Home The Washington Diplomat July 2020 Rock and a Hard Place: Europe Grapples with Sino-American Rivalry

Rock and a Hard Place: Europe Grapples with Sino-American Rivalry

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In the years since Donald Trump became president, European leaders have become accustomed to America’s surprise decisions and abrupt foreign policy shifts. But even they were taken aback by the June 5 announcement that the U.S. planned to withdraw 9,500 troops from Germany, more than a quarter of the total stationed in military bases across the country.

Observers and experts were also surprised. Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe, described the move as “a colossal mistake and terrible decision that has not come from any strategic analysis.”

“To do a U-turn like this reveals that it was a purely political decision,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “NATO members were absolutely flat-footed and did not know this was going to be put on them.”

The announcement was the latest in a series of events underscoring the security challenges that Europe faces as transatlantic relations deteriorate. President Trump has for years criticized NATO allies, including Germany, for falling short of a defense spending target — 2% of GDP in 2014 — and raised doubts over U.S. participation in common defense. In the past, he has declined to affirm NATO’s mutual defense clause and even reportedly considered leaving the security alliance.

Hodges, who also served as commander of the NATO Allied Land Command in Turkey and is now with the Center for European Policy Analysis, told us that with NATO unity fraying, the need for Europe to shore up its own defense capacity is becoming urgent, particularly as the U.S. turns its attention elsewhere — namely toward China.

“I believe we’re going to be in a kinetic conflict with China in the next five to seven years. Not a land war in China — there is zero reason to do that — but we see what’s happening in Hong Kong and China’s increased hostility toward Taiwan. The Communist Party of China sees the U.S. and its allies distracted, it sees we don’t have the capacity to deal with this, and it makes us vulnerable,” he said.

“What the U.S. needs is a strong European pillar to deter the Kremlin while our air force, special forces and intelligence focus on the Indo-Pacific region. Our ability to contribute to deterrence in Europe would be severely threatened by lack of capacity, which is why there’s a sense of urgency to see Europe do more.”

Stuck in the Middle

The risk of renewed Russian aggression remains a major worry for the European Union.

But much like the U.S., Europe’s attention is shifting further east as well, and the Russia threat is being overshadowed by concerns about Europe’s place in a world dominated by Sino-American rivalries.

“Europe is being affected by the rebalance between China and the U.S.,” said Stéphanie Balme, professor at Sciences Po’s Paris School of International Affairs. “The most fruitful way to overcome the dominance of China-U.S. rivalry in shaping the post-COVID world is to study, in depth, China from within and to go back to the fundamentals of the European project: peace, rule of law, welfare, scientific progress and sustainable development.”

America’s withdrawal from multilateralism is happening as China makes major inroads into Europe via its geopolitical development strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative(BRI).

Keen to deepen trade and investment ties, the EU has been slow to respond to China’s rising influence and increasingly aggressive behavior. European engagement with China has also added to the tensions in the transatlantic relationship.

Researchers at Geopolitical Intelligence Services summed up the problem: “After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush admonished the countries of the world that they could be either with or against the U.S. As the geopolitical winds shift, the same could now be said about China.”

Europe finds itself in a precarious position between two giants at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic, which plunged the continent into its worst recession in history, is exacerbating problems and accelerating trends that could put the entire European project at risk.

Debt-Trap Diplomacy

The BRI epitomizes China’s rising global influence. Unveiled in 2013, it aims to revive ancient Silk Road trade routes through investments and infrastructure development along land and maritime “belts.”

Formerly known as One Belt, One Road, the BRI has evolved and expanded significantly since 2013. It has grown from one belt and road to many, according to the Centre for International Relations and Sustainable Development (CIRSD), and now includes a proposed new link through the Arctic known as the Polar Silk Road and a Digital Silk Road, with projects including smart cities, cloud services, digital payments and internet infrastructure. On the transportation front, the BRI includes plans to build 31,000 kilometers of roads and 12,000 kilometers of railway lines.

The Chinese government reports that more than 125 countries are participating in the initiative, as well as dozens of multinational corporations, many of them major European firms.

For China, the benefits are multifold. The BRI will help open economic doors — especially at a time of rocky trade relations with the U.S. — while increasing the country’s geopolitical influence as it seeks to both reassert Chinese power on the world stage and counter what Beijing sees as U.S. efforts to contain its rise.

For developing countries, the benefits are obvious as well: They receive investment — not just aid — to build up much-needed infrastructure that will help propel their economies. Another plus is that unlike the traditional Western development model, Chinese state-sponsored investment does not come with demands to improve human rights or governance.

On the flip side, however, China’s tendency to pressure cash-strapped governments into signing off on questionable projects under unfavorable terms has been criticized as so-called “debt-trap diplomacy.”

As of October 2018, BRI investment was estimated at more than $1 trillion, eight times larger than the size of America’s post-World War II Marshall Plan in current dollars. The D.C.-based Center for Global Development has reported that eight BRI recipient countries — Djibouti, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Montenegro, Pakistan and Tajikistan —  are at “high risk” of debt distress because of BRI loans, with China set to hold at least 40% of their external debt once BRI lending is complete.

Old guard international financial institutions also have warned of the dangers. The IMF reports that Chinese loans violate international lending best practices, and the World Bank found that Chinese banks require collateral for roughly 60% of their lending to developing countries, meaning that any attempts at debt relief could result in China claiming the rights to assets held in escrow.

Balme, who spent seven years as a visiting professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University and two years as a diplomat at the French Embassy in Beijing, argued that it’s important for Europe to fully understand the BRI.

“Europeans should care about China’s geopolitics and the philosophy of the new world order that China has. This new world order takes different shapes, theoretically speaking — the concept of ‘a community of shared fate,’ for example — but very concretely, it is this huge initiative which can be defined as Chinese globalization,” she said. “It’s not only globalization with Chinese characteristics. It’s a new conception of globalization, ‘à la Chine-monde’ — ‘China-world.’”

BRI and Europe’s Critical Infrastructure

As the envisioned Western terminus of the BRI — the CIRSD describes the initiative as “the flagship link between China and the EU” — Europe has already been impacted by Chinese globalization.

Following the 2009-12 eurozone debt crisis, a sell-off of European assets saw Chinese foreign direct investment peak in 2016, with annual inflows to Europe reaching €37.3 billion, from just €6.7 billion in 2013, according to the Rhodium Group.

Some of this investment helped prop up ailing eurozone economies that had been saddled with onerous loans and painful austerity measures in return for bailouts from Brussels. In Portugal, for example, China invested in electricity, transportation, oil, financial services, insurance, health, tourism and real estate, largely owing to EU demands that the country sell its state-owned assets. As of July 2019, Chinese investment in Portugal totaled more than $10 billion.

Since then, however, Chinese investment in Europe has dropped significantly from its 2016 peak, in part because of a growing political backlash on the continent. But security observers warn that a significant amount of BRI spending in Europe has already been channeled into the acquisition of critical infrastructure.

The state-owned China Ocean Shipping Company Limited (COSCO), the world’s largest shipping company, acquired 51% of the Piraeus Port Authority in Greece in 2016. In November 2019, the two agreed on a €600 million investment plan that will give COSCO an additional 16% stake in the port, with the aim of transforming Piraeus into Europe’s largest commercial harbor.

COSCO also owns 90% of the sole terminal operator in Zeebrugge, Belgium, and a 51% stake in the largest port terminals in the Spanish cities of Valencia and Bilbao. It owns additional minority stakes in terminals in Antwerp, Las Palmas and Rotterdam.

“China has invested so much through BRI and wound up with Piraeus Port, a rail line up to Budapest, and on the end of the Silk Road is Duisberg in Germany. Tens of thousands of containers coming by rail and sea are ending up in Duisberg, and China has a lot of control of this infrastructure,” said Hodges. “Not only does it ensure China’s ability to compete, it could disrupt our ability to move in a crisis. That’s the number one concern.”

Political Pressure Points

European cohesion is also under pressure from BRI investment.

One of China’s earliest investment initiatives in Europe was the 16+1 sub-regional cooperation format, a €10 billion initiative aimed at delivering projects in Central and Eastern Europe.

Established in 2012, the cooperation comprises China, 11 EU members (Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia) and five Balkan countries. The initiative became 17+1 in 2019 when Greece joined.

“The 17+1 format was a great political mistake from China because it sounded the alarm bells in Brussels. There was never a united EU policy for trading with China, but 17+1 caused a political sea change because it was obvious the Chinese were imitating the U.S. to disunite Europe,” said Benoît d’Aboville, a former French diplomat who served as ambassador to the Czech Republic, Poland and NATO in the 1990s and 2000s.

The 17+1 format has been deeply unpopular in Brussels owing to the BRI’s lack of political conditionality. One of the most controversial facets of BRI lending is its notion of “no political strings attached,” meaning Beijing’s official position is that it will not pursue political self-interest with its investments and will not interfere in the internal affairs of borrower countries.

For poorer or newer EU member states resistant to the union’s rule of law and governance mandates, no strings attached has been a major selling point.

Hungary, for example, was the first country to sign on to the 16+1 cooperation. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a populist strongman and frequent thorn in the EU’s side, has “enthusiastically welcomed China’s forays into Europe,” according to the Financial Times. His administration has been working with China since 2013 to build a €2.3 billion, 350-kilometer high-speed rail line that will link Budapest to Belgrade.

Hungary will finance just 15% of the costs itself, and the rest will be borrowed from China’s Export-Import Bank. A major contract for the construction work was awarded to Orbán’s friend and ally, Lorinc Meszaros.

Western Balkans countries also have been eager to sign up for BRI investment. Despite warnings from Brussels, many big-ticket projects are still moving forward. In Montenegro, a €1.3 billion highway that will eventually link the Port of Bar in the Adriatic Sea to Belgrade is currently under construction, while borrowing from China to finance the project has pushed the country’s debt from 63% of GDP in 2012 to 80% after the loan was finalized. In the event of a default, China will have the option to seize Montenegrin land offered as collateral.

Balme argues that China is creating the type of East-West divisions that split the continent under communism.

“China is reorganizing in Eastern Europe what used to exist under the Soviet system in terms of foreign trade, investments and bilateral diplomacy. If we don’t pay attention, some parts of Europe under the 17+1 initiative might be dismantled quickly without us noticing it,” warned Balme. “Europe needs to prepare itself to protect its investments, technology, norms and its fundamentals. It needs a united foreign investment policy, not only facing the U.S., but also facing China.”

Division and Crisis

With many European countries welcoming BRI investment and Brussels distracted by a litany of crises — from tensions with Russia to populist, nationalist parties gaining power — the European Union’s BRI policy response has been weak.

The sole EU policy dedicated to the BRI, the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy, was not released until 2018 and did not even mention the initiative by name. Meanwhile, at the second annual Belt and Road Summit held in Beijing in 2019, the EU was once again not represented at the highest level.

So while the EU has formally labeled China a “systemic rival,” its economic dependence on one of the world’s largest consumer markets seems to have hamstrung its efforts to confront China on its authoritarianism and human rights violations.

For example, the EU has not followed the U.S. in imposing trade sanctions on China after Beijing passed a controversial security law in Hong Kong. Although America’s envoy warned the EU against making friends with China’s “dictatorship,” Balme said it’s difficult to criticize China given what’s happening in the United States.

“What can be the legitimacy of President Trump’s discourse about Hong Kong as we witness police violence in the U.S.? We need to be able to reply to what the Chinese media call ‘the double standards on protests’ in the West,” she said.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has only heightened the risks associated with Europe’s economic dependence on China.

In May, the European Commission projected Europe’s economy will contract by 7.4% in 2020, the “deepest recession in its history,” and in July, the IMF forecast a 10.2% contraction in the eurozone this year.

Public debt in Europe, particularly in its poorer, southern member states, is approaching crisis levels as governments scramble to provide aid and stimulus packages. This leaves European assets vulnerable to another fire sale and opens the door to a new wave of BRI investment, prompting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to warn in April that the “geopolitical effects of the pandemic could be significant” if economic difficulties make “some allies more vulnerable for situations where critical infrastructure can be sold out.”

But the Mercator Institute for China Studies reported that an “opportunistic Chinese buying spree” is less likely in 2020 than after the 2012 crisis because of China’s own economic slowdown. Reports of BRI projects stalling and being canceled as a result of the pandemic are already emerging.

Nevertheless, as Europe saw at the onset of COVID-19, China is flexing its muscles in other ways, exploiting existing fault lines and pursuing an aggressive new brand of diplomacy.

Mask Diplomacy

In Europe’s early days of the pandemic, China was quick to engage in so-called “mask diplomacy,” supplying key resources to Europe to bolster Beijing’s reputation abroad.

By mid-March, as much of Europe was paralyzed by lockdowns and struggling to mobilize a unified response, China was sending 10 flights a week carrying millions of masks to the Czech Republic. Jack Ma, China’s wealthiest man, promised 2 million masks to countries including Spain, Italy, Belgium and France, while Chinese tech giant Huawei offered large volumes of personal protective equipment (PPE) to Ireland.

Early donations were highly publicized and came at a time when many European countries — notably Italy — felt abandoned by the EU. German and Italian experiences highlight the north-south divide: Germany drew sharp criticism when it banned all exports of PPE, while Italy, the worst-hit country in Europe at the time, did not get any help from its neighbors.

In a March 10 article in Politico, Maurizio Massari, Italy’s ambassador to the EU, wrote that “unfortunately, not a single EU country responded to [our] call. Only China responded bilaterally. Certainly, this is not a good sign of European solidarity.”

Germany reversed its PPE export ban in mid-March, and signs of a pushback emerged when countries such as Spain and the Netherlands rejected Chinese-made medical equipment later in the month, claiming masks and testing kits were defective. Medical personnel and shipments of supplies from European countries were arriving in Italy by April and since then, EU coronavirus assistance to member states has significantly dwarfed the supplies that China initially provided.

But the PR damage had been done. A Technè survey conducted in March showed that 67% of Italians viewed EU membership as a disadvantage for their country, compared to 47% in November 2018.

Wolf Warriors

As concerns surrounding mask diplomacy and China’s handling of the outbreak began to mount, Beijing’s goodwill PR offensive wound down and Chinese diplomats became more outspoken and critical of detractors.

Known as “wolf warriors” — the name comes from a popular 2015 Chinese action film — this new generation of diplomats has been involved in social media spats with Kazakhstan, Iran, Pakistan and Singapore over coronavirus responses. The Center for Strategic and International Studies criticized these wolf warriors for “peddling jingoistic rhetoric at home and lashing out at critics abroad in a sign of Beijing’s hypersensitivity amid the pandemic.”

The wolf warriors have faced criticism in Europe, too. In mid-April, the French foreign office summoned China’s ambassador to express “deep disapproval” over Chinese diplomats’ controversial claims — including that France had left its older citizens to die during the pandemic and that Western support for “herd immunity” would lead to a “viral massacre.”

“Chinese diplomats who were almost invisible in Europe have become much more active during the pandemic. So-called wolf warrior diplomats are deploying anti-Western propaganda and it has been very tense, almost inconceivable,” said Balme.

Dragon in the Room

Meanwhile, in the U.S., tensions with this more assertive China are approaching a boiling point.

After originally praising China’s COVID-19 response, President Trump has ramped up his anti-Chinese rhetoric as America’s death toll mounts — in what critics say is an attempt to deflect attention away from his administration’s own botched response to the pandemic.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, prominent Republican lawmakers and the president himself — who’s referred to the coronavirus as the “Kung Flu” and the plague from China — have repeatedly slammed Beijing for what they say was its lack of transparency during the initial outbreak, which they blame for causing the virus to explode.

The World Health Organization has been caught in the crossfire of this war of words, with Trump recently announcing that he’s withdrawing the U.S. from the WHO, cutting off a major source of funding for the global institution in the midst of a rapidly spreading pandemic.

Trump has accused the WHO of helping China cover up the initial outbreak, claiming that the virus originated in a Wuhan lab and was released in an accident. (China had said earlier that U.S. military members were responsible for the outbreak in Wuhan.)

U.S. scientists disagreed with Trump’s claim and the administration has not offered any evidence to back it up, but the utility of a Chinese cover-up came in handy as America’s chaotic handling of the pandemic became apparent. Politico later published a leaked 57-page Republican Party memo advising members to publicly address the pandemic by attacking China.

While the virus originated in China, Beijing imposed strict lockdowns that contained its spread. Meanwhile, politics has hampered America’s response, with muddled messaging from the administration and states and localities instituting their own panoply of lockdowns.

The United States now leads the world in both coronavirus deaths and cases — with over 135,000 deaths and over 3.1 million cases as of early July. In stark contrast, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker, China has had roughly 85,000 COVID-19 cases and 4,600 deaths. While most experts agree that China has vastly underreported the extent of its outbreak, it’s still clear that the country has succeeded in curbing the virus’s spread.

“I think there is an elephant in the room here. China has handled COVID-19 much better than the Western countries,” said Helene Lavoix, founder and director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society, a London-based risk consultancy group.

This view is shared by many in Europe. On June 29, the European Council for Foreign Relations published a survey showing that 60% of respondents from nine countries that make up two-thirds of the EU’s population had lost trust in the U.S. as a global leader during the pandemic.

One day later, the German Marshall Fund published a survey that found 28% of respondents in France viewed China as the most influential global player, up from 13% in January, while 20% of Germans viewed China as the world’s leading global power, compared to 12% in January.

The European Balancing Act

Plummeting confidence in U.S. leadership and pressing economic concerns have forced Europe into a delicate balancing act.

China is the EU’s second-largest trade partner and third-largest export destination, and the EU is battling for access to its lucrative domestic market, which has been slow to open to outside investors. A highly coveted bilateral investment treaty with China has been under negotiation for years, and Europe’s desire not to ruffle feathers in Beijing has widened divides between the U.S. and EU.

“Europe is for multilateralism, especially France and Germany. There are a lot of issues that can’t be solved without internationalism and negotiation and because of that, we should continue to engage with China,” said d’Aboville.

The Trump administration is, to put it mildly, less keen on the idea, particularly when it comes to technology. The White House has launched an all-out campaign to pressure allies into abandoning Huawei, the Chinese telecom equipment giant that has been instrumental in helping countries build their 5G infrastructure.

In mid-July, for example, Trump’s national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, traveled to Paris to meet with his European counterparts to discuss issues such as 5G security and decreasing reliance on Chinese supply chains.

Even Democrats agree with Trump’s 5G pressure campaign. In February 2020, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized European countries that are using Huawei to build 5G mobile communications networks, warning that it would put “the state police in the pocket of every consumer.”

“Anybody who believes the Chinese government would not be able to hoover up an incredible amount of information is either willfully looking away or is clueless and should not be in any position of power,” Hodges told us.

But Huawei, a dominant player in the telecom equipment market, is key to realizing the 5G dream for many countries. The firm has invested heavily over the years to become a center of innovation that produces high-quality, lower-cost technology, and many countries simply cannot afford to shun Huawei if they want to build super-fast 5G connectivity. Moreover, the U.S. has yet to publicly produce any tangible evidence of Huawei spying or stealing information on behalf of the Chinese government.

Perhaps that’s why U.S. calls to ban Huawei 5G technology have largely fallen flat in Europe. China’s own pressure campaign also probably played a role. As Carisa Nietsche and Martijn Rasser write in an April 30 article in Foreign Policy: “Beijing has been clear that it is willing to retaliate over any country’s decision to ban Huawei from its networks with economic coercion. In December, China’s ambassador to Berlin threatened to torpedo German car sales in China. Beijing directed similar warnings at France.”

Yet Balme, who founded the European Science Diplomacy Initiative at Sciences Po last year, argued that the benefits of cooperation with China go beyond technology spats, export revenues and new trade deals — which the coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp relief.

“We need science diplomacy more than ever to build up common, global, trustworthy ethics among scientists, to depoliticize scientific ethics and to build an international community, not just for the vaccine, but for emerging technologies,” she said, citing artificial intelligence and gene editing as key areas for future cooperation.

A Tougher Stance

While some have criticized the EU for being too accommodating toward Beijing, rising tensions have pushed the bloc to gradually adopt a tougher stance.

Chinese investment in Europe has dropped by nearly 70% since its 2016 peak, sinking to just €11.7 billion in 2019. The recent slowdown of Chinese FDI inflows is the result of reforms to investment screening regimes at the EU and member state level in 2018. (Further FDI screening reforms are expected next year.)

More recently, on June 15, the EU officially imposed tariffs on companies producing glass fiber fabric from China-backed factories in Egypt. While the bloc would normally only consider subsidies from host governments, it made the landmark decision that Egyptian companies had benefited from unfair Chinese subsidies that enabled them to flood Europe with cheap products.

Some European countries are also beginning to push back on 5G development. The U.K. government made an abrupt U-turn in early July when media reports emerged that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was drawing up plans to remove Huawei from its 5G development plans. France is making tentative efforts, with Wolfgang Münchau of the website Eurointelligence describing the country’s Huawei purchase plans as a “middle-of-the-road diplomatic game.”

The EU is also toughening its stance on Chinese propaganda, with the European Commission “naming and shaming” China as a source of COVID-19 disinformation for the first time on June 10.

“This is really important and reflects the fact the European Commission is starting to implement its new strategic outlook regarding China,” said Balme.

Other diplomatic efforts have been less effective, as evidenced by a June 22 videoconference summit between President Xi Jinping, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and other top officials.

European media reported that von der Leyen took a harder stance on trade disagreements, cyberattacks and China’s actions in Hong Kong.

It did not go over well. There was no joint news conference where leaders might have agreed on common positions, and a bilateral investment treaty is unlikely to be finalized this year.

Not Choosing Sides

Von der Leyen referenced a 2019 EU strategic document identifying China as a “systemic rival” in a press conference following the summit.

But EU Foreign Affairs Minister Josep Borrell contradicted her during an interview with the German Marshall Fund on the same day when he said, “We don’t want to engage in a kind of systematic rivalry with China. But on the other hand, we are not naïve. I have said at the beginning of my mandate that we as Europeans have been a little bit naïve with respect to China and on that, I agree with President Trump, who said the same thing.”

Weeks earlier, Borrell had told media that while the pressure to choose sides was growing and Europe must adopt a “more robust” strategy for China, Europeans “should follow our own interests and values and avoid being instrumentalized by one or the other.”

Like Borrell, many Europeans would prefer to not to choose a side: A 2019 study by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that the overwhelming majority of Europeans want the EU to stay out of any conflict between the U.S. and China or with Russia.

“The EU’s priority should be Balkans and Eastern Partnership countries, southern Europeans — countries that we are directly dependent on and that have markets close to us,” said Veronika Wand-Danielsson, head of the Americas Department at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a former ambassador to France and NATO.

“If we can facilitate cooperation, so be it, but our focus should be on stability and democracy — building in candidate countries to the EU, having the neighborhood and focusing on ourselves as well,” she said.

But fears that the war of words between Washington and Beijing could get worse are growing, and Hodges is not the only expert warning of an outright, kinetic conflict with China. On June 4, Roland Paris of Chatham House wrote that “there is mounting concern that the United States might overreact to China.” Weeks later, Foreign Affairs ran an editorial by Michèle Flournoy, former U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, in which she warned that “the United States and China could all too easily stumble into conflict.”

Strategic Autonomy

Unable to reach consensus on how to deal with China, and uncertain about its future relationship with the US, the EU has few attractive options.

Joseph de Wick at the Foreign Policy Research Institute argued that the EU should become a more sovereign political entity and support a neutral stance.

“A Swiss-style foreign policy limited to the pursuit of economic interests, multilateralism, and impartial mediation of conflict may be the only doctrine that Europe’s peoples can unite around,” he wrote.

He noted, however, that “you can only be neutral if you don’t rely on anyone else for security. This is why the Swiss still maintain one of the world’s largest conscription armies. It also explains why Switzerland is a member of neither the EU nor NATO. The EU’s members would thus have to turn their back on the transatlantic defense alliance.”

This view is somewhat similar to that of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has called NATO “braindead” and pushed for Europe to develop its own strategic defense autonomy, independent of the U.S. military.

To that end, the EU launched two important programs in 2018: a collective military procurement initiative called the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defense Fund (EDF) to promote research and development.

A separate initiative, launched with NATO, was slated to provide €6.5 billion to facilitate moving heavy arms through Europe in the event of a crisis, i.e. a conflict with Russia. This initiative would be particularly important for Europe in light of Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany.

The EDF, in particular, was seen as a breakthrough because unlike PESCO, it’s meant to be funded by the EU’s collective, seven-year budget — to the tune of €13 billion — whereas PESCO is funded only by participating nations.

Budgetary pressures are mounting, however, and negotiations for the next budget, which runs from 2021 to 2027, have been derailed by the pandemic’s devastating economic toll (also see “European Union Hopes to Rise to the Challenge with ‘Next Generation’ Budget” online at washdiplomat.com). Even before the pandemic, cuts to military expenditure had emerged in recent budget proposals.

But as geopolitical shifts accelerate and pressure from both China and the U.S. mounts, d’Aboville said Europe is realizing it may have to change its approach and pair diplomacy with harder power.

“It’s a big deal for a continent that is built on soft power — the idea that you cannot have diplomatic influence if you don’t have strength,” he said. “But Europe doesn’t want to be a passive object or a battleground. We want to play a role in the world of tomorrow, if only to defend our own interests and values.”

About the Author

Paige Aarhus (@paigeaarhus) is a journalist and analyst who has written from East Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and India. She is currently studying for a master’s in international security at Sciences Po in Paris.

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