The Alphen Group V-Conference: “Which China? What Carrots? What Sticks? January 12th, 2021

“Contest, confer, compete, co-operate, co-opt”.

Core message: China is both a pillar of the international trading and investment system and aggressive and increasingly militaristic seeking to coerce and dominate others.  Beijing’s aim is to change globalisation and the Western-led rules of the road which define it and thus a strategic competitor. The transatlantic relationship must be adapted to meet the particular challenge posed by China not least to ensure the US does not deal alone with egregious Chinese behaviour. Therefore, realism, reciprocity and conditionality must shape a Western China policy based on a dual track of dialogue and defence underpinned by a united front. 

The Meeting: The meeting addressed three questions: which China, what carrots and what sticks? Western policy faces two major constraints. The US sees China as an essentially geopolitical challenge, whilst much of Europe, with Germany to the fore, sees China as a mercantilist opportunity and source of post-COVID 19 economic growth. A consistent transatlantic position, let alone policy, would also require four distinct sets of actors to agree all of which have contending interests – the EU, US, the stronger European states, and the corporate sector. ‘Policy’ in such circumstances would encompass the communication to Beijing of parameters of behaviour across geopolitics, trade practices, the rules-based order and human rights the breaching of which would see the suspension of globalisation fromwhich China benefits. For such parameters to be credible the West, including Europe, must be able and willing to both relearn and apply grand strategy. 

Carrots? The Euro-Atlantic ‘West’ is no longer sufficiently powerful to convince Beijing to become a responsible stakeholder in the international rules-based order. The ‘West’ must embrace all the world’s democracies. New multilateral fora, such as the D10, are also needed to legitimise democratic action and corporate actors must be persuaded to uphold the values they espouse in their dealings with China. 

Sticks? China is fast becoming a full spectrum rival. A new transatlantic division of labour is thus needed if NATO is to act as the pivot for a transatlantic relationship which is increasingly shaped by the geopolitics of US-China, China-Russia and EU relations with all three. A close US-EU relationship will be the essential political foundation for a strong transatlantic partnership of equals.  NATO defence and deterrence will only be credible if Europeans can act as high-end military first responders in and around Europe, enabling the US to shift some assets to the Indo-Pacific.  Some US forces must remain in Europe as the ultimate guarantor of peace, but Beijing must also understand the US will always have sufficient military strength to counter China’s military ambitions wherever they are directed. 

New China-realism: The US can no longer take European support for US China policy for granted, as confirmed by the signing of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Tradeand President Xi will use trade and investment to sow divisions between the US and its European allies. However, Europeans must also be willing to hold Beijing to account for breaches of World Trade Organisation rules.  China is also highly cyber competent enablingits large scale theft of intellectual property and production data that must be actively countered on both sides of the Atlantic.  Going forward, a much better understanding is needed about the Chinese Communist Party and its strategic ambitions. Critically, adistinction also needs to be made between the CCP and wider China which is changing. In spite of the scope and nature of the challenge China poses it is not the Soviet Union reborn and the West must avoid any such historical reflex.  Equally, China is not a reliable partnerand must not be confused with one.

Julian Lindley-French