Special Forum Issue
“Is Europe Up to the Sino-Russian Challenge?”
Joe Biden’s week in Europe in June was groundbreaking in its appeal to the G7, NATO, and the EU to refocus on the looming threat from China while not taking their eyes off the mounting threat from Russia. How was Biden’s message received? How are the relative threats of these two states compared and the combined threat of the two acting in concert assessed? What degree of cooperation should the United States anticipate from its key partners in Europe? Is there now a European component to the Quad Plus, combining the impact of democracies? The three articles that follow address these questions and the aftermath of Biden’s summits.
The challenges from China and Russia overlap even as they differ in geographical proximity and long-term implications. Russia’s military challenge is close at hand, prompting defense budget increases, but China’s has intensified in the sea lanes of the Indo-Pacific, leading some states to join in naval exercises far from Europe. Russia’s economy is a target of sanctions, as countries seek to deter aggression while equivocating on pipelines and investments. China’s technology advances raise different questions about 5G surveillance and export controls. As for values, the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny elicited strong criticism, but so too did the suppression of Hong Kong democracy and the genocide against Uyghurs. Yet, Europeans are divided, on how hard to sanction both Russia—an energy lifeline—and China—an unrivaled, all-around trading partner.
Assessments of the Biden trip to Europe—the G7, NATO, and the summit with Putin—fall into three camps: a failure, a huge success, and a partial success, whose impact is yet to be known. Those who discern a failure are largely of the mindset that Biden was too weak and failed to take the challenges the US faces seriously enough. Caving in to Germany on Nord Stream 2 and granting Putin a summit are their key examples. Voices in support of a huge success find a long-term strategy moving ahead decisively; rebuilding alliances being the essential opening phase.
Finally, fence sitters who consider the meetings in Europe a partial success with more clarity to come discern a gamble worth taking in settings not yet ripe for more clear-cut results. Concern that Trump could return to office and compelling economic interests could not be overcome in a short time span. The three perspectives differ on the progress made in bringing Europe into the Indo-Pacific strategy, on how to counter the Sino-Russian quasi-alliance, and on Putin’s readiness to find common ground with Biden, given that the post-summit situation is in flux.
A failed trip. Biden acceded to Germany on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Germany and France balked at language on China that the US side would presumably have preferred. Granting Putin a summit with little sign that Russia was moving on issues critical to the US was ill-advised.
A huge success. Biden’s journey to Europe counts as his fourth, far-reaching summitry in office. The March Quad virtual summit was a smashing success. The April Biden-Suga summit drew rave reviews. Even the May Biden-Moon summit, expected to pose many challenges, proved to go very smoothly. For the fourth month in a row, the June series of summits followed much the same script with various unique touches. These common qualities are signs of similar success.
A partial success. Germany was the main target, but it is in transition awaiting a successor to Merkel. Without compromising on the pipeline, Biden stood little chance of gaining German cooperation. Time will tell if some German movement on Russia and China portends further closing of ranks with the US. Similarly, the Putin meeting is a long-term gamble at little cost. Key are the 10 working groups of the Trade and Technology Council announced during Biden’s visit.
One feature of all four summit experiences is the steadfast pursuit of a grand strategy toward China in all its dimensions—military, technological, and value-oriented. Some of the US wish-list had to be toned down on each occasion in recognition of the reservations of such countries as India, South Korea, and Germany, but the overall thrust was unmistakable and clearly advanced the strategic agenda. A second feature was boosting bilateral and multilateral relationships by granting US allies and partners some of their own priorities: dropping missile restrictions for Seoul and acceding to Berlin’s insistence on Nord Stream 2 completion were two concessions.
Assessing Sino-Russian relations
Much depends on how countries assess the state of Sino-Russian relations, especially whether Russia is growing nervous about its dependency on China and China’s behavior, both toward others and toward Russia itself. One wonders if the decision by Biden to meet with Putin and/or the hesitancy in parts of Europe to press Russia hard is related to signs of new Russian wariness toward China. At least five issues may be in play: nervousness about how the territorial dispute, supposedly resolved in 2004, is kept alive in China; criticism of “wolf warrior” behavior, most of all the border fighting with India that dashed Russian hopes for multipolarity; Chinese actions in Central Asia that call into question the past division of labor—that is, Russia manages security as well as political ties while China prevails on some economic matters; failure to realize the expected economic gains from improved bilateral relations, e.g., from Chinese investments in Russia; and cultural mistrust due to China’s lack of reciprocity on matters critical to mutual trust. These are themes raised in Russian publications of late, even if they are not treated as game changers,
Just as talk of a Sino-Russian alliance has intensified, signs of a backlash in Russia and arrogance in China that has aroused concern over “wolf warrior” behavior have risen. Thus, a crossroads is detectable—either consolidating an alliance or exposing the fissures in the relationship that work not only against an alliance but for some sort of reordering of international relations. No exploration of how that might affect Russo-US relations is yet in evidence, although the Biden-Putin summit has caused some marginal change in the narrative in Russia. For a substantial shift, a transformation is needed in the dearth of criticism of China’s communist national identity. With no sign of that, we must assume that nervousness is the cry of a less influential minority.
A debate on China’s communist system has only tentatively begun. On the one side are those nostalgic for the Soviet Union who are openly praising the rule of the CCP and linking it to the collapse of the CPSU, as if China has picked up the socialist dream that had been abruptly abandoned in Russia. In the new Cold War, China is picking up the mantle of the Soviet Union in the old Cold War against the same enemy acting in the same manner. Talk of North Korea as a partner deserving more support draws on similar arguments about its role in resisting the evil machinations of the United States without mention of internal behavior. On the other side are those exposing more negative features of the Chinese system as well as the true nature of North Korea. The more openness there is about what is driving “wolf warrior” behavior and what is bad about North Korea, the more Russians are reminded of the evils of Stalinism and its legacy to the 1980s. Such reminders have been missing in publications, but in 2021 they may be appearing, albeit obliquely, for reasons that deserve our greater attention.
At least five reasons may portend a revival of the 1970s-80s habit of sending a message about Russia in writings about China. First, despair over the direction Putin has been taking Russia, especially in a pandemic era, and the parallel authoritarian morass in Belarus have taken a toll, notably on the better educated who led the charge against Brezhnev-era stagnation. Second, news from China has revealed more extreme features of the communist regime, reminding Russians of what was at stake. Third, Sino-Russian relations have failed to yield the dividends many thought had been promised. Fourth, construction of Russian national identity has not built a stable foundation, despite capitalizing on the Soviet legacy. Finally, antagonism toward the US and the West has proven less convincing of late. So far, there are only vague indications.
Brian G. Carlson, “The Search for European Strategic Thinking on Russia and China”
The June 2021 NATO summit demonstrated the US desire to build European support for efforts to confront Russia and China, as well as Europe’s increased focus on both countries. In the summit communiqué, allied leaders called Russia a “threat” and declared that China posed a series of formidable “challenges.” The US and its allies face “strategic challenges from an increasingly assertive China and destabilizing Russia,” in the words of the administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance. The transatlantic partnership is crucial to Biden’s vision, and Biden achieved some success in attracting support during his trip to Europe. The G7, NATO, and US-EU summits allowed him to mount a display of transatlantic and broader allied unity in advance of his summit with Putin in Geneva, Carlson observes, adding that the objective of building European support requires a careful assessment of European thinking to date on both Russia and China. The effort to formulate European strategic thinking to address them, however, remains underdeveloped as a result of a divergence of views on the relative challenges that Russia and China pose, as well as the reluctance of the EU’s most powerful country, Germany, to sacrifice economic relations with the two countries for the sake of larger strategic goals.
Russia remains the primary security threat to Europe, challenging the continent’s security in the conventional, nuclear, and hybrid domains. Despite relative unity, diverging perspectives toward Russia are visible among Germany, France, and Britain, the so-called E3. While Merkel played an important role in crafting and maintaining the sanctions against Russia, she also supported the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Macron has made diplomatic overtures toward Russia, though with little success to date. In contrast, Britain, which is no longer a voice in the formulation of EU policy following its departure from the bloc, has maintained a firm line. Germany’s persistence in building Nord Stream 2, despite the political cost, demonstrated a desire to separate economic and strategic issues. By settling the dispute, the Biden administration may have hoped to enlist Germany’s support for US policies toward China, but Germany made no public commitment. The German leadership’s interest in Macron’s goal of improved relations with Russia was clear in June 2021, when Merkel joined Macron in proposing that the EU offer Putin a summit for the first time since the annexation of Crimea. Following the Biden-Putin summit, Merkel argued, no good reason remained for refusing to schedule an EU summit with Putin. But the proposal failed.
For Europe, China is not a direct military threat at present. Yet, the security implications of China’s growing power and increasingly assertive behavior have landed on NATO’s agenda. China poses challenges to Europe in several domains. China aims to divide Europe, weaken it, and prevent it from aligning with the US against China. Contrasts are visible among the E3. Germany has consistently cultivated relations, aiming to preserve and expand economic opportunities for its industry in the Chinese market. Macron sees a multifaceted challenge in the realms of security, economics, technology, and values but remains reluctant to join prospective efforts at decoupling from the Chinese economy. Britain, in its Integrated Review, called China a systemic challenge and condemned its abrogation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong; however, Boris Johnson warned against a “new Cold War” with China during the NATO summit. China has made significant investments in European ports and other infrastructure through its BRI. Several EU member states signed up for the BRI, including G7 member Italy.
Britain, France, and Germany have also turned their attention to the Indo-Pacific region. In recent years, Britain and France have sent ships to the South China Sea to participate in freedom of navigation operations. Germany, which issued policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific in September 2020, plans to send a frigate to the region in August. None of these countries would be expected to play a role in the defense of Taiwan against a potential Chinese invasion, but their presence in the region carries symbolic importance. It signals their opposition to China’s expansive claims to control of the South China Sea. Despite this increased attention to the China challenge and corresponding steps to address it, European thinking on China reveals a divergence of interests and unwillingness to align fully with the US. The CAI negotiations concluded during the same month in which Merkel’s government proposed the legislation to permit Huawei’s involvement in domestic 5G networks. China had explicitly threatened retaliation against the German auto industry if Germany were to reject Huawei’s involvement. Gaining Germany’s backing for US policy toward China is the key to achieving wider European support. Merkel, however, has been reluctant to join confrontational US policies toward China. While remaining loyal to the transatlantic alliance, she has sought to maintain “equidistance” between Washington and Beijing. This policy is reminiscent of West Germany’s Ostpolitik during the second half of the Cold War.
Efforts to pull Russia away from China are unlikely to succeed. Europe should look for ways to limit the extent of the relationship, but it should seek to negotiate with Russia from a position of strength, rather than offering inducements that merely strengthen Putin’s hand. Nord Stream 2, for example, increases Putin’s leverage over Europe without achieving any loosening of the Russia-China partnership. Europe should strengthen its resilience in the face of pressure from Russia and China, and it should bear an increased share of the burden for European security, thus allowing the United States to devote the necessary attention and resources to the challenge from China. Standing aside from US rivalries with Russia and China is not an option because these two countries, both individually and jointly, increasingly impinge on Europe’s own interests. Europe faces a pressing need for strategic thinking about Russia, China, and the Russia-China relationship. Europe’s approach will be crucial to the success of US efforts to address the challenges that these two countries pose, but bringing Europe fully on board with US policies in the near term is unlikely.
Despite the persistence of the Russian security threat to Europe, this will become a secondary concern for the US compared to the potential superpower challenge from China. The rise of China thus creates the real risk of an eventual diversion of US military attention and assets from Europe to Asia. Prudence calls for recognizing this possibility and preparing for it well in advance.
Stephen Blank, “Europe’s Threat Assessments of Russia and China”
European governments, NATO, the EU, and the G7 all identify China and Russia as threats; however, an analysis of threat assessments reveals a mixture of unity and diversity. Even as Germany upbraids China for its human rights violations and enacts legislation that increasingly limits companies like Huawei, “economic relations continue to flourish and intensify.” China has tried to exploit these divergent assessments by falsely claiming that Macron and Merkel support restoring the CAI investment pact of 2020 that the EU has refused to ratify. Xi Jinping has also appealed to Macron and Merkel on what he said was an “opportunity” created by BRI. Putin seems to have decided that the lure of the Russian market to Germany, German feelings of remorse over WWII, and gratitude for the unification of Germany in 1990 constitute a lasting basis for Russian probes towards Germany to detach from its transatlantic moorings. Chinese and Russian views fail to take account of the deleterious impact that their own diplomacy, whether “wolf warriors” in China’s case or Russia’s bristling refusal to make any concessions, has on their success. Based on cleavages among European governments in their threat assessments Moscow and Beijing will not stop probing despite their unwillingness to yield any ground.
On the one hand, Chinese and Russian conduct is fostering a certain gravitation towards the US view, while US pressure and regenerated leadership of NATO and better ties with the EU are having an effect. Yet beyond the disparate responses to Moscow and Beijing and the diverging threat assessments lies the fact that the threats those regimes pose to Europe are quite different. The threat of Russian military power is all too real. The only factors that appear to be able to generate any cohesive response are either strong American pressure or the excessive truculence of both Chinese and Russian diplomacy. Fortunately for the West, China’s “wolf warriors” and Russia’s aggression have hardened opposition to their demands in most European capitals, revealing growing European disaffection with both states, even as the divisions are there for a more supple diplomacy to exploit. The official statements at the recent summits focus on China’s mercantilist economic warfare and denial of human rights, particularly in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, but they also single out aggressive military behavior in the East and South China seas. NATO’s communique goes even farther, citing China’s growing global influence and capacity to impact NATO on pressing international problems.
This unprecedented statement, even if followed by a call for partnership with China where possible, underscores three major aspects of NATO and Europe’s threat assessment of China. First, it shows the power of the US to forge a NATO consensus on not only hard security but values and soft security/disinformation. Second, it reflects the growing unease of European states regarding Chinese policy even without American leadership. When dealing with more purely political and/or economic policies, e.g. human rights violations, mercantilist or non-market economic policies, cyber and disinformation operations, and more recently “vaccine diplomacy,” we see a more clouded European picture.
Accounting for much of the ambivalence about China in Europe is the fact that hopes for investments are balanced by fear of excessive influence. Neither Russia nor China will allow Europe the luxury of abstaining from world politics in order to make money. That also cannot justify standing aside in world politics while expecting that these powers will suddenly engage in genuine dialogue with an EU that is too weak and divided to defend its own interests and values, concludes Blank.