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Where Will Europe Stand Amidst the US-China Clash of Titans?

| 2021-05-11 3 min read

Where Will Europe Stand Amidst the US-China Clash of Titans?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The battle between Washington and Beijing over the rollout of 5G networks in Europe just scratches the surface of a broader conflict between the global superpowers. The actual “war” is over which country, China or the United States, will be able to consolidate its dominance over the technologies of the future. How Europe will fare in the battle, and the overall war, is open for debate.

At the start of the US-China meeting in Anchorage in March of 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken added the following to his opening remarks: “We’ll also discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the United States, and economic coercion toward our allies.”

His words were unambiguous, underlining the fact that serious differences of opinion are straining US-China relations.

State Department photo by Alison Anzalone

One of the most important elements of the US-China conflict can be attributed to the debate over 5G technology and the Chinese company Huawei’s involvement in providing it to various states across the globe. The US government frames 5G as a key issue, and a matter of national security, according to an analysis by the German think tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. This argument rests on the pillars of security, economy, and systemic confrontation.

5G is certainly only the first chapter in the two countries’ technological competitiveness conflict, which is about who can strengthen or maintain their global influence, especially in regard to future technologies. The case of Huawei clearly shows that the United States expects its allies to cut tech ties with China in this key area, while China is focusing on its trading partners as well as its own Belt and Road Initiative to further its own interests.

In the years of the Trump administration, the United States had been pressuring its European allies to enact an outright ban of Huawei from the rollout of 5G infrastructure on the European continent. At the time, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that America would no longer share intelligence with allies who had dealt with the company. For those countries bending to America’s will, China’s response was threatening to retaliate against them.

Although the Biden administration has maintained a number of stances from the preceding one, now the United States is attempting to restore a broad coalition in support of multilateralism, which would also meet Europe’s interests, while seeking cooperation on issues where China poses challenges to the international order and the global economy.

German think-tank SWP portrays Europe’s situation as the following: “Caught between the two powers, Europe’s vulnerability is clearly visible: On the one hand, European countries depend on China’s central position in the value chain for information and communication technology (ICT), in particular regarding hardware; on the other hand, the United States dominates software development and remains Europe’s prime security guarantor.”

Photo: Kolitha de Silva

China’s behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic did not go unnoticed in Europe either. For one, at the beginning of the pandemic, China did not provide a credible response to the origins of the virus and was not cooperative regarding the issue at an extremely difficult time for the globe. Recent polling by the European Council on Foreign Relations shows that there is a clear opposition to Chinese investments in Europe, especially in regards to companies dealing with emerging technologies. This sentiment is much more apparent in Western Europe – especially Germany, France, and Denmark – than in Central & Eastern Europe.

It is far from clear how the relationship between the United States and China will develop in the future, although it will most likely remain a rivalry. Nor is it evident what role the European Union can and will play in this global clash of titans. However, China’s aggressive response to the EU sanctions introduced recently (on 22 March) against Chinese officials linked to human rights abuses in Xinjiang, could help to improve relations between the Transatlantic partners. China’s growing role in the world economy will also demand that Europe redefine its Transatlantic relations as well as its own interests.