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How Central Europe can help the US face China

Thursday, 04 February 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Whereas COVID19 occupies our minds today, it does not make other national security threats less important in the long run. Besides climate change, a vital threat to the American way of life is the rising power of China.

If Washington agreed on something on a bipartisan basis in the last few years it was that China has become the new strategic enemy of the West. Digital espionage and widespread violation of human rights on Uighurs in Xinjiang are just a few of the actions taken by Beijing in the last years which threatens basic freedoms of democratic citizens on both sides of the Atlantic.

Republicans and Democrats agreed on this at the beginning of Donald Trump presidency, when General Mattis put China instead of Russia as a main strategic competitor of the US. So the question arises for the incoming Biden administration – who could you rely on in Europe to face this thread? And the answer simply must be – Central Eastern Europe.

We, the citizens of Eastern Europe have lived too long under the communist dictatorship to forget that any totalitarian regime is a threat. The risk for us is tangible, since our old nemesis – Russia, is closely cooperating with Beijing as a technological satellite state.

The Russians use Chinese communications related hardware, believing that their own software will help protect them from being spied on by Beijing. Moscow may also gain access to Chinese tools to eavesdrop on its opponents. In other words, when you buy technologies from Beijing, you can actually get a wiretap from Vladimir Putin for free.

Western Europe is drifting away for good

While the US and CEE hold similar views on the matter, the Western Europe sees the conflict between the US, Russia and China as a business opportunity and a chance to finally come out of the shadow of Americans on the global foreign policy stage.

Both France and Germany have drifted away from the transatlantic order secured by U.S. military and political engagement. Emmanuel Macron went as far as to pronounce the “brain death” of NATO. Berlin is fearing that its economic dependence on the Chinese market can suffer. Western European countries are treating China more as a business opportunity than a real geopolitical threat.

The latest example of this may be the EU-China investment deal, an agreement which was reached between the European Commission and Chinese officials only recently. Countries from CEE, like Poland, are skeptical about security guarantees and want to consult with Washington, while the West is rather optimistic about future economic prosperity.

Most likely, the divergence of interests between Paris and Berlin and Washington will continue despite having much more sympathy towards the European Union occupant of the White House. Washington’s frustration with low European defense spending did not start with the Trump administration and will outlast him too. Germany’s current engagement with Russia — such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — is taking place despite the loud objections of the US and other allies. And of course we can’t forget that the biggest market for German manufacturing sector is in Beijing, not in the US.

Eastern Europe is a reliable ally

Thus, the CEE countries are becoming the key pillar of American strategy in Europe. Both the hybrid war against Ukraine, and current protests in Belarus are the best indicators that the role for the US has not ended in securing the Eastern flank of NATO.

No doubt, the strategic interest of the US is to keep Russia away from the Eastern flank of NATO and not to submit it to the Chinese sphere of influence. Of course, Eastern Europe is more bearish and difficult to understand to an outsider than Western Europe. Most of the societies are center-right, whilst in Western Europe they are center-left. But after the UK departed from the EU, the grouping of unconditional US supporters shrunk to this part of Europe.

Probably the best example of a different approach to Chinese threat in Europe is the reaction to US calls to deny Chinese companies access to our communication network 5G. Some of the countries from the Three Seas Initiative that joined the US so far include the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Slovenia. The “old” Europe is more reluctant and open to Huawei’s influence, despite concerns about its deep connection to the authoritarian state.

Bipartisan consensus needed

We are now at the greatest turning point in Chinese history since its unification in the 3rd century BCE. China is turning outward – but it does not want to rule you. Like the Borg in Star Trek, China wants to assimilate you.

Recalling the famous saying of Lord Palmerston, the US has permanent interests in Central-Eastern Europe, even though the focus in its policy-planning is shifting to Asia. Surely, the Three Seas Initiative will remain a crucial sphere of American interest in the fashion of the old Cold War bipartisanship.

Any American political party should think about this region as strategic if it wants to keep up the pace with the Chinese economy and growing sphere of influence.

This should remain a goal of a bipartisan foreign policy as China has become the main rival. The West might crack but the transatlantic alliance will survive, with the help of CEE.