rise.

AB: What were some of the issues of particular interest to your audience, most of which I assume was from Madrid?

Yes, the audience comprised policy experts and academics, mainly from Spain, although some embassies from other countries were represented. For me, a really interesting part of the conversation was the topic of EU identity and what Sino-US competition and rivalry mean for the future of Europe given where it stands now. At least part of the European project is unraveling or has unraveled, and so the issue is, is Sino-US competition going to be a boon to European integration? Or is it another factor in pulling Europe apart?

I didn’t address this so much as the European colleague who talked about the need for Europe to develop a more coherent security and foreign policy, one that’s got broad buy in in the EU and led from Brussels. This would include addressing Sino-American competition, among other international dynamics that have implications for Europe. I took away a sense that there is an urgency to this amid already rising tensions among European countries, while these tensions also make the road to developing a coherent policy even harder.

One of the big questions our moderator put to us was “What is the future of multilateralism?” The European project is core to preserving multilateralism that operates through rules and has the goal of solving problems through multilateral engagement. If that goes by the wayside the prospects for a world in which tensions are managed around a table rather than using force will be much reduced.

AB: What don’t Americans know about the way Europe and China are approaching this relationship? What would they find surprising about it?

CF: One thing is that Europeans and Chinese both identify themselves as pragmatists and they find common ground around focusing on problem solving activities.

They work together, setting ideology aside, on a lot of different issues. The idea of a values-driven foreign policy is a language the Europeans speak to us, but it’s not a language they speak to the Chinese. This works for the Chinese. One can recall the proposal Chinese president Xi Jinping made to President Obama for a “new type of great power” relationship with the US around the idea of setting aside US-China differences over our values to work pragmatically on issues of common concern and economic ties.

The other thing that really struck me when I was in the room is that I was the odd man (woman) out. The Europeans and Chinese both see the US as the superpower, the hegemon. The EU and China are of course two other major powers. Europe has fractional coherence relative to China but in terms of its share of the global economy, it’s the largest economy in the world –and China is of course as a single country just behind the US in economic size and a growing global military power.  Both speakers implied concerns about current US policy and unilateralism.

It was a really interesting discussion. It’s good to get out of Washington and good to look at Europe and US-China relations from Madrid, which I had only visited once before, rather than Paris or Berlin. Spain has a deep European identity, but its authoritarian regime until the 1970s kept it quite isolated.  As a country that made a democratic transition and undertook substantial reforms to join the EU, it has a lot at stake in and strongly identifies with the European enterprise.

Of course, Spain also retains its own intense national identity and deep sense of national history. I heard a number of comments from some of those I met about Spain’s history as a global power. Given the conference theme of new power dynamics, as the representative American in the debate, were they trying to tell me something? “Been there, done that.”






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