European allies chafe at what they say is a peremptory U.S. style of diplomacy. But the reality is that many European states prefer not to confront Beijing for fear of damaging valuable commercial relationships. As a result, the United States and Europe have not been able to come together on China strategy.
Covid-19 creates an opening to correct that. First, the virus has provided a stark and unflattering look into the realities of Chinese decision-making and the world-altering consequences that can result. Beijing’s mishandling of the outbreak — its opacity, its punishment of whistleblowers and its refusal to cooperate internationally — are now contributing to the deaths of thousands of Americans and Europeans every day.
This is not just about the virus itself, but about the Chinese authoritarian model both at home and abroad. The same self-protective instincts that led the Chinese Communist Party to prioritize safeguarding the regime over human lives drives its decision-making on everything from trade to artificial intelligence. The widespread loss of life, quarantines, overwhelmed hospitals and far-reaching economic disruptions afflicting U.S. and European Union citizens are the consequences of China’s governing philosophy. This should galvanize European governments to take the China problem far more seriously than they have so far been willing to do.
Second, the epidemic has revealed, with a vividness that few other imaginable events could, the pitfalls of economic over-dependency on China. It shows that supply chains that rely too much on China entail unacceptably high risks. After the crisis, many U.S. and European firms alike will need to mitigate these risks by at least partially diversifying their production processes. This presents an excellent opportunity to reduce barriers to greater investment within networks of trusted allies and partners that lie outside China and its dominance.
Finally, covid-19 is, ironically, likely to ease the spread of Chinese influence in ways that necessitate greater Western cooperation. Already, Beijing is using the distraction created by the crisis to ramp up military moves and increase its political and commercial leverage in strategic regions. Tellingly, Beijing is prioritizing shipments of masks and ventilators to countries — such as Italy and Hungary — that it has cultivated through the Belt and Road Initiative, while shunning states that have resisted its encroachments. Washington and Brussels have a common interest in preventing Beijing from consolidating these gains once the crisis has past. The economic constraints that they will face in the coming recession only strengthen the incentives to coordinate diplomacy and aid.
A good starting point would be to examine ways to cooperate in managing the current phase of the pandemic (as well as inevitable future ones). This should form the basis for both increased U.S.-EU dialogue on easing restrictions for transatlantic trade in medical equipment and improved NATO mechanisms to strengthen crisis-management tools and the resilience of Western societies.
In parallel, it is vital that we resolve U.S.-EU trade disagreements. Both sides of the Atlantic will need to boost their economies after the crisis, including through increased trade. Americans have legitimate concerns about European treatment of U.S. companies. But the most urgent priority must be to form a united front in resisting China. For the United States, this means seeking every opportunity to forge new ties with friendly economies in Western Europe and Asia, thus giving China incentives to curb its more egregious trade abuses. For Europe, it means not overzealously taxing and regulating the very sources of U.S. innovation on which the West will depend for successful competition with Beijing (often while giving a pass to Russian and Chinese firms).
Diplomatically, the crisis will intensify the need to jointly contest Chinese inroads and to compete for positive influence in Eastern and Southern Europe. The United States and the European Union have a shared interest in imposing national security filters for foreign investment, encouraging U.S. and European technology options to prevent Chinese dominance in 5G, and adopting common, innovation-friendly data regulations to give American and European tech firms access to sufficiently large intra-Western data sets to compete with China’s enormous population in the unfolding AI arms race. These measures need not come at the expense of continued engagement with Beijing; indeed, by restoring balance to the relationship, they are likely to make future dialogue more effective.
In the emerging great-power competition, the countries of the free West may not always agree. But they share interests, values and strengths that, if exploited, will enable us to protect our hard-won prosperity and freedoms —just as we did in earlier great-power struggles. In the words of Winston Churchill, the United States and its democratic allies “have but to be combined to be obeyed.”