Time for Europe and U.S. To Face China's Global Threat—Together | Opinion

The Trump Administration may be declaring victory in the Phase One trade deal with China, but the conflict between the reigning superpower and the aspiring peer competitor is far from over. In fact, U.S.-China competition will be the defining factor of the international system for decades to come.

Building coalitions is a vital requirement in managing such global confrontations. Whether the countries of the EU will support the U.S. and recognize the threat from China to their own security and prosperity remains a challenge for Washington and for Brussels, Berlin, Paris, and other European capitals. The recent investigation of two former senior EU officials suspected of spying for China is sure to compound growing fears over the PRC's expanding presence across Europe.

China already has Russia as an ally, a major nuclear power and a cornucopia of raw materials, which nicely compliments Beijing's industrial appetite. And Pakistan allows China to hold India in a lock while granting it access to the Indian Ocean.

What does the U.S. have? Japan, India, Australia. But Europe?

As other similar strategic competitions suggest, including Athens-Sparta, Rome-Carthage, Rome-Greece, Spain-England, British Empire-France, British Empire – Germany, U.S.-USSR—these conflicts are protracted games. Like multi-dimensional chess (or the Chinese game of Go) they are fought out in military, economic, cultural/ideological, and even religious, realms. And allies provide complimentary economic muscle, military power, expertise, and geographic reach the principal power may not have.

Last month, I participated in a two-day conference in Berlin dedicated to the US-European joint assessment of the emerging Chinese challenge. The prestigious Loisach Group on U.S.-German strategic dialogue organized the event. It is a part of the George C. Marshall Center, a military and policy training institution, funded by the Pentagon and the German Defense Ministry. Senior officials and experts from both countries attend closed-door discussions.

In the era of Trump, lots of disagreements simmer between Washington and Berlin: military expenditures, the Nord Stream Two pipeline from Russia, US trade tariffs on German cars, the Iran nuclear deal. But Americans and Germans can agree that prevailing assumptions about Chinese internal political developments over the past three decades since Chairman Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping's reforms, were wrong. Markets, capitalism, free trade, and openness have not made China the important and cooperative stakeholder in the international system they had hoped. Instead, China tramples on intellectual property and heavily subsidizes its economic sectors.

Chairman Xi Jinping's crackdown on political foes, including top party officials and generals, and on the Muslim population in Xinjiang and beyond, suggest that China's political system may be incompatible with the West. One hopes that these differences will not lead to the 21st century version of the Peloponnesian Wars between the democratic Athens and the austere and autocratic Sparta. Well, in the end, Athens lost, but the weakened Sparta was conquered by Rome.

The U.S. and China are in the process of partial economic decoupling, and the lack of trust between the leaders and the elites spills over into other realms. This includes the U.S. push to abandon Chinese advanced technologies, such as 5G, while criticizing China's Belt and Road Initiative as creating "debt-trap imperialism".

Washington is also worried about Beijing's space and naval advances, including the 24/7/365 schedule of its shipyards which are working hard to build a new, massive People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). China also refuses to join Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) talks while boasting the largest INF arsenal, as the USSR and the U.S. abandoned this class of weapons in 1987. Beijing claims their arsenal is purely defensive in nature.

The U.S. is also concerned about China's intentions to make Europe, its principal ally, the target of its ambitious Belt and Road initiative. It is on a shopping spree purchasing interests in European ports, including the strategic Piraeus in Greece, Zeebrugge in Belgium, and terminals in Valencia, Spain. This is a part of the global infrastructure grab, including ports from Gwadar (Pakistan) to Colombo (Sri Lanka), and from Djibouti to Haifa (Israel).

China is also using Europe as the market for its goods and technology, buying the German robotics company Kuka in 2018 for $5.3 billion. China also sought to build nuclear power stations in Europe including the UK, and has purchased massive stakes in the electric transmissions and distributions systems of Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain.

China also sends tens of thousands of students to Europe to study STEM necessary for its long march forward. In fact, out of 1,000,000 foreign students in the U.S., 350,000 are from China. Among the Masters, PhD, and post-doc students, many focus on dual-use disciplines, from materials engineering to aerospace, and from big data and AI to genomics.

PRC leadership is also pushing its Made in China 2025 industrial policy program to acquire commanding heights in tech. The Council on Foreign Relations has called China 2025 "an existential threat to American innovation".

Beijing understands that without sufficient "hard" power dominance—the power to coerce—it will not be able to fulfill the dictum of the great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu: that the ultimate proof of the art of war is the ability to defeat an opponent without fighting. The Europeans need to understand, as many Americans do, that Beijing's goal to acquire leadership in pharmaceuticals, automotive, aerospace, semiconductors, IT and robotics would lead to their industrial and economic demise.

To its credit, NATO, at its December Summit in London, referred for the first time to the Chinese security challenge. Earlier last year Germany, France and the U.K. sent their naval ships for freedom of navigation sails-through in the South China Sea.

To deter and ultimately win the inescapable confrontation with China without a major war, the U.S. and European allies will need to clearly define their interests. They need to recognize, uphold, and protect political Western civilization and the democratic political system, based on political freedom and individual rights. The collective West should also defend its and market economy based on competition and the rule of law against technology theft and intellectual property rights violations.

In turn, the U.S. will need to learn to recognize and respect its allies' vital national interests. Beyond that, consultations and coordination need to be kicked up to a higher level, including the fields of defense, intelligence, technology, and education. Giving China a free ride, educating its weapons designers, protecting its global trade routes, and gifting them intellectual property, should no long be an option.

Trump's trade deal is just the beginning. This is no time to rest on our laurels.

A strong U.S.-European alliance is vital to global stability and security, and that includes Europe rising to the challenge and supporting the U.S. vis-à-vis Iran and Russia. Without a redoubled effort and a revitalized alliance, the West faces a dire future. But if we pool our resources, the freedom coalition has more than a fighting chance to prevail.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Principal, International Market Analysis. He is a member of the George C. Marshall Center's Loisach Group.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​