Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (ret) is a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert.
French president Charles de Gaulle once said: “It will not be any European statesman who will unite Europe: Europe will be united by the Chinese.” He must be turning in his grave to see how Europe has been divided, rather than united, by the Chinese.
On a recent joint visit to China to show European solidarity, president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron, however, seemed poles apart. Von der Leyen criticised China’s friendship with Russia and spoke of a need to “de-risk”. Macron said Europe must avoid being drawn into any US-China conflict over Taiwan, and has maintained that Europe should not become a “vassal”.
Europe’s strategic autonomy lies in how it deals with major powers such as the United States, Russia and China independently, but it won’t happen any time soon. With war raging in Ukraine, Europe is more reliant than ever on America. In reaction to Macron’s comments, US Senator Marco Rubio said if Europe would not pick a side between the US and China over Taiwan, then maybe the US should focus on Taiwan and let the Europeans handle Ukraine themselves.
However long the Ukraine war lasts, the likely outcome is an armistice. Last year, Russia declared the incorporation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Although Russia can hardly have full control of the four provinces, it must have some gains to justify its war. That leaves Ukraine with a nightmare scenario: no Nato membership and the loss of further territory after Crimea.
Europe cannot possibly grow its strategic autonomy while in the shadow of Nato, the transatlantic security alliance. Macron famously said Nato was “brain-dead”. Supporters can point to Finland’s entry to say Nato is becoming more popular, but Macron is still right. The war brilliantly illustrates Nato’s Catch-22: no matter how strong, Nato does not dare launch an attack on the world’s largest nuclear-armed state, but neither can it claim defence – 31 countries ganging up on one looks ludicrous.
Nato may survive and even celebrate its centenary, but so what if it merely becomes irrelevant? The Anglo-Portuguese Alliance is the world’s oldest, at over 600 years, but how many people know, and who really cares?
Much has been said about the advent of another cold war. If the only consensus between Beijing and Washington is to avoid a hot war, then we probably are in a new cold war. What makes this one different, though, is that this is a competition between two giants, rather than two blocs.
The competition, then, is first to see who makes fewer mistakes and, then, who can win over the third parties. The battleground won’t be in the Global South, where the US has very much lost to China, especially in Africa and Latin America. It won’t be in the Indo-Pacific either, where few countries want to take sides. It will be in Europe, where the US has most of its allies and where China is the largest trading partner.
Gradually, the transatlantic alliance will relax. Even if America’s decline is gradual, it cannot afford a global military presence. It will have to retreat from around the world, including from the Middle East and Europe, to focus on the Indo-Pacific, where the US sees China as a long-term threat. Successive US presidents, Republican and Democrat alike, have asked Europeans to take greater ownership of their security. In other words, Europe has to have strategic autonomy, even if it doesn’t want to.
That Europe takes China as a partner, competitor and systemic rival at the same time says more about Europe’s confusion about China, than what China really is. This year has seen a blitz of visits to Beijing by European leaders. The reason is simple: Europe cannot afford to have sour relations with Beijing and Moscow at the same time. The longer the war, the more Europe will look to China for mediation.
Presumably, Europe will deal with China and the US with pragmatism, that is, making choices on issues case by case, rather than picking sides.
There is only one scenario that could change Europe-China relations fundamentally – a war in the Taiwan Strait. But there is no evidence that Taiwan is bound to become the next Ukraine.
Beijing’s strategic patience is also reflected in China’s second military exercise around the island. Even if Beijing clearly took Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California as a provocation, its response was much more measured than when his predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan, in that it simulated attacks without the live firing of weapons.
Beijing knows more than anyone that peaceful reunification is in its best interests, and more importantly, that it is still possible.
The potent legacy of de Gaulle is that every French politician after him seems to be a Gaullist. But if de Gaulle was speaking for France, Macron was trying to speak on behalf of Europe. Time will prove that he is more prescient than von der Leyen. In a 21st-century multipolar world, a Europe that stands as a pole would look its strongest.
(This article was first published on South China Morning Post on May. 2, 2023.)