Special Forum Issue

“Is Europe Up to the Sino-Russian Challenge?”

The Search for European Strategic Thinking on Russia and China


Prevailing trends in world politics, especially the return of great-power rivalry, create an urgent need for new strategic thinking in Europe. The effort to devise European strategic thinking for the coming period is increasingly complex because of the imperative to address not only Russia, the traditional security threat to the continent, but also China and the diverse challenges that it now poses. In addition to focusing on the two countries individually, European strategic thinking must account for the Russia-China partnership, which has grown especially close in recent years and now presents its own distinct set of challenges. The effort to formulate European strategic thinking to address these issues remains underdeveloped, however. This is the result of several factors, including a divergence of views within Europe on the relative challenges that Russia and China pose, as well as the reluctance of the European Union’s most powerful country, Germany, to sacrifice economic relations with the two countries for the sake of larger strategic goals. In the long run, as the pressure on Europe from Russia and China intensifies, this lack of European strategic clarity could prove unsustainable.

Biden Seeks European Support

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 communiqué criticized Russia for its aggressive actions that threatened Euro-Atlantic security, its nuclear buildup, and its breaches of international law and commitments. For the first time in history, the communiqué also mentioned China, arguing that its challenge to a rules-based order, its cyber and hybrid threats, and the expansion of its nuclear arsenal all required a response by the alliance. The communiqué identified further risks from China’s growing military cooperation with Russia, including joint naval exercises in Europe.1 US President Joe Biden made clear his determination to maintain a united front with Europe in addressing these challenges, focusing largely on the threat to liberal democracy. “The democratic values that undergird our alliance are under increasing pressure, both internally and externally,” he said during his post-summit press conference. “Russia and China are both seeking to drive a wedge in our trans-Atlantic solidarity.”2

In the unfolding US great-power competition with China and Russia, Europe could play a crucial role. Biden’s foreign policy envisions a struggle between democracies and autocracies.3 In this contest, the United States and its allies face “strategic challenges from an increasingly assertive China and destabilizing Russia,” in the words of the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.4 Alliances, including the transatlantic partnership, are central to Biden’s vision. He has affirmed his commitment to NATO, emphasizing its centrality to the deterrence of Russian aggression, while also pushing the alliance to address China. He has argued that the United States should work with its allies in Europe and around the world in order to negotiate with China from a position of strength.5

As the NATO communiqué demonstrated, Biden achieved some success in attracting support during his trip to Europe in June. At his first stop, the G7 summit in Cornwall, the members of this group of leading capitalist democracies, including Britain, Germany, France, and Italy, issued a communiqué that criticized both Russia and China.6 In Brussels, following the NATO summit, Biden attended the US-EU summit, which also produced critical statements about the two countries.7 The G7, NATO, and US-EU summits allowed Biden to mount a display of transatlantic and broader allied unity in advance of his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, the final stop on his trip.

Despite this show of solidarity, building a unified transatlantic approach toward Russia and China will be no easy task. The United States and Europe hold diverging views on the challenges that the two countries pose, complicating the task of forging transatlantic unity. Such differences were apparent at this year’s Munich Security Conference in February, when Biden appealed for European support. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had already declared her opposition to the formation of blocs, cautioned during the Munich conference that “our interests will not always converge.”8 Contrasting perspectives on Russia and China exist within Europe as well, clouding the prospects for a coherent European strategic approach to the two countries. Germany’s unwillingness to align fully with the US vision of great-power competition with China and Russia is likely to endure following Merkel’s departure from office later this year. French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, has warned of NATO’s “brain death” and called for Europe to achieve strategic autonomy.

All of these factors complicate the formulation of European strategic thinking, as well as the Biden administration’s efforts to achieve transatlantic unity. However, events could press Europe to develop strategic clarity. In the spring of 2021, a Russian military buildup along Ukraine’s eastern border and escalating incursions by Chinese aircraft into Taiwan’s airspace raised the specter of simultaneous great-power crises in Europe and Asia. Such a scenario would place tremendous strain on US strategy, imposing urgent demands for allied support in both theaters. European strategic thinking should anticipate and plan for such scenarios. The US objective of building European support, meanwhile, requires a careful assessment of European thinking to date on Russia and China.

European Thinking on Russia

Russia remains the primary security threat to Europe, challenging the continent’s security in the conventional, nuclear, and hybrid domains. Through cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, Russia also increasingly interferes in European domestic politics and societies. Russia has modernized its conventional military forces, though these remain inferior to those of NATO, and it has conducted large-scale military exercises in its western regions. Russia has also modernized its nuclear forces, possibly with the goal of ensuring escalation dominance throughout all stages of a conflict.9 The use of hybrid tactics is also a concern. Attempted assassinations, some of them successful, of enemies of the Putin regime on European territory have generated outrage. European dependence on Russian energy sources also provides Russia with leverage over the continent.

As the security relationship between Russia and the West deteriorated in recent years, Europe and the West pursued a dual-track approach. On the one hand, the West sought to maintain dialogue with Russia and to pursue a political solution in Ukraine through the Minsk process. On the other hand, NATO took steps to bolster its deterrent capacity, especially along its eastern flank. Through its Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) initiative, it deployed additional, rotating forces to Poland and the Baltic countries. Europe has also maintained relative unity on a series of issues in relations with Russia. For more than seven years, EU sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine have remained in place. Further EU sanctions followed the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny with Novichok in 2020. The EU also sanctioned President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus, which depends on Russia for support.10

Despite this relative unity, diverging perspectives toward Russia exist within Europe. These differences are visible among Germany, France, and Britain, the so-called E3.11 Merkel played an important role in crafting and maintaining the sanctions against Russia, but she also supported the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Macron has made diplomatic overtures toward Russia, though with little success to date. Britain, which is no longer a voice in the formulation of EU policy following its departure from the bloc, has maintained a firm line toward Russia, especially since the Novichok poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy and double agent for the West, on British soil in 2018. In its Integrated Review of security, defense, development, and foreign policy, released in March 2021, Britain declared that Russia remained the most acute threat to British security.12 In June, a British destroyer sailed through Black Sea waters near Crimea in a show of support for Ukraine, drawing Russian complaints. Russia claimed that it fired warning shots at the ship, which Britain denied.13 Italy and other countries in southern Europe are more focused on potential threats from the south, including terrorism and migration, than on Russia. Countries in Central and Eastern Europe, meanwhile, remain focused on potential military threats from Russia.

Such divergences of opinion are especially apparent regarding the construction of Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that will carry natural gas from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea. The United States, Ukraine, and several EU member states, especially those in Central and Eastern Europe, have criticized the project. Critics argue that the pipeline will leave Ukraine vulnerable to Russian pressure, increase Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, and strengthen Putin’s hand in dealing with Europe. They also note that Russia’s gains from the pipeline far outweigh the cost of EU sanctions. Despite this criticism, as well as backlash against Russia for the assassination of a former Chechen rebel commander in Berlin and the poisoning of Navalny, Merkel maintained her support for the pipeline because of the benefits that German industry and consumers stand to gain from cheap energy.14 The project also benefits the economically underdeveloped province of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.15

With the pipeline nearly complete, the Biden administration dropped the threat of sanctions against participating German companies in May 2021. During Merkel’s visit to Washington in July, the United States and Germany reached an agreement to end their dispute over the pipeline. This agreement included a pledge by Germany to impose sanctions on Russia if it threatens the energy security of its neighboring countries, but Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe declared this promise inadequate.16 Germany’s persistence in building Nord Stream 2, despite the political cost, demonstrated its desire to separate economic and strategic issues. By settling the dispute, the Biden administration may have hoped to enlist Germany’s support for U.S. policies toward China, but Germany made no such public commitment. Instead, the practical effect of the pipeline’s completion will be to increase Russia’s leverage over Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe.17

Macron’s recent diplomatic outreach to Russia is a further source of tension within Europe. In August 2019, Macron argued that pushing Russia away from Europe was a “profound strategic error.” Europe would never enjoy security and stability until relations with Russia improved, he argued. Moreover, he warned, the persistence of tense relations could lead Russia into isolation or a stronger relationship with China.18 Macron, who welcomed Putin on an official visit to France that same month, also declared sanctions unproductive and called for Russia’s eventual reinstatement to the G7. Macron’s efforts gained little support within Europe, however. They drew sharp criticism from Poland and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as from the Netherlands, which lost many of its citizens in the Malaysia Airlines passenger airplane that was shot down by a Russian missile over Ukraine in 2014.19 Macron’s desire to improve relations with Russia enjoys some support among German leaders, however. In February 2021, German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass delivered a speech at the Bundestag in which he warned against burning all bridges with Russia in the course of imposing punishment for Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment.20

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. The French and German leaders made their proposal just one day before the opening of the EU summit. The proposal failed, with several countries angrily criticizing both the idea and its last-minute announcement. Despite the preservation of sanctions on Russia, this incident showcased widespread disagreement and the lack of a coherent strategy toward Russia within the EU.21

For its part, Russia aims to play upon European divisions and to deal with EU countries individually, rather than as a bloc. Russia displayed its contempt for the EU during a February 2021 visit to Moscow by Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. At the conclusion of Borrell’s visit, Russia expelled three EU diplomats. Later, during a visit to Beijing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declared that Russia had no formal relationship with the EU.22 This episode showed the futility of EU efforts to deal with Russia in the absence of a unified strategy.23

European Thinking on China

As tensions with Russia have grown, Europe has also faced a growing challenge from China. In a shift from the largely benign view of China as simply a trading partner and source of economic growth that prevailed for many years, Europe in recent years has grown increasingly attentive to this challenge.24 A report by the European Commission in 2019 called China a “systemic rival.”25 That same year, Germany’s corporate lobby, BDI, issued a report that was highly critical of China’s unfair business practices.26 The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated European concerns. It revealed the risks inherent in reliance on China for important products, in this case medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. China’s handling of the pandemic, including its “wolf warrior” diplomacy, turned public opinion in many European countries against China and raised alarms about the consequences of growing dependence on an increasingly powerful authoritarian country.

For Europe, China is not a direct military threat at present. Nevertheless, the security implications of China’s growing power and increasingly assertive behavior have landed on NATO’s agenda. In late 2020, a report by the independent NATO Reflection Group called for the alliance to develop a coordinated policy approach toward China.27 A NATO statement issued at the London summit in 2019 mentioned China for the first time, and this year’s summit was the first to produce a communiqué mentioning China.28 NATO will spend the next year drafting its new strategic concept. The previous version, published in 2010, made no mention of China.

China poses challenges to Europe in several domains. Above all, it aims to divide Europe, weaken it, and prevent it from aligning with the United States against China.29 China poses a cybersecurity threat, as recent episodes involving cyber theft of commercial and military secrets have shown. The advantages that China has already gained in crucial high-tech sectors, including Artificial Intelligence (AI) and fifth-generation wireless technology (5G), are a source of economic and security risks.30 Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s efforts to build 5G networks in Europe are of special concern for the United States because of the possibility that China could use them to intercept NATO intelligence communications.

China also attempts to undermine Western liberal democracies, seeking to coopt elites and influence public opinion in European countries. Growing economic dependence on China, especially in supply chains that are crucial for defense and intelligence, could create vulnerabilities for Europe. China poses geopolitical challenges to Europe through its inroads in parts of the continent, especially in the Western Balkans, and along its periphery, including in the Arctic and in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.31 China’s investments in European infrastructure, including its ownership of the port of Piraeus in Greece and minority stakes in several other European ports, raise both economic and security concerns.

As in relations with Russia, European countries hold diverging perspectives on relations with China. These contrasts are visible among the E3.32 Germany has consistently cultivated relations with China, aiming to preserve and expand economic opportunities for German industry in the Chinese market. As for France, Macron views China as posing a multifaceted challenge in the realms of security, economics, technology, and values, but he remains reluctant to join any prospective efforts at decoupling from the Chinese economy.33 Britain, in its Integrated Review, called China a systemic challenge and condemned its abrogation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong.34 However, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned against a “new Cold War” with China during the NATO summit.35

China has made significant investments in European ports and other critical infrastructure through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Several EU member states signed up for the BRI, including G7 member Italy. Many European states that joined BRI have also participated in the 17+1 forum, which promotes China’s business and investment relations with 17 countries in Central and Eastern Europe, 12 of which are EU member states. China’s efforts to engage with European countries bilaterally or in sub-regional forums, including the 17+1 grouping, threaten to divide Europe. However, China’s 17+1 efforts appear to have lost momentum.36 Czech leaders have defied China on both Taiwan and issues related to the pandemic. In May 2021, Lithuania announced its withdrawal from the forum.37 China has expressed interest in dredging a deep-water port at Klaipeda, Lithuania, but Lithuania ruled out such an investment for now on national security grounds.38

The United States has sought with some success to discourage European countries from involving Huawei in their 5G networks. Britain announced last year that all Huawei equipment must be removed from British 5G networks by the end of 2027, with no new Huawei equipment installed in these networks after September 2021.39 France notified telecom operators that they would be unable to renew licenses for Huawei equipment, effectively banning the company’s involvement in French 5G networks by 2028.40 In Germany, Merkel’s government initially proposed a law that would have allowed Huawei’s involvement in domestic 5G networks. However, the Bundestag passed a law in April 2021 granting the interior ministry the power to block 5G investments by “untrustworthy” suppliers and requiring that such investments match the “security policy goals” of Germany, NATO, and the EU.41

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. France recently led naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal with the members of the Quad, a security grouping that consists of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. In July, a British aircraft carrier strike group arrived in the South China Sea for joint patrols with the U.S. Navy. Germany, which issued policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific in September 2020, plans to send a frigate to the region in August of this year.42 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, which the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled illegal in 2016, as well as their support for the principle of freedom of navigation and for US efforts to uphold regional security and stability. It enlarges the coalition of states standing in opposition to potential efforts by China to revise the regional status quo, thereby raising the costs of Chinese aggression.43

Despite this increased attention to the China challenge and corresponding steps to address it, European thinking on China also reveals a divergence of interests within Europe and an unwillingness to align fully with the United States in its growing strategic rivalry with China. This was apparent in December 2020, when the EU completed negotiations with China on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), despite the incoming Biden administration’s expressed desire to consult with the EU first. Merkel was a driving force behind the agreement, pushing it to conclusion during the final days of Germany’s six-month rotation in the EU presidency, which expired at the end of 2020. 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.44 China had explicitly threatened retaliation against the German auto industry if Germany were to reject Huawei’s involvement.45

In relations with China, Merkel has long followed, or at least paid lip service to, the principle of “Wandel durch Handel” (change through trade), which holds that sustained economic relations would produce desired political and economic change in China. For Merkel, the German economy’s increasing reliance on the Chinese market was a crucial consideration. China has been Germany’s top trading partner since 2016, and in 2020 it overtook the United States to become the largest trading partner for the EU as a whole.46 Merkel sought continued access to the Chinese market for German multinational corporations, including approval for planned investments in such sectors as electric vehicles, plastics, and chemicals.47

Crucial sectors of the German economy, including auto manufacturers such as Volkswagen and Daimler, are heavily dependent on exports to China. The rupturing of these relationships could damage the German economy and create unemployment.48 Volkswagen has faced criticism for operating a factory in Xinjiang since 2013 and for being unable to guarantee the absence of forced labor in its supply chains. China now accounts for more than 40 percent of Volkswagen’s worldwide auto sales, however, leaving both the company and Germany vulnerable to pressure. Such relationships have distorted Germany’s policy toward China in recent years, as “the commercial tale has wagged the political dog.”49

As with Nord Stream 2, the conclusion of CAI negotiations demonstrated Germany’s desire, under Merkel’s leadership, to separate economic and strategic issues. Merkel argued that the agreement would secure for the EU some of the same benefits that the United States gained in its own trade negotiations with China. Critics argued, however, that the agreement was a reward to China following a period in which it had engaged in malign behavior, both domestically and internationally. In the spring of 2021, events put the agreement on hold. The United States, Britain, the EU, and Canada imposed sanctions on China for its treatment of the Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Following the imposition of retaliatory tariffs by China against EU politicians and institutions, the European Parliament voted to freeze ratification of the CAI.

The CAI negotiations also demonstrated the problems that Germany, in particular, poses for attempts to achieve European strategic clarity and transatlantic unity. In the emerging rivalry between the United States and China, Germany could play a crucial role. The size of the German economy gives the country a dominant role in Europe. The Biden administration, in turn, views Europe as an essential part of its strategy because of the continent’s reserves of economic strength, technological leadership, democratic values, and military power. 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.50 As Merkel made clear during her visit to Washington in July, she opposes both Germany’s participation in a new Cold War and economic decoupling from China.51

Critics call Merkel’s policies toward China both naive and cynical. In this view, the policy is both naive in its belief that economic exchange can promote change in China and cynical in its aim to achieve economic gains while passing the buck to the United States for the difficult task of geopolitical and security competition with China.52 In practice, Germany long ago abandoned any real belief in the prospects for economic relations to promote change.53 Germany seeks the benefits of economic relations with China, as well as with Russia, while downplaying or ignoring the foreign policy and security ramifications.54

Considerable uncertainty remains about the future European posture toward China. Besides Germany, other countries in Europe are also reluctant to become embroiled in the US-China rivalry. Several countries, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe, want NATO to remain focused on Russia and not be diverted toward a confrontation with China.55 The potential diversion of US attention from Europe to Asia is a source of apprehension for countries across the continent. Such concerns animate Macron, whose call for the attainment of European strategic autonomy is partly based on anticipation that an inevitable shift of US focus toward China will leave the Americans unable or unwilling to continue their role as the guarantor of European security. These considerations demonstrate the ways in which China’s growing power complicates European strategic thinking. The increasingly close Russia-China relationship adds further complexity.

European Thinking on the Russia-China Relationship

Europe suffers from a lack of strategic thinking about the implications of the growing Russia-China partnership.56 Until recently, most Western analysis, including in Europe, tended to downplay this relationship. European officials believed that Russia’s continued financial dependence on the West and fears of China, combined with the limited benefits that China could gain from Russia compared to those from the United States and the EU, would limit the Russia-China relationship’s prospects. In recent years, however, the durability of the relationship has exceeded many expectations. Russia’s economic relations with China fail to compensate fully for the effect of Western sanctions, but Russia has gained valuable economic benefits from China that have strengthened its ability to resist Western pressure. Such factors call for increased European attention not only to the two countries individually, but also to the effects of their partnership.57

In such areas as cyber threats, disinformation, and influence operations, both Russia and China pose challenges to European security. To date, these efforts appear to be largely independent rather than coordinated. However, both countries’ parallel engagement in such activities amplifies their effect.58 Moreover, the two countries could learn from each other as they pursue such tactics and eventually combine their efforts.59 Joint Russia-China military operations in Europe appear unlikely, but China could provide various forms of assistance to Russia in the event of a military conflict on the continent. It could use its newfound influence in some European countries to pressure them not to support NATO. It could also use its stakes in European ports to interfere with NATO logistics. If Huawei were to gain a foothold in regional 5G networks, then the Chinese government could exploit this opportunity to intercept Western intelligence.60

Perhaps more concerning than the possibility of direct Chinese support for Russia in an armed conflict in Europe are the broader geopolitical effects of the Russia-China partnership.61 The two countries’ close relationship affords both of them a secure strategic rear, enabling them to pursue spheres of influence in the regions closest to their main population centers. They have also strengthened their bilateral defense cooperation, which features Russian arms sales to China, joint military and naval exercises, and defense consultations. Advanced Russian weapons, including the S-400 air defense system and Su-35 fighter jets, have enhanced China’s military capabilities. Russia has acquired technologies from China, including military technologies, that are no longer available from the West.62 In the face of growing security threats in both Europe and Asia, the United States could find its military stretched thin as it attempts to uphold security commitments in both regions.63 These factors create potentially dire circumstances that require hard strategic thinking on both sides of the Atlantic.

Some European leaders have expressed concern that confrontational policies are pushing Russia into China’s arms. One motivating factor in Macron’s call for diplomatic outreach to Moscow is his concern that Russia could move closer to China, thereby becoming “China’s vassal.”64 In his speech to the Bundestag in February, Maas expressed similar concerns, raising the prospect of a strengthened Russia-China partnership to caution against either burning bridges to Russia or attempting economic decoupling from China. If Europe were to follow such a course, Maas warned, “you should be completely aware of what this would lead to in geostrategic terms. You would thereby be driving Russia and China into each other’s arms, and thereby also be creating the largest economic and military alliance in the world.”65 Borrell also said in March that the EU has no “interest in pushing Russia and China closer together.”66

In addition to the opposition that they have provoked within Europe, Macron’s calls for diplomatic outreach to Russia collide with the reality of a durable Russia-China relationship. This partnership has grown close for a variety of reasons, many of which have little to do with the West.67 Historical memory of the Sino-Soviet split serves as a reminder for both countries of the cost of estrangement. Russia could ill afford a rupture of its relations with China, especially considering the vulnerability of its eastern regions. The two countries’ economic complementarity also strengthens the relationship. For these and other reasons, efforts to pull Russia away from China are unlikely to succeed.68 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.

Toward European Strategic Thinking?

In the complicated geopolitical circumstances now taking shape, Europe could play a crucial role in a transatlantic strategy for addressing Russia and China. Such a role would involve at least two major components. First, Europe should strengthen its resilience in the face of pressure from Russia and China. Second, 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.

For Europe, 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. A concerted effort is needed to remove vulnerabilities in the realms of security, economics, and societal resilience.69 NATO’s European member states should work within the framework of the alliance to address threats with clear security implications.70 They should coordinate efforts to remove security vulnerabilities, for example by excluding Huawei from 5G networks and by avoiding reliance on China for supply chains that are crucial for defense and intelligence. The transatlantic partners should cooperate to address potential hybrid threats from Russia and China, as they are already doing through the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki, which operates under the auspices of NATO and the EU.71 Similarly, cyber defense is an issue both for NATO, through the NATO Center for Cyber Excellence in Estonia, and for the EU. Europe should also work assiduously, both at the national level and in the EU, to avoid dependence on China that creates economic and societal vulnerabilities.

Europe must also consider how to make the most valuable contribution to the military component of competition with Russia and China. The presence of British, French, and German ships in the Indo-Pacific sends an important signal of worldwide determination to resist Chinese aggression in the region.72 However, European militaries could make their most valuable contributions by bearing an increased share of the burden for European security. The United States is likely to become increasingly preoccupied with China in the coming years, forcing a shift in attention and military resources toward Asia that will complicate US efforts to guarantee European security. This situation is likely to create an urgent need for a strong European pillar in NATO to relieve pressure on the United States. A commitment by Europe to bear an increased share of the burden for its own security will therefore be an essential component of transatlantic strategy toward Russia and China.73 The Biden administration has expressed its commitment to NATO, signaling its desire to maintain the US role as the guarantor of European security while at the same time providing order and stability in Asia.

Nevertheless, doubts persist in Europe about US reliability. Macron, Merkel, and other European leaders harbor concerns that the possible return of Donald Trump or a like-minded candidate to the presidency could call into question the US commitment to NATO. Macron’s belief that US attention will inevitably shift toward China is an additional motivating factor in his calls for European strategic autonomy. Under these circumstances, Macron argues, Europe can no longer count on the United States to defend its NATO allies. In keeping with France’s Gaullist traditions, he argues that European countries should build independent military forces in order to provide for their own defense and attain strategic autonomy. Only in this way, Macron argues, can Europe remain in control of its own destiny.74

Macron’s efforts to promote strategic autonomy have made little headway, however, with Britain and Germany both expressing opposition. German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer rejected what she called “illusions” of European strategic autonomy, arguing that Europe will remain dependent on the US security guarantee, especially extended nuclear deterrence, for the foreseeable future.75 European critics of Macron’s proposal also noted its high price tag, continued European dependence on cooperation with US forces in military operations abroad, and the fear that moves toward European strategic autonomy could strengthen the arguments of those in the United States calling for disengagement from NATO.

The factors described above complicate the formulation of European strategic thinking, as well as US efforts to build transatlantic solidarity to address Russia and China. Germany’s policies pose a special challenge. The country’s efforts under Merkel’s leadership to pursue lucrative economic exchange with Russia and China while downplaying the strategic consequences complicate the effort to bring strategic clarity to Europe’s approach. Merkel will step down from the chancellorship later this year. Her policies have been subject to domestic criticism, but the campaign to replace Merkel offers few reasons to believe that Germany’s policies will undergo a fundamental change in the coming years.76

Toward a Unified Transatlantic Approach?

Europe faces a pressing need for strategic thinking about Russia, China, and the Russia-China relationship. For reasons described in this essay, such efforts are lagging. Partly at the urging of the United States, Europe is paying increased attention to Russia and China, as the summits in June demonstrate. However, diverging opinions within Europe and the unwillingness of some countries, especially Germany, to forego economic gains for the sake of strategic goals are factors that complicate the implementation of a strategic approach toward Russia and China. 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.

This situation could change as great-power rivalry intensifies. Both individually and collectively, Russia and China will challenge Europe’s security and resilience in ways that demand a European response.77 These circumstances could create a “darkened strategic landscape” that would force both Germany and Europe as a whole to align more closely with the United States than they have to date, regardless of the economic cost.78 The rise to global primacy of an authoritarian China espousing views that are inimical to the EU’s liberal principles, which is the grim prospect that the EU had in mind when it declared China to be a “systemic rival,” is anathema to Europe.79 For this reason, Europe would have difficulty maintaining equidistance even if the struggle were entirely between the United States and China. Standing aside from a confrontation between the United States and a Russia-China bloc would be impossible.80

The rise of China is also likely to divert U.S. attention and resources toward Asia, applying pressure on Europe and forcing it to bear an increased share of the burden for its own security. Throughout the Cold War, NATO’s European member states could free-ride on the US security guarantee because they remained confident that the imperatives of confrontation with the Soviet Union would keep the United States engaged. The new circumstances are far more uncertain. Despite the persistence of the Russian security threat to Europe, this will become a secondary concern for the United States 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. This reality could become apparent in stark and unpleasant ways if simultaneous crises in Europe and Asia were to arise.81 Prudence calls for recognizing this possibility and preparing for it well in advance.

1. “Brussels Summit Communiqué. Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels 14 June 2021,” https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_185000.htm

2. Steven Erlanger and Michael D. Shear, “Shifting Focus, NATO Views China as a Global Security Challenge,” New York Times, June 14, 2021.

3. Hal Brands, “The Emerging Biden Doctrine: Democracy, Autocracy, and the Defining Clash of Our Time,” Foreign Affairs, June 29, 2021.

4. President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., Interim National Security Strategic Guidance (Washington, D.C.: The White House), p. 14.

5. Joseph R. Biden, Jr. “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump,” Foreign Affairs 99:2 (March/April 2020), p. 71.

6. The White House, “Carbis Bay G7 Summit Communiqué,” June 13, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/13/carbis-bay-g7-summit-communique/

7. European Council and Council of the European Union, “EU-US summit statement: ‘Towards a renewed Transatlantic partnership’,” https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2021/06/15/eu-us-summit-statement-towards-a-renewed-transatlantic-partnership/

8. David E. Sanger, Steven Erlanger, and Roger Cohen, “Biden Tells Allies ‘America Is Back,’ but Macron and Merkel Push Back,” New York Times, February 19, 2021, p. A1.

9. Stephen Blank, “Reflections on Russian Nuclear Strategy,” in Adam B. Lowther, ed., Guide to Nuclear Deterrence in the Age of Great-Power Competition (Bossier City, LA: Louisiana Tech Research Institute, 2020), p. 231.

10. Denis Corboy, William Courtney, and Kenneth Yalowitz, “Disrespecting Europe Could Cost Russia,” National Interest, July 20, 2021, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/disrespecting-europe-could-cost-russia-190050

11. Julian Kamasa, “Franco-German-British Security Cooperation After Brexit,” in Brian G. Carlson and Oliver Thränert, eds. Strategic Trends 2021: Key Developments in Global Affairs (Zurich: Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich, 2021), pp. 47-48.

12. Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. HM Government, United Kingdom. Presented to Parliament by the Prime Minister by Command of Her Majesty, March 2021, pp. 18, 26.

13. Dan Sabbagh, “Royal Navy ship off Crimea sparks diplomatic row between Russia and UK,” Guardian, June 23, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/23/russian-ship-fired-warning-shots-at-royal-navy-destroyer-hms-defender-moscow-says

14. Matthias Matthijs and Daniel Kelemen, “The Other Side of Angela Merkel,” Foreign Policy, July 9, 2021.

15. Constance Stelzenmüller, “Germany Is Pouring Cold Water on the Biden-Europe Love Fest,” Foreign Policy, January 22, 2021.

16. Aime Williams and Roman Olearchyk, “Germany and US reach truce over Nord Stream 2 pipeline,” Financial Times, July 21, 2021.

17. Brands, “The Emerging Biden Doctrine.”

18. Gustav Gressel, Kari Liik, Jeremy Shapiro, et al., “Emmanuel Macron’s Very Big Idea on Russia,” Commentary, European Council on Foreign Relations, September 25, 2019.

19. Victor Mallet, James Shotter, and Michael Peel, “Emmanuel Macron’s pivot to Russia sparks EU unease,” Financial Times, September 11, 2019.

20. Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to the German Bundestag at the debate held at the request of the parliamentary group of Alliance 90/The Greens on “What consequences should the Federal Government draw from violence, arbitrary acts and repression in Russia?” February 10, 2021, https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/newsroom/news/maas-russia/2441452

21. Guy Chazan, Sam Fleming, Mehreen Khan, et al., “Merkel’s failed Russia summit signals waning of her power,” Financial Times, June 25, 2021.

22. David Hutt, “The EU’s Worst Nightmare: a China-Russia Axis,” Internationale Politik Quarterly, April 13, 2021, https://ip-quarterly.com/en/eus-worst-nightmare-china-russia-axis

23. Judy Dempsey, “Why the European Union Cannot Do Foreign Policy,” Carnegie Europe, February 9, 2021, https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/83841

24. François Godement, Europe’s Pushback on China, Institut Montaigne, Policy Paper, June 2020.

25. European Commission and HR/VP Contribution to the European Council, EU-China—A Strategic Outlook, March 12, 2019, p. 1, https://ec.europa.eu/info/publications/eu-china-strategic-outlook-commission-contribution-european-council-21-22-march-2019_en

26. BDI, China—Partner and Systemic Competitor: How Do We Deal with China’s State-Controlled Economy? January 10, 2019, https://english.bdi.eu/article/news/strengthen-the-european-union-to-better-compete-with-china/

27. NATO Reflection Group, NATO 2030: United for a New Era, Analysis and Recommendations of the Reflection Group Appointed by the NATO Secretary General, December 25, 2020, pp. 27-28.

28. Erlanger and Shear, “Shifting Focus, NATO Views China as a Global Security Challenge.”

29. Hal Brands, “Germany Is a Flashpoint in the U.S.-China Cold War,” Bloomberg, February 23, 2021.

30. Julianne Smith, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Carisa Nietsche, et al., Charting a Transatlantic Course to Address China (Washington, D.C.: Center for a New American Security and German Marshall Fund of the United States, October 2020), pp. 2, 10.

31. Mikko Huotari, Jan Weidenfeld, and Claudia Wessling, Towards a ‘Principles First Approach’ in Europe’s China Policy: Drawing Lessons from the Covid-19 Crisis (Berlin: MERICS, September 2020), p. 17.

32. Kamasa, “Franco-German-British Security Cooperation After Brexit,” p. 47.

33. Ben Hall, “Emmanuel Macron’s low profile on China is strategic,” Financial Times, August 19, 2020.

34. Global Britain in a competitive age, pp. 16, 22, 26.

35. Erlanger and Shear, “Shifting Focus, NATO Views China as a Global Security Challenge.”

36. Bobo Lo and Edward Lucas, Partnership Without Substance: Sino-Russian Relations in Central and Eastern Europe (Washington, D.C.: Center for European Policy Analysis, 2021), p. 7.

37. Demetri Sevastopulo, Sam Fleming, and Michael Peel, “Will Europe sign up to Joe Biden’s plan to counter China?” Financial Times, June 7, 2021.

38. Otto Tabuns, “European States Reappraise Their Diplomatic and Investment Relationships with China,” China Brief 20:13 (July 29, 2020); LRT, “Lithuania puts off deepwater port project eyed by China ‘for at least a decade,’” April 2, 2021.

39. Reuters, “Britain bans new Huawei 5G kit installation from September 2021,” November 30, 2020.

40. Mathieu Rosemain and Gwénaëlle Barzic, “Exclusive: French limits on Huawei 5G equipment amount to de facto ban by 2028,” Reuters, July 22, 2020.

41. Laurens Cerulus, “Germany falls in line with EU on Huawei,” Politico, April 23, 2021.

42. “Policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific,” in Germany–Europe–Asia: Shaping the 21st Century Together (Berlin: The Federal Government of Germany, 2020), https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/aussenpolitik/regionaleschwerpunkte/asien/german-government-policy-guidelines-indo-pacific/2380510; “German warship to sail through South China Sea, officials say,” Reuters, March 2, 2021.

43. Hal Brands, “Europe Needs to Embrace China’s Threat to the World,” Bloomberg, April 30, 2021.

44. William Boston and Stu Woo, “Huawei Gets Conditional Green Light in Germany as Government Approves Security Bill,” Wall Street Journal, December 16, 2020.

45. Katrin Bennhold and Jack Ewing, “In Huawei Battle, China Threatens Germany ‘Where It Hurts’: Automakers,” New York Times, January 16, 2020.

46. Andrea Thomas, “China Becomes Germany’s Leading Trading Partner,” Wall Street Journal, February 24, 2017; Michael Hirsh, “Will the United States and Europe Break Up Over China?” Foreign Policy, July 14, 2021; BBC News, “China overtakes US as EU’s biggest trading partner,” February 17, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-56093378

47. Matthijs and Kelemen, “The Other Side of Angela Merkel”; Hirsh, “Will the United States and Europe Break Up Over China?”

48. Germany Is Pouring Cold Water on the Biden-Europe Love Fest.”

49. Timothy Garton Ash, “VW’s dilemma in Xinjiang shows how the west is headed for an ethical car crash,” Guardian, July 28, 2021.

50. Brands, “Germany Is a Flashpoint in the U.S.-China Cold War.”

51. Hirsh, “Will the United States and Europe Break Up Over China?”

52. Brands, “Germany Is a Flashpoint in the U.S.-China Cold War.”

53. Matthijs and Kelemen, “The Other Side of Angela Merkel.”

54. Stelzenmüller, “Germany Is Pouring Cold Water on the Biden-Europe Love Fest.”

55. Erlanger and Shear, “Shifting Focus, NATO Views China as a Global Security Challenge.”

56. Remarks by Janka Oertel, director of the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, in Alexander Gabuev and Janka Oertel, “Podcast: What’s Europe’s Strategy for Managing China and Russia?” Carnegie Moscow Center, February 26, 2021, https://carnegie.ru/commentary/83946

57. Alexander Gabuev, “As Russia and China Draw Closer, Europe Watches with Foreboding,” Carnegie Moscow Center, March 19, 2021.

58. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and David Shullman, “Navigating the Deepening Russia-China Partnership” (Washington, D.C.: Center for a New American Security, January 2021), pp. 1, 24.

59. Gabuev, “As Russia and China Draw Closer, Europe Watches with Foreboding.”

60. Kendall-Taylor and Shullman, “Navigating the Deepening Russia-China Partnership,” p. 29.

61. Brian G. Carlson, “China-Russia Relations and Transatlantic Security,” in Brian G. Carlson and Oliver Thränert, eds. Strategic Trends 2021: Key Developments in Global Affairs (Zurich: Center for Security Studies, ETH Zurich, 2021), pp. 11-36.

62. Gabuev, “As Russia and China Draw Closer, Europe Watches with Foreboding.”

63. Brands, “The Emerging Biden Doctrine: Democracy, Autocracy, and the Defining Clash of Our Time.”

64. Economist, “Emmanuel Macron Warns Europe: NATO is Becoming Brain-Dead,” November 7, 2019.

65. Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to the German Bundestag.

66. Quoted in Hutt, “The EU’s Worst Nightmare: a China-Russia Axis.”

67. Marcin Kaczmarski, “The Sino-Russian Relationship and the West,” Survival 62:6 (December 2020-January 2021), pp. 199-212.

68. Remarks by Alexander Gabuev, chair of the Russia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, in Gabuev and Oertel, “Podcast: What’s Europe’s Strategy for Managing China and Russia?”

69. Franklin D. Kramer, “Priorities for a Transatlantic China Strategy” (Washington, D.C.: The Atlantic Council, November 2020).

70. Henrik Larsen, “NATO’s Strategic Concept: Three Do’s and Don’ts,” Policy Perspectives 6 (June 10, 2021), Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich.

71. Lauren Speranza, “A Strategic Concept for Countering Russian and Chinese Hybrid Threats,” (Washington, D.C.: Atlantic Council, Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, July 2020).

72. Brands, “Europe Needs to Embrace China’s Threat to the World.”

73. Carlson, “China-Russia Relations and Transatlantic Security.”

74. Economist, “Emmanuel Macron Warns Europe: NATO is Becoming Brain-Dead”; Gressel, Liik, et al., “Emmanuel Macron’s Very Big Idea on Russia.”

75. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, “Europe still needs America,” Politico, November 2, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/europe-still-needs-america/

76. Stephanie Babst, “Germany Is Unprepared for Strategic Simultaneity,” Internationale Politik Quarterly 3 (July 2021); Matthijs and Kelemen, “The Other Side of Angela Merkel.”

77. Thorston Benner, “The Undeniable Pessimism of Angela Merkel,” Foreign Policy, July 14, 2021.

78. Stelzenmüller, “Germany Is Pouring Cold Water on the Biden-Europe Love Fest.”

79. Brands, “Germany Is a Flashpoint in the U.S.-China Cold War.”

80. Hutt, “The EU’s Worst Nightmare: a China-Russia Axis.”

81. Babst, “Germany Is Unprepared for Strategic Simultaneity”; Peter Rough, “Biden Can’t Avoid Getting Tough on Europe Much Longer,” Foreign Policy, April 28, 2021.

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