In Dealing With China, U.S. and Europe Take Different Tacks

WASHINGTON — In Southern California, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy promised President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan that the American government would support the de facto independent island against constant threats from China.

In Beijing, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, urged President Xi Jinping to get Russia to end its war in Ukraine, while also talking about strengthening commerce between Europe and China.

The two visits on opposite sides of the Pacific this week highlighted different priorities on China between American and European leaders, as well as contrasts in their diplomatic approaches on two of the world’s most difficult security issues, the Ukraine war and Taiwan.

The United States and its European allies share similar views on many global issues, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought them closer, as they coordinate weapons aid, diplomacy and sanctions to help the Ukrainians. On China, European officials are taking an increasingly skeptical view, moving closer to the hard-line consensus that has formed in Washington — a “much greater convergence,” as U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in Brussels on Wednesday.

Yet, there is still contentious debate in Europe over the right approach with China and over balancing security and trade issues.

On Ukraine, President Biden and his aides have denounced China’s alignment with Russia, pointing to Mr. Xi’s state visit to Moscow last month and the diplomatic support he has given President Vladimir V. Putin throughout the war. The Americans say China’s efforts to present itself as a mediator in the war are a smoke screen for Mr. Putin to continue his slaughter, and they have said since February that China is considering sending arms to Russia.

Mr. Macron has tried a different approach, telling Mr. Xi in Beijing on Thursday, “I know I can count on you to bring Russia back to its senses and everyone back to the negotiating table.” Ms. von der Leyen has made harsher statements on China than Mr. Macron, but also appears willing to give Mr. Xi a chance.

And Mr. Macron brought 50 French business executives with him to Beijing in an obvious effort to bolster commercial ties.

“There’s a sense there needs to be a clear European position on China that goes beyond the trans-Atlantic relationship and exists on its own merits,” said Tara Varma, a visiting fellow from France on foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. She added that “the trip was about engaging China for the first time in a very long time. It was a way to restart the conversation.”

Mr. Macron’s visit to China was his first there since 2019, before the pandemic. Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany took a similar approach when he visited Beijing in November, bringing a delegation of corporate executives with him. He prodded Mr. Xi to issue a joint statement opposing the use or threat of nuclear weapons over Ukraine, but the declaration failed to name Russia as the aggressor.

Some European analysts have criticized the leaders for bringing business delegations, saying that sends the wrong message to China — particularly on its backing of Russia. Janka Oertel, the director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Twitter that China is correct to assume that supporting Russia “does not generally impair improved economic relations” with Europe.

She wrote that if the European leaders had traveled to Beijing this week without a business delegation, that “could have sent a surprising, strong & unmistakable message to Beijing” that Ukraine was the highest priority and that there is “no business as usual. Business has to wait.” European leaders “have not even begun” to try to change Beijing’s course, she said.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of Spain met with Mr. Xi in Beijing and urged him to speak with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, which Mr. Xi has avoided doing.

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Ms. von der Leyen has said Europe could soon take a harder line on China, including limiting trade, if China continues its aggressive actions on security and commercial issues. In a major policy speech last week, she said the European Union might cancel a trade deal it reached with China in 2020 as part of “economic de-risking.” That would further align Europe with views in the United States, where any positive comments on the robust trade relationship with China, the world’s second-largest economy, are drowned out by talk of security risks.

The Biden administration has pushed European governments to take more protective measures on critical technologies. In January, it got the Netherlands to commit to limiting the sales of some semiconductor manufacturing equipment to China. Some European officials have balked at those efforts, but Ms. von der Leyen agrees there must be a reassessment of Europe-China ties.

“It is clear that our relations have become more distant and more difficult in the last few years,” she said. “We have seen a very deliberate hardening of China’s overall strategic posture for some time.”

Mr. Xi’s tolerance of Russian atrocities in Ukraine has shifted European attitudes. Ms. von der Leyen pointed in her speech to parting remarks that Mr. Xi made to Mr. Putin on the steps of the Kremlin last month: “Right now there are changes, the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years. And we are the ones driving these changes together.”

Other episodes have brought European leaders closer to the American line on China. One was China imposing economic penalties on Lithuania after that nation allowed Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius, the capital, in 2021. Last month the European Union announced a provisional agreement to impose trade penalties on any country that tries to coerce Europe economically.

Outside of Lithuania, the Taiwan issue does not occupy the central role in relations with China that it does for the United States, which has a decades-long history of support for the island, including regularly sending it weapons. In her speech, Ms. von der Leyen had a cursory mention of Taiwan. For American officials and politicians, this has become the most important topic of discussion related to China, and Mr. Biden brings it up in every call with Mr. Xi.

Taiwan is the biggest flashpoint in U.S.-China relations, and American officials say a conflict over the island would result in a global crisis, with even broader consequences than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In Washington, there is constant debate now over Mr. Xi’s intentions on Taiwan and how to deter a possible invasion by the Chinese military. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the news site Defense One last week that war with China over Taiwan is not likely or imminent, and that “the rhetoric itself can overheat the environment.”

Mr. Biden has said four times that the U.S. military would defend Taiwan if China were to attack it.

Lawmakers from both parties are often aggressive in shows of support for Taiwan — as evidenced by Mr. McCarthy’s meeting with Ms. Tsai on Wednesday in California and a visit by his predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan in August.

Such actions on the part of European officials are rare, although they could become more common as attitudes on China change, and as U.S. officials urge Europe to get more involved. Last month, the education minister of Germany, Bettina Stark-Watzinger, became the first German cabinet official to visit Taiwan in 26 years.

The U.S. government has succeeded in getting a few European allies to take part in military actions and declarations on Taiwan. Both Britain and France have sent warships through the Taiwan Strait in recent years, following a regular practice of the U.S. Navy. In September, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had its first discussion dedicated solely to Taiwan, and it has formally described China as a strategic threat. The Group of 7 nations has issued statements since 2021 calling for preserving “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

“I have been surprised at how much European countries have focused on and supported Taiwan in recent years,” said Evan Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who was a senior Asia director on the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

Mr. Medeiros said there was a historical parallel in Europe to the Taiwan dilemma that could make the issue more salient to European officials. “The Taiwan issue has become more militarized in recent years as the P.L.A. has become more capable and now that U.S.-China is a strategic competition,” he said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese military. “The Taiwan issue is rapidly becoming what the German issue was during the Cold War.”

But some American foreign policy thinkers are skeptical that European nations would give robust military support to the United States in a conflict over Taiwan, or be willing to impose harsh economic sanctions on China. Elbridge Colby, a senior Pentagon official in the Trump administration, said U.S. officials should not be surprised that the European leaders in Beijing this week were promoting commercial ties.

“The Europeans are pretty openly sending the signal that they’re not willing to wage economic warfare against China,” he said. “I think the administration thinks Europeans would have our back in the event of a conflict, but that won’t happen.”

What the United States should do, he said, is focus on building up its own military to deter any potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan and bolster the capabilities of allies in the region, notably Japan and Australia.

To that end, the United States should spend less resources on the Ukraine war and more on American forces that would be deployed in a conflict with China, Mr. Colby said. And he has advocated imposing “targeted sanctions” on Taiwan to coerce leaders there to follow American recommendations on how the island should shape its defenses.

Steven Erlanger and Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reporting from Brussels.

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