When did Europe become so afraid of China?
Last month, the European Commission published its much-awaited new strategic outlook on China. The document offers up sweeping judgments on China’s development strategy and 10 detailed responses. It is written in the usual technocratic jargon that is second, or even first, nature to officials in Brussels, but it also shows signs of a more political approach. China is described as a “systemic rival,” whose economic power and political influence have grown with unprecedented scale and speed.
There’s been a significant change in Europe’s attitude to Beijing. Not too long ago, Europeans shrugged at China’s rise. Overnight, it seems, their world changed. So, why did the tide turn? And how did we get here?
First, there was the story of the solar panels. European producers once enjoyed a clear first-mover advantage, and yet the industry has been all but wiped out in Europe. Look at the list of the world’s 10 largest solar-panel manufacturers. In 2001, five were European. In 2018, eight were Chinese; the other two were Canadian and South Korean.
Then there was Kuka, the crown jewel of German robotics, which was taken over by Chinese home-appliance maker Midea in 2016. What happened next has become part of a now recognizable pattern: Once a firm is acquired by a Chinese company, its European suppliers are abandoned for Chinese value chains.
The latest threat comes from China’s commercial aviation industry. U.S. aircraft manufacturer Boeing estimates that over the next two decades China will need 7,690 new planes, valued at $1.2 trillion. This is a huge opportunity for China’s domestic industry, and Beijing has marked aerospace and aviation equipment as one of 10 strategic industries it is boosting through its “Made in China 2025” initiative.
Industry experts estimate that it will take China 10 years to be able to compete with Boeing and Airbus. But this doesn’t mean China is far behind its Western competitors. Ten years will go by quickly. By 2030, the last holdouts will have fallen, and Europe will be under the imminent threat of being swallowed up by a country three or four times the size of the European Union.
There is something predatory going on here. The question though is: Is it China? Or is this just the way the world works and has always worked?
Recently I had lunch with a British diplomat in Beijing. As I described what a Chinese-led world order might look like, he sat back in his chair and commented with a wry smile: “Looks like the British empire to me.”
It also looks like the American empire. The British empire may be gone, but its American cousin is very much alive. As the recent trade war shows, once the United States feels threatened by China, it can bring Beijing to the negotiating table. Boeing may be as vulnerable to Chinese competition as Europe’s Airbus, but the company can count on America to come to its aid in an hour of need.
The EU would not be able to muster a similar feat. It is too divided. Today, even a simple vote in the Council of the EU can’t gather the necessary unanimity if the decision is seen to clash with Chinese interests in Europe. Countries such as Hungary or Greece — long courted by China and keen to keep Beijing happy — will veto it.
Things would be different if the EU were a genuine political union — there would be no Hungarian or Greek veto. Capitals would lose their competence in foreign policy and a fully democratic common power would be fully in charge of external relations.
Europeans have been trying to achieve such a political union for the last 70 years, but is has remained an unfulfilled promise. Perhaps that’s because the EU lacks the most basic ingredient of political unity: the fear of an external threat.
The U.S. has played a critical and often overlooked role in eliminating this perception of a common enemy. By extending an unconditional security guarantee to its allies, it ensured that the Soviet Union would never become an existential threat to Europe. At the same time, American society and politics were too similar to Europe’s — in their values and aims — for Washington’s allies across the Atlantic to feel genuinely threatened by the extent of American power.
This geopolitical limbo was comfortable enough. It allowed Europe to take a long holiday from history. It prevented a political union from becoming a necessity.
That’s why China’s rise is so important. It sets the stage for a great historical drama, one that will feature scenes in Lisbon, Shanghai and everywhere in between. And this time, Europe won’t be able to rely on the U.S. being ready to sweep in with a deus ex machina.
Even as China — with its unrivaled economic and technological dynamism — starts to look like a much greater threat to Europeans than the Soviet Union ever did, Washington does not seem to have either the capacity or the willingness to reprise its role from the Cold War.
As in the famous play by Pirandello, European nations can be seen as a series of characters in search of an author. That search may be over. In China, they have found the external force that can bring them together.