China’s Rise and Transatlantic Tensions

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

February 12, 2007

For several years now, one of the most important trends in international relations has been the apparent disintegration of what was once called “the West.”

Under George W. Bush, it was often noted, America was becoming hawkish, religious and unilateralist, while Europeans were seeking to create a “multi- polar world” based on international law and very different cultural values.

Viewed from Washington or Paris, there was certainly much to be said for this assessment—which the split over the Iraq war seemingly confirmed.

Viewed from the other side of the world, however, and in light of recent developments, the differences within the West no longer seem so great. On a wide range of global issues, Americans and Europeans are coming together. As they do so, engaging a rising China will be one of their greatest challenges.

This is the conclusion that emerges from a week- long trip to Asia with a group of U.S. and European foreign-policy analysts and former officials, designed to explore how America and Europe could better work together in managing China’s rise. Ironically, the premise of the trip was that divergent trans-Atlantic perspectives on China—an impression fueled by the dispute over the potential lifting of the EU’s arms embargo on China—could turn out to be one more nail in the coffin of the West. Instead, talks with Chinese officials and analysts underscore not only that the trans-Atlantic gaps are narrowing but that gaps between China and the West need serious attention.

One issue on which this new dynamic could not be clearer or more important is Iran. To be sure, trans- Atlantic differences on Iran remain, and Europeans still worry about a possible U.S. military strike on Tehran’s nuclear program. More broadly, however, American and European positions have converged, and both sides agree that the best approach is one that offers Iran political and economic incentives to suspend uranium enrichment but threatens sanctions and isolation if it does not. China, however—while declaring its support for the goal of a non-nuclear Iran—refuses to back even the mild sanctions proposed by the European Union and required by a UN Security Council Resolution that China supported. In a critique the Americans once leveled at the EU, Americans and Europeans now together complain that China is putting its economic interests above its global responsibility for nonproliferation. Without Chinese (and Russian) help, however, even a united West cannot solve the problem.

Another example is climate change. For years, Europeans have been justifiably furious with the United States for its refusal to accept evidence that human activity was causing potentially catastrophic global warming. More recently, however, the U.S. debate has started to change, states like California have taken the lead in mandating carbon emissions cuts, and even the Bush administration has had to admit the problem. The new Democratic Congress is putting forward emissions-curbing legislation and the next president will almost certainly move America closer to the longstanding European position. China, however, is dragging its feet.

China’s policies in Africa and Latin America are also diverging from a growing Western consensus. Driven by a thirst for oil and in the name of respecting sovereignty, China is developing close political ties with and selling weapons to some of the world’s least respectable regimes—in Chad, Cuba, Ethiopia, Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Even on the issue of China itself, the trans-Atlantic gap seems to be narrowing. The EU’s planned lifting of its divisive arms embargo, for example, was put on ice indefinitely when the National People’s Congress in March 2005 passed an “Anti-Secession Law” threatening to use military force to prevent a declaration of independence by Taiwan. That message was reiterated loudly and clearly to our group when a Chinese general told us that “Taiwan independence means war” and reminded us that the People’s Liberation Army had fought three wars and had never been defeated. To use an expression once applied to the trans-Atlantic relationship, it was a nice illustration of how China is still living on Mars, while America, in the wake of the Iraq disaster, is moving closer to Venus.

There are still real differences within the West, of course. But it is also clear that those differences are narrowing, and that the announcement of the end of the trans-Atlantic partnership was premature. The containment of Russia may no longer provide the glue to hold that partnership together, but the common interest in engaging China ought to.