Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Will Europe Ever Really Confront China?

| Oct. 15, 2021

The Biden administration is gearing up for a long-term struggle in China—but shouldn't expect its closest allies by its side.

The Biden administration has made no secret of its desire to enlist America's extensive array of allies in the "strategic competition" against China. This approach makes good sense in Asia: Most Asian countries have ample reason to worry about a Chinese drive for regional hegemony, and the United States cannot counter such an attempt without extensive cooperation from Japan, Australia, South Korea, India, and others. Managing these relationships effectively will require attentive U.S. diplomacy, but in the Asian context the common interest in balancing China is obvious.

U.S. President Joe Biden & Co. would also like America's European partners to be part of this effort, however, and that's a rather different kettle of herring. I'm not referring to the recent defense agreement among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, known as AUKUS, which has little to do with a European effort to balance China and everything to do with Britain's desire to preserve its so-called special relationship with America and Canberra's interest in deepening its own ties to Washington. Following America's lead has been a knee-jerk response for every British prime minister since Winston Churchill, but it remains to be seen if London will put more than a token effort into the new partnership.

Moreover, by ticking off the French, AUKUS undermined the effort to bring continental Europe into a broad balancing coalition against China, which was already likely to be an uphill battle. This is not a trivial issue: Most European countries are comparatively wealthy, mostly democratic, important economic players within the European Union context, and capable of producing sophisticated weaponry. Europe also contains two nuclear-armed United Nations Security Council members and more than 500 million people. For these and other reasons, how the nations of Europe line up could make a significant difference in the overall balance of world power.

So: Will Europe balance China or not?

You'll forgive me if I suggest that the best way to think about this is balance of threat theoryBalance of threat theory argues that states typically ally in order to balance the greatest threats they face. The level of threat, in turn, is a combination of four components of threat: aggregate power, geographic proximity, offensive capabilities, and perceived intentions. Other things being equal, nearby states with a lot of economic and military power are more threatening than those that are far away and thus more likely to prompt states in their neighborhood to ally against them. And again, all things being equal, states with large, offensively oriented militaries are more threatening than states that have modest military capabilities or armed forces designed more for territorial defense than for power projection or conquest. A weaker state judged to have malign intentions might be seen as more threatening than a powerful state that is actively friendly or at least largely satisfied with the current status quo; if so, the former will trigger more balancing behavior than the latter....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Will Europe Ever Really Confront China?.” Foreign Policy, October 15, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt