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What I learned at the 2020 Munich Security Conference

China, China, China!

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper speaks on the first day of the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 14. (Jens Meyer/AP)

For the past four years, it has been impossible to go to a global affairs conference without discussing the rise of populism. Even if that is not the intended theme, it winds up dominating the conversation. So it’s interesting to note that the overarching theme of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) turned out to be different from the theme that dominated the discourse. To paraphrase Jan Brady, #MSC2020 was all about “China, China, China!”

What’s interesting about this is that MSC tried — I mean really, really tried — to lean into the populist theme. This must have seemed like the sensible move when Wolfgang Ischinger and his team were putting everything together. MSC’s origins are in the transatlantic space, and both sides of the Atlantic were, um, having their issues. The United States was in the middle of an impeachment trial. Brexit was happening. As the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts previously noted, even in the past few weeks, Europe and the United States seemed roiled by populist convulsions. It’s little wonder the conference coined the term “Westlessness” and everything.

This topic was addressed by some of the conference speakers. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo devoted his entire speech to vacuously contend that the theme was wrong and that “the West is winning,” a claim most attendees found risible. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was poked and prodded about the weaponization of social media to interfere in Western elections. I heard some smart members of Congress talk about the populist pressures they faced back home.

To be honest, though, China cast the largest shadow over #MSC2020.

This may seem unsurprising to the casual world-politics junkie, but this conference went from zero to 60 on China in a single year. Neither the 2018 nor the 2019 conferences discussed China in any real depth. This year, both the plenary sessions and many of the side sessions were devoted to China. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) addressed it in her talk, stating that she agreed with President Trump about keeping Chinese tech giant Huawei out of Western 5G networks. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg talked about the alliance being a natural focal point for transatlantic cooperation to cope with China. Indeed, just after Pompeo gave a speech talking about how everything was hunky-dory and the West was winning, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper devoted his speech to the Chinese threat. He repeatedly claimed during his talk that “we do not seek conflict with China” — which was followed by at least five minutes of bashing Chinese perfidies.

U.S. officials talked about China so much at the events I attended that I heard all of the new boilerplate phrases, such as, “5G needs to be approached from a national security lens more than an economic lens.” And, “Our issue is not with the Chinese people, but with the Chinese Communist Party.” Also, Huawei’s rise is the result of huge subsidies. And,“China seeks to dominate global governance.”

What was striking was the bipartisan and transatlantic consensus on wariness toward China. I attended one meeting with approximately 10 members of Congress, all of whom talked about China. Their rhetoric was so homogeneous that, if I had closed my eyes, it would have been impossible to tell the Republicans from the Democrats. Even the European participants, from Estonia to Poland to Germany to the Benelux countries, sounded hawkish on China. (To be fair, Britain might have been an outlier if its representatives had bothered to show up.)

The rhetoric was so sufficiently uniform that one began to wonder whether some of the participants had decided that the transatlantic relationship is at its strongest when there is a common external threat, and that China was now large and bellicose enough to serve that purpose.

It should also be noted that the responses of the Chinese attendees didn’t help matters. Consistent with recent trends, they matched the West’s bellicose rhetoric with bellicose rhetoric of their own. Fu Ying led the charge, pushing back on Pelosi. Multiple Chinese attendees scoffed at the idea that there was any reason to be concerned about 5G or the Belt and Road Initiative, diminishing their credibility in the process.

If consensus on identifying the threat is the first step to forging transatlantic cooperation, then after Munich, that consensus was clear. Whether it will translate into policy action is debatable. The Europeans who talked a good game were not necessarily the key decision-makers. And as previously noted, it’s not like the Trump administration’s 5G policy screams “coherence.”

My Washington Post colleague Josh Rogin is correct when he writes, “The fundamental problem is that Western countries don’t have a viable alternative to Huawei — and Huawei’s heavily subsidized offerings are too tempting to refuse absent a competitive choice.” Indeed, when former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves bluntly asked Esper what the United States was proffering Europeans as an alternative to Huawei on 5G, there was significant applause from the Europeans in the audience. Esper acknowledged that it was a good question, but he offered little but boilerplate in his answer.

Still, it was striking how much officials in the United States and Europe wanted to agree on the threat. It will be interesting to see whether China continues to crowd out populism in future confabs.