HOW SHOULD European countries position themselves in the growing geopolitical and technological contest between America and China? As allies of America in a new cold war? Or as a third force balancing between the two poles? Such questions hung thick in the air at the Bayerischer Hof hotel in Munich, where world leaders, diplomats and spies gathered for their yearly security-policy jamboree, which ended on February 16th.
The conference’s teeming hallways have traditionally been the place for American and European elites to consult and hash out their differences. These days the gathering is a more global affair. Saudi and Iranian diplomats dodged one another; European spymasters tried to look inconspicuous in coffee breaks; and expensively coiffed congressmen barged their way past obscure central European prime ministers. Hand-sanitiser was splashed around liberally, amid the looming threat of the Wuhan coronavirus.
Mark Esper, America’s defence secretary, dismissed worries about Russia in a single line. Instead, he devoted his entire speech to convincing Europeans that China presents as serious an economic, security and ideological threat to the continent as it does to America and Asia. “China’s growth over the years has been remarkable,” acknowledged Mr Esper, “but in many ways it is fuelled by theft, coercion and exploitation of free-market economies, private companies, and colleges and universities. American and European institutions and corporations face the brunt of these malign activities.” Mike Pompeo, America’s secretary of state, cautioned that China’s meddling in European politics was tantamount to “assaults on sovereignty”.
For John Chipman, director-general of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, a think-tank in London, “Essentially [Mr] Esper used his speech in Munich to announce the fact of a US-China cold war with technological competition at its core.” Right now, that competition is centred on Huawei. Mr Esper warned that if the Chinese telecoms firm was permitted to build European 5G networks—as it has been allowed to in Britain, and is likely to elsewhere—it could “jeopardise our communication and intelligence-sharing capabilities, and by extension, our alliances.” (British officials view such threats as bluffs.) But American officials at the conference also warned that other emerging technologies—artificial intelligence, web-based servers (the “cloud”), quantum computing and communication—would soon become fresh battlegrounds, and potentially easy pickings for Chinese tech giants grown fat on state subsidies and generous protection.
“They’re very worried on the technology side that there is a sort of tipping point, that if Europe goes in a certain direction then it’ll be too late to reverse course,” says Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank in Washington, DC. Strikingly, that concern is expressed by Mr Trump’s administration and its opponents alike. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, noted in Munich that “allowing the Sinification of 5G would be to choose autocracy over democracy,” a rare point of accord with the president whose state-of-the-union speech she physically tore up two weeks ago.
In many respects, Europeans are not unsympathetic to these entreaties. NATO put China formally on its agenda for the first time at a leaders’ summit in December. Alliance officials note that China is conducting naval exercises in the Baltic, making strategic investments in Europe and has declared itself a “near-Arctic” power. Intelligence officers across Europe are also increasingly wary of Chinese spying and influence operations. On February 12th Estonia’s foreign intelligence service published an annual report which mentioned China more than 100 times, noting that Chinese investment and technological dominance “are increasingly threats to Estonia’s security”. Many European diplomats point nervously to Sweden, where China’s ambassador last month attacked the Swedish press as a “lightweight boxer who provokes a feud with an 86-kilogram heavyweight boxer”, part of an increasingly familiar pattern of bullying and intimidation.
What is less clear is how to respond. Some European diplomats and lawmakers want their countries to heed America’s warnings. In Britain, which said last month that it would allow Huawei a limited role in less sensitive parts of its 5G network, influential Conservative MPs have revolted against their government’s decision. In Germany, which is moving in a similar direction, conservative lawmakers have joined with other parties in doing the same. “But many don’t share the threat perception and think that China, Russia and America are all problems for Europeans,” says Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute, a think-tank in Berlin.
They would seem to include Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s (largely ceremonial) president, who opened the conference with a call for Europe to “invent its own answer to the seminal shift in spheres of power and influence”. The continent “must find its own balance with China, finding an equilibrium between increasing inter-system competition and the necessary co-operation,” said Mr Steinmeier, spurning Mr Pompeo’s stark choice between “a free West” and “illiberal alternatives”. Germany, which is preparing to host a major EU-China leaders’ summit in September, hopes to co-operate with China on issues including trade rules and climate change, even as it competes in other areas.
The suspicion runs especially deep on technology. Mr Esper urged American and European firms to work together “to develop alternative 5G solutions”, but many Europeans see this as a cynical effort by America to buy itself into the lead in an area where two European firms, Nokia and Ericsson, are world leaders, says Mr Benner. On February 6th William Barr, America’s attorney-general, proposed that America buy controlling stakes in both companies. That suggestion prompted both mirth and eye-rolling. Europeans note that America has not made similar offers in areas where American firms are ahead, such as cloud computing.
Some former German diplomats suggest that Europe might mediate between America and China, in order to soothe tensions. Others want Europe to turn itself into a third force that can stand up to both powers. Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, is the standard-bearer for this approach. In a freewheeling question-and-answer session, he repudiated Mr Pompeo’s insistence that the West was “winning”, declared that “the era of omnipresent American global policemen is over” and renewed his longstanding call for “a Europe that can protect the basis of its sovereignty”.
Protection from whom? From China, yes. Mr Macron framed his controversial outreach to Russia in part as an effort to peel Vladimir Putin, its president, away from “Chinese hegemony”. But Mr Macron also wants protection from what he sees as the whimsy and predations of Mr Trump’s America. “The Americans are investing much faster in the choices of the future, the Chinese, too,” warned Mr Macron. “If they are right, in ten years or 15 years, they will have the industries, the standards…where we will have fallen behind.”
American officials see this as a woefully false equivalence between a democratic ally and despotic rival. Mr Macron’s European allies tend to nod at the general idea, though disagree on the details. “France is ahead of Germany in being comfortable with the notion of European sovereignty vis-à-vis all external major powers, ie, US, China, Russia,” says Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a French think-tank. “Several allies are uncomfortable with the notion that we put all three in the same basket.” That is not least because American tanks and troops remain vital for defending Europe’s physical frontiers. Exercise Defender Europe 20, a huge US Army drill to practise the reinforcement of the continent—and the largest such exercise in 25 years—is currently under way.
The result can be compromises, like partial bans on Huawei, that satisfy nobody. “The minimum consensus could be to invest in European technological capabilities to achieve greater sovereignty,” says Mr Benner, “but even on softball issues of 5G, where Europeans lead, there’s no real consensus because [the German chancellor Angela] Merkel wants to continue to keep the door open to Huawei. I don’t see a clear path to unity.” Few want to be caught in the Sino-American cross-fire, especially if it delays technology projects or costs money. “This is not seen in Europe as a new Cold War,” concludes Mr Tertrais. “And if this is one, Europe wants no part of it.”