Can America Balance European Autonomy With China Competition?

Can America Balance European Autonomy With China Competition?

The United States’ traditional Western European allies show no signs of changing course on defense mobilization or Chinese aggression.

The United States, therefore, faces a significant quandary. Its traditional European allies are anything but. Not only did they facilitate Putin’s war of conquest in Ukraine but they also want to work more closely with China in the future just as its power and assertiveness are peaking. Europe’s stance on China and Russia cuts against U.S. policy. The United Kingdom was once the exception to Old Europe’s irrationality. It may be so again—political resurrection is unlikely, but if Johnson survives and returns to Number 10, one can expect a far more aggressive China policy in line with Johnson’s forthright, uncompromising, and strategically prudent resistance to Russian aggression in Ukraine. For now, however, the United Kingdom is of no help and its new government will cut defense in real terms over the coming years under a new de facto austerity framework. The chancellor of the exchequer has known pro-China tendencies and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has backpedaled on nearly every aggressive China policy.

However, despite this strategic misalignment, the United States cannot simply abandon Europe. There is enough economic strength, political capital, technical capacity, and geographic leverage on the European continent to prove indirectly critical to a Sino-American competition. Europe was and remains one half of the Eurasian question: it cannot be separated from the Indo-Pacific balance as barnacles are cut off from a ship’s bottom.

New Europe is more promising. The post-Soviet Eastern European states understand the stakes of the Russo-Ukrainian War and increasingly recognize the threat China poses to the Eurasian order. The Baltic states are cautiously laying the groundwork for more formal diplomatic contact and economic cooperation with Taiwan. Poland has signed several major arms deals with South Korea. If the reports about indirect Ukrainian-South Korean military cooperation are true, the United States will serve as the intermediary to maintain the legal fiction that South Korea will not support Ukraine militarily. Eastern Europe is rearming and front-footed. Ukraine is even drifting away from China: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has quietly abandoned his Eurasian hedging policy that sought to attract Chinese investment, understanding that China has no desire to intercede on Kyiv’s behalf.

The United States would therefore do well to consider the ways in which it can integrate Eastern Europe into its China policy. The most obvious step would be to accelerate defense-industrial cooperation. Eastern European states should be encouraged to work with Asian defense providers, including South Korea and Japan. This will provide U.S. Asian allies with the production stability needed to expand capacity, thereby creating a legitimate Eurasian defense-industrial system to counter the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Nothing pushes the traditional Western European powers to come around, not even the facts as they unfold in Ukraine. U.S. policy should adapt.

Seth Cropsey is president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of two books, Mayday and Seablindness.

Image: Reuters.