China’s naval expansion and commercial push into Europe are aimed at redefining the global trade and security system to the detriment of the democratic West. Europe and the U.S. need to wake up to the challenge.
ANDREW A. MICHTA FOR THE AMERICAN INTEREST
Geopolitics is back, in no small part because of the growing realization in Washington that the China strategy the United States has pursued since the end of the Cold War has failed. China’s challenge to the United States, and the West in general, is systemic, and intent on redefining the existing global trading regime, the structure of our alliances, and, last but not least, the existing framework of norms and values that has historically favored the democratic West. After four decades of misplaced expectations that the PRC’s export-driven modernization would bring about democratization, and that Beijing would opt for merging its trajectory with that of the larger global trade and security system, the United States is now confronted with a near-peer competitor intent on assembling a constellation of states to challenge America and its allies. For three post-Cold War decades, encomia for the internationalization of manufacturing and the inevitable triumph of our normative institutions served to push the cause of China’s ever-deeper integration with the West. So it is perhaps ironic that Sino-American competition is now gearing up to spread beyond the Indo-Pacific, deep into the European part of the Eurasian Rimland.
For years now, the People’s Republic of China has pursued a geostrategic project aimed at establishing an alternative supply chain across Eurasia, with the goal of securing national autonomy by guaranteeing the insularity of its own economic space while at the same time maintaining at-will access to U.S. and European markets. The endgame of Beijing’s strategy is what I call the “global inversion” of established trade flows that have thus far rested on U.S. naval supremacy and the overall preeminence of maritime trade over land routes, thereby constituting arguably the greatest potential redefinition of worldwide power distribution in half a millennium. Beijing has gambled that, if it can successfully develop and defend the Eurasian land route through conventional, nuclear, cyber, and space-based systems while also acquiring sufficient naval power projection capabilities and anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities to tie down the U.S. Navy in the Indo-Pacific, it will be in a position to significantly tilt the risk premium assigned to maritime trade versus the Eurasian land route, thereby giving it a lever to reduce the flow of maritime trade or, in an emergency, shut it down altogether.
There have been numerous indications of Beijing’s strategic intent to dominate Europe. There is, for example, the rapid expansion of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), in terms of both size and planned acquisition of new assets, especially the aircraft carrier battle groups projected to be operational by 2035. The PLAN is already operating in the Mediterranean and the Baltic Sea, and is aiming for a major expansion into the High North and the Arctic (hence its development of a new fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, including the currently planned next-generation vessels rated at 33,000 tons each, which would make them the largest such ships in the world).
Aided by Russian revisionism in Europe, Beijing is positioning itself to launch an all-out challenge to U.S. military preeminence. The de facto alignment of Chinese and Russian interests in Europe in opposition to the United States—though it falls short of an all-out alliance—presents the United States and its allies with a confluence of threats that exceed in their potential consequences the scope of the Soviet threat during the Cold War. The combination of Beijing’s efforts to aggregate economically and financially dependent states in Europe and Moscow’s pressure to disaggregate NATO and the European Union poses a clear and present danger to the security of the Transatlantic community.
Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has sought to ensure access to the lands surrounding Eurasia, including Europe, the Maghreb, the Middle East, and the territories of the Indo-Pacific, as part of its grand strategy. The forces forward-deployed in Europe and Asia served as an essential bridge between the need to counter the overwhelming land power of the Soviet Union and the stand-off capacity afforded to America by its powerful navy. America’s unfettered access to the so-called Rimland, buttressed by our robust network of alliances, fostered an unprecedented level of stability worldwide.
Today, ensuring access to and the defense of the Rimland, especially its European gateway, continues to be critical in preventing China from realizing its strategy of building an autonomous supply chain across the continental Heartland. For the United States and its allies to nullify the Chinese strategy, the Europeans must grasp fully the gravity of the situation and respond accordingly.
In a number of European capitals there seems to be some ambivalence about the scope of the Sino-American rivalry, and about how best to proceed; both the security risks and the economic opportunities that China has brought to the Continent are tugging at Europeans’ consciences. The outcome of this debate is anything but settled: There is no reason to assume that, as competition between China and the United States heats up, all of Europe will see the threat the way the United States does. Whether through Chinese loans for equity, structural investment such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s “17+1” cooperation with Greece and Central and East European states, or the direct acquisition of European technology by Chinese companies, Europe is on the menu. To understand the nature of the challenge requires revisiting the rudiments of geostrategy outlined above. Our European allies urgently need to develop a coordinated response to Chinese economic penetration, and to work closely with the United States to properly resource their own defense by investing in real, usable military capabilities.
And yet a number of crosscurrents in Europe continue to raise questions about the Continent’s ability to rise to the challenge. Five years since the Russian seizure of Crimea and the war in Ukraine, and notwithstanding several NATO summits in which alliance members have committed to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, a number of NATO allies continue to struggle to generate sufficient political will to rebuild their defenses. Equally important, internal political pressures continue to fracture the Continent. The fragmentation of the European Union raises serious questions about the EU’s ability to weather the storm: The idea of a “multi-speed” Europe is gaining currency in Brussels, and the Continent is splitting into an increasingly “postmodern” West and a more traditionally oriented “modern” East. Last but not least, over the past three years new fissures in Transatlantic relations, which both Russia and China have sought to widen, have made it difficult to achieve the consensus necessary to confront Chinese imperialism.
The United States needs to remain fully engaged in Europe, working through NATO and bilaterally to keep the larger strategic objective of countering China’s push into Europe firmly on the Transatlantic agenda. Gone are the heady days of liberal institutionalism and globalization as our preferred frameworks for thinking about national security strategy; the United States has been forced to grapple once again with enduring geopolitical verities, requiring a healthy dose of realism, alliance-building, and carefully considered power-balancing. Today China’s expanding economic, military, and political reach across the globe, assisted by Russia’s deepening geostrategic revisionism, should provide the foundation of a shared NATO threat assessment going forward. More than at any time since the end of the Cold War, how Europe responds in the next decade to Beijing’s imperial drive, and especially how it defines its commercial relations with China, will be critical to the outcome of the current round of great power competition.