Europe as Third Pole in Sino-American Relations

Europe could introduce multipolarity in relations between the two greater powers.

As China and the United States continue to grow more interdependent and their bilateral relationship is set to define the century ahead, what role is there for Europe in the global order to come?

Several Oxford University students participating in a grand strategy competition with the geopolitical analysis community Wikistrat suggest that the continent should carve out a position for itself as a “third pole” in the Sino-American relationship.

Europe could create “the sort of multipolarity in which a gain for one party does not necessarily result in an equal and off setting loss for the other,” according to the Oxford team, making it easier for China and the United States to manage disputes and avoid conflict.

As during the Cold War, when notably France and Germany played an important role in bringing about détente between the two superpowers, the United States could benefit from their allies’ help. France still aspires to international prestige and China and Germany are both surplus economies, increasingly dependent on one another. Both could use their economic leverage — eventually recognizing China as a market economy in the World Trade Organization and selling European technologies abroad — to nudge the country toward more openness, improve legal protection of foreign companies operating in China and urge the Chinese to be more convincing in their support of counterproliferation efforts in Korea and Iran.

The continent should present a unified and coherent front in negotiations and interactions with both superpowers — something that’s proven difficult to accomplish in the past. It is why America’s relations with Europe are primarily bilateral up to this very day. Robert D. Kaplan earlier this year even suggested to focus only on France, Germany and Poland and not be bothered with the rest of Europe.

Another inevitable impediment is Europe’s traditional closeness to the United States. Western European countries continue to rely on American military power in NATO while both sides of the Atlantic share similar political systems, cultural values and trade regimes. Hardliners within the Chinese establishment, meanwhile, still suspect that the West is conniving to deceive China and keep it poor.

The Oxford students recognize that in order to be seen as an independent pillar in the strategic triangle, Europe will have to assert itself as a third party. One possible area of cooperation with China is on climate change. “The EU can leverage its technological knowhow in the clean energy sector and offer technology transfers to China in exchange for Chinese commitments to domestic emissions targets, thus helping China to deal with an important domestic and international challenge.”

The Europeans can also appeal to China’s demonstrated interest in diversifying its massive foreign exchange holdings away from the American dollar.

Unlike the United States, European nations do not maintain a military presence in East Asia which enhances their role as possible interlocutors. Europe’s security interests in the Pacific are different from those of the United States. It has no security relationships with Japan, South Korea or Taiwan nor does it worry particularly about China’s military rise. Indeed, Europe could welcome a stronger Chinese navy that is able to enforce maritime security in the Indian Ocean.

From the European perspective, the upsides of strategic triangulation are clear. Establishing itself as an arbiter between tomorrow’s superpowers would make it indispensable and advance its own interests, “as there are few, if any, issues where American and Chinese interests converge in opposition to those of the EU.”