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The Old World and the Middle Kingdom

Europe Wakes Up to China’s Rise

East Meets West: Xi, Macron, and Merkel in Paris, March 2019 SIPA USA / REUTERS

Europe is beginning to face up to the challenges posed by a rising China. From the political debates roiling European capitals over the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei’s involvement in building 5G mobile networks to the tense EU-China summit earlier this year, recent events have shown that European leaders are growing uneasy in a relationship that until recently both sides saw as immensely beneficial. They worry about the political influence China has gained, especially over the EU’s smaller members, and its growing economic clout and technological prowess. They are starting, tentatively, to push back.

To better promote its interests, Europe should use its economic, political, and diplomatic power to level the economic playing field with China, guard against Chinese political influence, and defend democratic values at home. Yet two things stand in the way of such a strategy. First, Europe remains divided over how seriously to take the Chinese challenge. In contrast to the strategic shifts happening in Berlin, Paris, and the EU capital, in Brussels, the leaders of many smaller states still see only the economic benefits of deeper engagement with China. Second, Europe finds itself caught in the middle of a growing U.S.-Chinese rivalry. It cannot abandon its long-standing ties to the United States (even as it squabbles with the Trump administration over everything from tariffs to defense spending), but it also cannot afford to weaken a trade relationship with China worth well over $1 billion a day. Europe is walking a fine line by nominally resisting China’s predatory trade and investment practices but not issuing any meaningful threats. So far, playing it safe has failed to persuade China to change course.  

Europe needs a new approach, one that acknowledges the gravity of the problems posed by China’s rise and outlines a distinctly European, rather than American, response. Europe and the United States should better coordinate their policies on China, but they will never agree on everything. Even without copying Washington’s every move, Europe

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