Opinion Will China's Rise Spoil the Trans-Atlantic Relationship?

A new survey by the German Marshall Fund finds that China's rise is leading Americans to turn their attention away from Europe and to view China as more of a threat than Europeans do. But how much do these factors threaten the trans-Atlantic relationship, and how well can it adapt to changing circumstances?
Von Daniel M. Kliman und Andrew Small
A new survey finds more Americans turning their attention to China than to Europe.

A new survey finds more Americans turning their attention to China than to Europe.

Foto: TEH ENG KOON/ AFP

Strategic circumstances and brute economic realities are starting to push Europeans and Americans into different places when they think about China's and Asia's rise. New polling released this month suggests not only a growing divergence in threat perceptions, but also a trend in US public opinion that places Asia, rather than Europe, at the center of Americans' interests. Without a conscious effort to construct a partnership that is attuned to these new realities, Asia's ascendance threatens to lead to a long-term drift in trans-Atlantic relations.

The German Marshall Fund's  Transatlantic Trends survey  makes it clear that Europe faces a future in which, for the first time, it can no longer count on enjoying a central place in the minds of Americans. Whereas 52 percent of the Europeans surveyed identify the United States as being of the utmost importance to their national interests, only 38 percent of Americans felt the same way about Europe. Instead, the survey shows a slight majority (51 percent) of Americans viewing the countries of Asia as more important. Likewise, this percentage only grows as the sample group grows younger, with three out of every four young Americans now looking across the Pacific rather than the Atlantic.

Differing Views on China

There is also a division opening up in public perceptions of China. Surveys have long shown that Americans see China as more of a military threat than Europeans do, but this increasingly applies in the economic sphere, as well. The Transatlantic Trends survey now shows a plurality of Europeans viewing China as an economic opportunity rather than threat. In the United States, on the other hand, 63 percent see China as an economic threat, up from 49 percent just a year ago.

What's more, some of the most favorable shifts in opinion were seen in European countries in which the media gave significant coverage to Chinese investments and bond purchases.

These developments are partly a matter of public opinion catching up with reality. As a Pacific power, the United States is strategically present in Asia in a way that Europe is not, and its role in dealing with shifts in the regional balance of economic and military power is qualitatively different.

However, what should worry the trans-Atlantic partners are emerging splits over China. Since 2004, when efforts to lift the EU arms embargo on China triggered a fierce trans-Atlantic dispute, Europe and the United States have more often than not spoken with one voice, whether in responding to China's newfound assertiveness or in bringing joint cases against China before the World Trade Organization (WTO).

As the crisis in the euro zone intensifies, that unity is now showing signs of weakening. China is making a serious effort to increase its investments in Europe during an exceptionally fragile time for the European Union and the entire European project. This is beginning to translate into political credit and public goodwill toward China. Indeed, the Transatlantic Trends survey shows the first serious uptick in Beijing's numbers in Europe for many years.

Natural Partners in Asia , Too

It will be to the detriment of both sides if trans-Atlantic outlooks drift further apart. Economically, Europe's role in the Asia-Pacific region is as big as the United States'. It leads the way in negotiating free-trade agreements, and there are crucial shared interests on issues ranging from the protection of intellectual property to managing a new wave of inbound investments by state-owned enterprises.

In the military realm, the US security role in Asia is a public good that also benefits Europeans, who have a vital interest in regional stability. Europe may not play a meaningful military role in the Asia-Pacific region, but it is still important to achieve congruence in strategic thinking about the world's most dynamic region.

This is not just a matter of reinforcing Europe's aversion to lifting the arms embargo on China or restraining the export of dual-use technologies. Europe's willingness to take on greater burdens in its own neighborhood, as it did in Libya, would do much to facilitate the strengthening of American commitments in Asia that will be required in the coming years. On values-based issues -- from human rights to democracy promotion -- Europe remains America's natural partner in Asia and beyond.

Compared to the Soviet threat, the Balkan wars of the 1990s or post-9/11 Afghanistan, Asia provides seemingly fewer natural opportunities for cooperation. In fact, there is still a strong crossover in values and interests. But drawing out these commonalities will be a challenge in a region in which the kind of common threats that have necessitated trans-Atlantic collaboration are less apparent.

Still, the news is not all bad. The fact that security threats in Europe are no longer pivotal to US concerns is more of a cause for celebration than for anxiety. But a failure to head off emerging differences could threaten a slow withering of the trans-Atlantic partnership as Asia rises.

Daniel M. Kliman and Andrew Small are fellows at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), a non-partisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on trans-Atlantic issues.
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