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Artyom Lukin

PhD in Political Science, Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations of the Eastern University – School of Regional and International Studies of the Far Eastern Federal University

The global dominance of the “collective West” is largely based on the US–Europe alliance. But how strong is this “indestructible bloc”? Aren’t there contradictions growing inside the union, capable of reducing the capacity of the members of the transatlantic community to effectively respond to increasingly complex international challenges? Analysts at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, a.k.a. Chatham House, have sought answers to these questions. Chatham House’s new project “Transatlantic Relationships: Converging or Diverging?” explores some of the challenges and crises that may emerge in the short term with a view to identifying the potential convergence and, more importantly, divergence in the positions of the US and Europe.

The global dominance of the “collective West” is largely based on the US–Europe alliance. But how strong is this “indestructible bloc”? Aren’t there contradictions growing inside the union, capable of reducing the capacity of the members of the transatlantic community to effectively respond to increasingly complex international challenges? Analysts at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, a.k.a. Chatham House, have sought answers to these questions. Chatham House’s new project “Transatlantic Relationships: Converging or Diverging? ” explores some of the challenges and crises that may emerge in the short term with a view to identifying the potential convergence and, more importantly, divergence in the positions of the US and Europe.

As part of its project Chatham House plans to address four hypothetical situations that can test the transatlantic relationship. It is symptomatic that analysts decided to begin with a potential East Asian crisis, which suggests that the issue of “rising China” is becoming an increasingly higher priority on Atlantic strategists’ agenda, dwarfing the threats in the Russian and Middle Eastern dimensions. US geopolitics has always prioritized a challenge coming from a peer competitor – a superpower that acts as a military and political rival having a comparable capacity. They tend to agree in Washington that China is emerging (or, possibly, has already emerged) as such a rival.

Game plan

The Asia–Pacific Region is not running short of highly explosive contradictions. The scenario for the two-day simulation that was organized at Chatham House in early November 2015 posited confrontation between Japan and China over the disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyudao Islands in the East China Sea in approximately 2020. Chatham House hosted a group of approximately 25 experts from the US, Europe and Asia. Russia was represented as well.

The scenario for the simulation assumes an armed clash between Japanese and Chinese coastguard forces near the Senkaku/Diaoyudao Islands, with human casualties. Attempts to resolve the crisis by diplomatic means involving, in addition to China and Japan, the US, European Union, Russia, India, South Korea, and the United Nations, proved ineffective. On the contrary, the conflict was escalating. Meanwhile, a cyber attack was directed against the US (China is the prime suspect, although there is no hard evidence), and it declared its intention to send troops to the disputed area to support the Japanese ally. Russia, which up until that point had largely advocated a negotiated end to the crisis, changed tack, announcing joint naval exercises with China and plans to sell S-400 surface-to-air missiles to China (the authors must have failed to properly monitor the situation: the deal to supply an S-400 complex to China was signed back in April 2015). The European Union issued a condemnation of Chinese and Japanese recalcitrance in roughly equal measure. Moreover, Europeans did not back the US in its endeavor to increase its military presence in the crisis area. NATO held consultations to determine whether the cyber attack would justify the invocation of its collective-defense obligations, but came to no firm conclusions. The simulation comes to an end here.

<р3>Europe’s not eager to go into action

The role play made it clear that in an East Asian conflict Europeans can only play a peripheral role. They did not show any intention to get involved, apart from the “Come on, guys, let’s live in harmony!” appeals. Furthermore, the two main opponents – China and Japan – never regarded Europe as a power capable of making a perceptible impact on the situation in the East China Sea.

Chatham House analysts attribute the passiveness of the EU to quite apparent reasons. Whereas Americans are looking at the Asia–Pacific Region through a lens of geopolitics, Europeans mostly have commercial interests in the region. When it comes to security, Europe is little concerned over some distant threats in the Pacific basin. They are a lot more worried about the developments in close proximity to the EU – on the Russian borders and in the Middle East.

Unlike the EU, the US enjoys the status of a Pacific nation. The US Pacific Command is the oldest and largest of the unified combatant commands of the United States, let alone the fact that the forward-based US forces are deployed in many of the APR countries. Of all the EU member states, only France operates a small contingent in the Pacific (bases in Tahiti and New Caledonia). The British military base in the Persian Gulf (Bahrain) appears to be the closest one to the Pacific. Notably only 13 of the 28 NATO members operate naval forces capable of military operations in an ocean, and Europe has only one large aircraft carrier (France’s Charles de Gaulle). The only thing that the European NATO members are truly capable of in the APR is to ensure a symbolic military presence.

When it comes to security, Europe is little concerned over some distant threats in the Pacific basin.

According to Chatham House analysts, demography is another crucial factor. The American Asian-origin population is a lot larger than that European. In 2011, ethnic Asians accounted for 5.8% of the US population (the proportion is expected to increase to 9% by 2020). In France and Germany, Asians account for only 1.2% and 1.3% of the population, respectively. It would be logical to assume that the more native Asians a country has, the more prominent place the APR will have in that country’s foreign policy.

The only thing that the European NATO members are truly of in the APR is to ensure a symbolic military presence.

Another obstacle to the active involvement of Europe in the APR is the lack of effective institutional structures for dialogue and coordination between European and Asian nations. It is indicative that the ASEM Forum, established in 1996 to encourage the engagement between the EU and East Asia, was never mentioned by the participants in the workshop, which is sufficient evidence of its true efficiency. ASEM is positioned as an “informal process of dialogue and cooperation.” The weak institutionalization and numerous membership (ASEM has 53 members, which are greatly diverse – from the UK and Russia to Cambodia) make the search for common instruments a very tough task, in which “dialogue” obviously prevails over “cooperation.”

What the Chatham House report is missing

REUTERS/Noel Celis
Andrey Gubin:
Military Multipolarity in the South China Sea

Finally, there are some deeper causes that prevent Europeans from focusing on the East that the Chatham House report fails to mention. Continental Europe must have completely lost what Lev Gumilev referred to as passionarity and Hans Morgenthau as animus dominandi. In other words, Europeans have exhausted their expansion energy, and they have as good as come to terms with the idea that the battle for the status of the global ruler will be fought by the US and China. The EU would rather sit on the fence than take sides. It looks like the only thing that Europe wants is to live in comfort and peace.

They will hardly be able to sit it out, though. Washington insists that its junior allies in Europe should be actively involved in maintaining the “rules-based order,” in other words, the dominance of Pax Americana. By all appearances, Washington is growing increasingly assured that the main challenge to the American supremacy in the foreseeable future comes from China. This idea is an important reason behind the Pacific pivot policy by the Obama administration. The US explicitly invites its European allies to contribute to the US Pacific policy. Back in 2013, US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called for Europeans to take a broader look at the geography of NATO operations: “Europe should not fear our rebalance to Asia, Europe should join it.” Messages of this kind manifest Washington’s general line towards NATO – the expansion of the geographic and functional area of responsibility of the North Atlantic organization, which will ultimately become an effective global “policeman.” The US originally declared the “global NATO” idea in 2004 using Nicholas Burns, then ambassador to NATO, as its mouthpiece. In 2006, his successor Victoria Nuland said that NATO “should focus on deepening its co-operation with countries such as Australia and Japan and becoming a genuine globally deployable force.”

Another obstacle to the active involvement of Europe in the APR is the lack of effective institutional structures for dialogue.

Are the other NATO members ready to positively respond to such calls? Another question is whether NATO has a mandate to intervene in a Pacific military conflict, given that Articles 5 and 6 of the Washington Treaty state that the alliance must provide help, if one or more of its members are attacked in the “North Atlantic area” – “Europe or North America.” Some NATO analysts believe the interpretation of these clauses should be broadened to encompass the Pacific coast of the US and Canada, as well as their possessions in the Pacific, all the way to Wake Atoll (which is 12,045 km from Brussels, but only 3,207 km from Tokyo).

However, irrespective of the legal interpretation of the NATO mandate, Americans are well aware that Europe is incapable of and unwilling to maintain the rules-based order in the APR. Only the closest ally can take action, albeit to a very limited extent – the UK, which incidentally is the only European country that is connected to East Asia by The Five Power Defense Arrangements, signed by the UK, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand.

Europe’s mission is to join Washington, at its first request, in its diplomatic and, most importantly, economic blockade of China, not send troops and fleets to fight China.

For their forceful containment policy on China, Americans hope to rely on a coalition of Asian Pacific states that regard Beijing as the main geopolitical threat, rather than Europe’s support. Japan, Australia, and India are considered to be the key players in the anti-China bloc. If a crisis similar to the one described in the Chatham House simulation scenario should ever take place, it is these three nations that are supposed to become the US’ chief military allies to counter China.

Europe’s mission is to join Washington, at its first request, in its diplomatic and, most importantly, economic blockade of China, not send troops and fleets to fight China. Depending on the gravity of the situation, these may include selective sanctions or complete cessation of trade and economic relations with Beijing. The EU is the chief trade partner for China. In 2015, two-way trade amounted to 521 billion euros. Further, Europe, alongside the US and Japan, is an important source of advanced technologies for China. Therefore, even a temporary suspension of trade relations with the EU would produce a devastating impact on Beijing. At the same time, China is the EU’s second-largest trade partner after the US Any anti-China sanctions would affect the European economy. Europeans will be faced with a dilemma choosing between Atlantic solidarity and materialistic interests. It is safe to say that one of Chatham House’s main points was to help the European allies of the United States mentally prepare for such a choice, which would be inevitable [1].

Will NATO pass the China test?

Will Europeans show their solidarity with Washington in case of a possible US–China conflict? The future of not only the North Atlantic Alliance, but also the Atlantic community, will depend on the answer. It seems there are no reasons to doubt the robustness of the North Atlantic Alliance. We can see sufficient evidence in the common anti-Russian front of the US and the EU amid the Ukrainian crisis. Europeans agreed to impose economic sanctions on Russia despite the losses that they understood they would suffer.

But will the Russian precedent work for China? Europe’s tough position on Moscow is not a result of Washington’s pressure, but is to a great extent driven by centuries-long phobias in many European countries, which perceive Russia as one of the principal threats to “civilized Europe.” When it comes to China, Europe has no such fears. Europe is not extremely fond of Beijing, either; however, the geographic and historical distance between China and Europe makes the “Chinese threat” a rather abstract phenomenon. It is indicative that all of Washington’s key European allies ignored its recommendations and joined in 2015 the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a financial instrument that Americans and Japanese fear will facilitate China’s hegemony in Asia. Another recent example is the royal (literally) reception of Xi Jinping during his visit to London in October 2015.

Un case of a clash between the US and China Europe, reluctantly and grudgingly, will join the anti-China coalition by limiting or discontinuing its economic contacts with China.

In its relations with Beijing Europe, driven by economic pragmatism, is ready to turn a blind eye to human rights issues and China’s growing geopolitical ambition. However, there are “red lines” in the convergence between Europe and China, which Europeans will hardly dare cross. These include primarily the ban on arms supplies to China. The embargo was imposed by western nations, including the European Union, in 1989 in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests, and still remains in effect. Europeans have made repeated attempts to lift the arms embargo hoping to benefit from major Chinese orders, but were always faced with a stiff denial by the US Government and had to yield. The original reason for the sanctions – the brutal dispersal of the student-led rallies – has almost lost its relevance. The main reason why the sanctions are still there is to prevent the growing military capability of the potential adversary. The fact that Europeans never dared go against Washington’s wishes and lift the sanctions shows that Europe has no independence when it comes to the issues that have truly strategic significance. It would be safe to predict that in case of a clash between the US and China, when Washington calls for the solidarity of its allies across the Atlantic, Europe, reluctantly and grudgingly, will join the anti-China coalition by limiting or discontinuing its economic contacts with China.

All indications are that Europe is not ready to give up is status of a military and political protectorate of the United States, which creates a feeling of shelter against external threats, real or mythical. This feeling comes with a price tag, though: Europeans might have to go to someone else’s war against China.

1. Interestingly, Xenia Wickett, the head of this Chatham House project, originally comes from the US Government, where she worked for the Department of State and the National Security Council.

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  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
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