The End of the European Illusion on China | Opinion

With about one third of 2021 in the books, the COVID-19 pandemic remains the dominant force shaping the geopolitical environment. But don't miss the quiet emergence of one of the year's most significant geopolitical trends: Europe is hardening in its determination to confront the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Even as the Trump administration began to lead a domestic and international opinion shift on China from 2017-2019, many of Europe's leaders, driven primarily by economic concerns, kept hoping that Europe could more or less keep brushing aside differences with a Marxist-Leninist regime that has consistently failed to respect international agreements, transparency in dealings or global norms of engagement.

Then reality hit. European democracies were incensed at Beijing's deadly cover-up of the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, as well as China's "wolf warrior" diplomats who publicly savaged European political and media voices for rightly condemning China's mishandling of the outbreak. The trust deficit continued to grow as China continued to eviscerate Hong Kong's promised autonomy and perpetrate genocide against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. So too were European leaders coming to understand, thanks in large part to the Trump administration's diplomatic efforts, how Beijing's push into Europe's technological sector jeopardized national security, proprietary knowledge and online privacy and data protections—a major issue for many EU leaders. Dozens of European nations signed on to the State Department's "Clean Network" strategy banning untrusted 5G vendors (i.e., Huawei) from Europe's networks.

A sweeping EU-China trade and investment deal agreed to in January seemed to augur a decline in public friction, even if it didn't reverse Europe's toughening stance. But in the same way the wolf warriors' belligerent rhetoric has damaged China's standing abroad, Beijing scored another own goal last March. The CCP slapped sanctions on leading European critics of its genocidal campaign in Xinjiang, such as German Member of European Parliament Reinhard Bütikofer and anthropologist Adrian Zenz, the world's indispensable researcher on the Xinjiang nightmare.

Such norm-violating punishment of legitimate criticism was anathema to virtually the entire European political class. The European Parliament's approval of the trade deal with China is now uncertain. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell has reportedly said the sanctions have created "a new atmosphere," meaning an even deeper skepticism of Beijing's activities. That view is reaffirmed by an EU "progress report" on China reportedly now circulating in Brussels. The report's summary letter, co-authored by Borrell and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, reflects a growing understanding that Europe and the CCP are out of step on, well, almost everything: "The reality is that the EU and China have fundamental divergences, be it about their economic systems and managing globalization, democracy and human rights, or on how to deal with third countries. These differences are set to remain for the foreseeable future and must not be brushed under the carpet."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel Clemens Bilan-Pool/Getty Images

This year's deeper awakening is more than words. On April 23, German lawmakers passed legislation to restrict CCP Trojan horses like Huawei from their country's networks, keeping in step with the U.K. and France. Twenty-five EU ambassadors to Brussels, perhaps surveying how an expensive, much-delayed Chinese highway project has forced tiny Montenegro to request an EU bailout, pushed on April 21 to bolster how the bloc can counter Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative. EU Trade Minister Valdis Dombrovskis recently said the EU should remain "more assertive when it comes to unfair practices from other countries,"—i.e., China. All of this comes on top of six European leaders refusing to show up for the EU-China 17+1 summit in February—a gathering that Beijing saw as a key mechanism for striking agriculture and infrastructure pacts with investment-hungry Central and Eastern European nations.

A growing backbone is also evident in the military sphere. The EU has launched its first-ever Indo-Pacific Strategy, which deepens the bloc's security and defense commitments in the region. French warships have led exercises in the South China Sea alongside Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. Even Germany, among the more skittish European powers in committing to military endeavors, intends to send a frigate through the South China Sea later this year for the first time since 2002. And in the human rights space, on April 26 the U.K. joined the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands in labeling the horrors of Xinjiang as genocide. Parliaments in Belgium, Germany and Lithuania are considering that same question right now.

The European sea change has implications for U.S.-Europe relations, too. It's true that French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel make loud declarations of European strategic autonomy, and months-old opinion polls proclaim a European desire for neutrality in the U.S.-China rivalry. But just as enthusiasm for Brexit and Donald Trump for president in 2016 caught Western political leaders by surprise, Europe's appetite for closer alignment with the U.S. may already be silently running ahead of elite opinion. Take, for example, the words of Manfred Weber, the chairman of the European Parliament's largest party, the center-right European People's Party: "China has become a global power that is fundamentally challenging our values and our economic interests in the world. It is urgent and crucial that Europe actively works to unite our position with the U.S."

The challenge now falls to President Biden to help consolidate Europe's growing rejection of the CCP threat—a rejection that is likely to only become more pronounced as Chancellor Merkel, one of Europe's most restrained voices in criticizing China, steps down later this year. For all of the old world's hand-wringing on President Trump's so-called disdain for multilateralism, the Trump administration helped elevate China-related issues within NATO and rallied democracies to protect their digital networks and supply chains from the CCP—non-controversial efforts that the Biden administration would be wise to augment. The aggressive climate agenda shared by governments on both sides of the Atlantic is misguided, but since President Biden is serious about pursuing it, why not marshal new multilateral pressure on the world's number one polluting nation, a serial promise-breaker that is unlikely to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement?

America arrived at a consensus perception of the Chinese threat in 2020. Now, 2021 is emerging as the year Europe by and large abandons its middle way on the Middle Kingdom. As President Biden prepares to meet European leaders in June, he will have no shortage of options to help extend the continent's trajectory.

David Wilezol served as the chief speechwriter for Secretaries of State Michael R. Pompeo and Rex Tillerson from 2017-2021.

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