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Book Review: Europe in an Era of Growing Sino-American Competition: Coping with an Unstable Triangle

12 Apr 2022
Reviewed by Dr Nina Markovic Khaze

Geopolitical competition between the US and China can provoke dangerous status conflicts for which Europe seems ill-prepared. This edited collection probes Europe’s traditional security alignments and its potential for strategic autonomy.

Europe in an Era of Growing Sino-American Competition. Coping with an Unstable Triangle, edited by German scholars Sebastian Biba and Reinhard Wolf, brings together fourteen of Europe’s strategic scholars to address the issue of “Europe’s unravelling foreign policy” in an era of growing international instability and great power rivalry. There is a near consensus among the contributors that a global geopolitical competition between the US and China has been amalgamated during the COVID-19 pandemic and presents significant risks to Europe.  For this reason, among other strategic challenges for European nations, such as “fears of Russia’s military adventurism” and “more assertive and aggressive Russia,” it is argued that Europeans should consider a paradigm shift in strategic mentality.

Theoretical underpinnings: power transition theory and Europe’s strategic autonomy

Conceptually rich and theoretically sound, this edited volume discusses different ways in which Europe could prioritise “competing interests, values and options” at the crossroads of the current strategic debate regarding future directions. The book editors have adopted the conceptual framework of power transition theory to explain a major generational shift in great power relations while analysing complexities in triangular interactions between the US, China, and Europe.

One of the key issues that the book contributors seek to explore is whether Europe should side in all matters with its post-war key strategic partner, the US, or should it adopt a more pragmatic, case-by-case approach relating to cooperation with China? Another key question raised in the book is to what extent should Europe prioritise efforts to strengthen NATO as the cornerstone of Washington’s security commitment to Europe, or whether its nations should support wholeheartedly the quest for Europe’s strategic autonomy. One policy recommendation is tilted towards building up Europe’s strategic autonomy, including towards the Asia-Pacific region, which takes time and resources to build.

Europe’s Strategic Compass, released in March 2022, came almost as a response to the book’s main call, which is to strengthen the EU’s foreign and defence policy by 2030. This policy is a blueprint for future directions of the EU’s strategic policy, which relies upon greater military mobility and establishing EU Rapid Deployment Capacity, including in non-European theatres of conflict and emergency situations.

Europe’s commitment to Asia-Pacific security

Discussions about the US and Europe’s commitment to Asia-Pacific security feature prominently in this book, from mapping conflict scenarios and possible European involvement to economic disaggregation. Moreover, the European Union has been a bastion of promoting democracy and good governance to its partners in Asia and Oceania, be it through humanitarian assistance efforts or embedding the commitment to promoting these values in its free-trade agreements. However, the Asia-Pacific region is increasingly being divided into the competing zones of influence between Washington and Beijing, which some authors argue does not bode well with Europe’s long-held mentality of promoting a global commitment to multilateralism. This increases the need, in some contributors’ views, for the EU’s member-states and institutions to become more pragmatic at the time when China’s economic disbalance towards Europe and influence operations threaten the very essence of European unity on the Old Continent.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a consistent theme throughout the book, has exposed major vulnerabilities between rich and poor countries. The book editors caution that Europe also needs to look south, in its immediate backyard, as Africa has been a major theatre of great power rivalry between the US and China over the past decade. Instability in the broader Middle East and North Africa region has immediate consequences for Europe, hence the need to direct considerations of future strategic autonomy toward the nearest neighbours (including in the Western Balkans). This can be combined with a flexible approach to contingencies in the Asia-Pacific region and partnerships on a per need basis in crisis diplomacy generally.

US-Europe relations

Some of the book’s contributors express serious concerns about former US President Donald Trump’s “America’s First” approach, which they predicted was likely to be continued to some degree under the Biden administration. While transatlantic relations suffered a temporary decline during the Iraq War and the Bush administration generally, Donald Trump’s presidency has also risked a deterioration in ties with Washington’s key European allies, above all Germany. The conflict in Syria has further weakened the alliance, according to reactions by French President Emmanuel Macron. Washington’s imposing of “illegal tariffs against China and Canada” undermined global economic cooperation which was necessary to combat the fallout from the pandemic, during which Europeans bore many losses. A turn away from multilateralism in US foreign, economic, and defence policy under the Trump administration prompted many contributors to argue that Europe must decide to what extent to reduce “its risky dependence on America by pursuing strategic and defence autonomy in foreign policy.” One year into the Biden administration, the authors’ predictions have not aligned completely with reality because of a major Black Swan event: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This major security crisis on the EU’s doorstep appears to have turned the Biden administration’s attention back to Europe. The book suggested more workable modus vivendi with Moscow while acknowledging a foreign policy failure towards Ukraine. In the current crisis, the US security pivot to Europe has proven to be critically important, with President Joe Biden coming as close to Ukrainian border as possible to reassure Europeans that US assistance is guaranteed. Still, the brunt of both mass refugee spill over and economic consequences from the Ukrainian war will be most felt in Europe. The argument for greater strategic autonomy on par with ongoing commitment to NATO would, at least in the case of Russia’s threat to European security, be a more balanced one.

Concluding remarks

Faced with an intensified Sino-US rivalry on a global stage, this book’s main contribution is to call on Europeans to think deeper about long-term consequences of political fragmentation in Europe and the cracks in transatlantic relations — both of which were witnessed during the pandemic. The contributors emphasise that Europeans need to assume more responsibility for their own security and military affairs in the future by reducing dependency on the US and acting in the spirit of compatibility with European values and interests. It does not, however, deal with the Brexit issues deeply enough, nor could it touch upon AUKUS alliance that was announced after its publication. Still, the argument holds that Europeans need innovative solutions to face new problems instead of relying, reflexively, on traditional approaches which may be inadequate vis-à-vis China and Russia amid the most challenging security environment since the Second World War embodied by Europe’s Ukrainian tragedy. With the US military commitment currently being reassessed towards Europe, the academic and policy debate about Europe’s foreign and defence security sovereignty still has a long way to go.

This is a review of Sebastian Biba and Reinhard Wolf, Europe in an Era of Growing Sino-American Competition: Coping with an Unstable Triangle (Routledge, 2021). ISBN: 9780367441203.

Dr Nina Markovic Khaze is a sessional academic at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University. She was also Vice-President of the AIIA’s ACT Branch in 2012-13, and a former Senior parliamentary Researcher for Europe and Middle East (2007-2014).

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.