China’s ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, summed up Beijing’s approach as: 'We treat our friends with fine wine. But for our enemies we have shotguns’ © Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency/AFP/Getty

Among the legacies of Donald Trump’s administration is an abiding concern among America’s allies that it will drag the west into needless conflict with China. The president’s belligerence has been succour for those who argue that, where the US sees a geopolitical rival, Europeans should stay fixed on the economic opportunities. Rather than take sides, the EU should play the role of mediator.

Europe’s fears, softened only in part by Joe Biden’s election victory, are at once understandable and perilously misplaced. They turn on its head the real balance of threat to the US and Europe. To the extent that President Xi Jinping wants China to rule the world, the challenge to the US is serious. For the EU, the danger is existential.

The US knows how to play the great power game. Economically and militarily it is well equipped to do so, at least for the next 20 years. Like Beijing, Washington guards its national sovereignty against intrusion from international rules. Europe is the odd one out here. The EU is what political scientists call a “normative” power: it exercises leadership by example. It will not survive in a world of Beijing’s design, where cherished rules are replaced by the will of the mighty.

It is a common mistake to see China’s geopolitical ambitions as limited to hegemony in the western Pacific. For Beijing, economic reach and the power of the Chinese state are indivisible. The Belt and Road Initiative aims to shrink the distance between Asia and Europe. The strategic goal is to make China the pre-eminent power in Eurasia.

Oddly, Mr Xi seems to have been doing his best of late to disabuse those who still argue that China will respect the liberal international order. The rhythm of his regime has settled into one of voluble disdain for “western” rules and studied aggression towards supposed adversaries. 

Australia dared support an independent inquiry into the outbreak of Covid-19; it now finds itself under sustained economic onslaught. Canada’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in response to an extradition request from US authorities was met with the arrest of two Canadian citizens on alleged espionage charges. A pro-independence government in Taiwan is threatened with reunification by force. The embers of democracy in Hong Kong have been snuffed out. Vietnamese fishing boats are harassed in the South China Sea.

Gui Congyou, China's ambassador to Sweden, summarised the approach late last year: “We treat our friends with fine wine. But for our enemies we have shotguns”. His wrath followed a decision by Swedish writers to honour Gui Minhai, the Swedish, Hong Kong-based publisher subsequently jailed in China.

The common denominators are disdain for international rules and for the freedoms that sustain democracies. Sanctions on imports from Australia, the dismissal of a UN-sponsored court ruling in favour of the Philippines about maritime boundaries, and the arbitrary arrest of foreign citizens are Mr Gui’s shotgun. Think of anything that might be called a western, or European, value and Beijing has it in its sights.

To be fair, European governments have grown more wary. China has been now designated by the EU as a strategic competitor as well as a partner in global co-operation. China’s Huawei faces restrictions on building new 5G digital networks. The UK has all but abandoned the policy of ingratiation pursued by David Cameron’s government.

There is also a recognition in Brussels that Mr Biden’s election provides an opportunity to present a cohesive western approach. The president-elect’s views on China may be tough, but they are also rational. A paper drafted by the European Commission suggests transatlantic differences be accommodated in a new “global alliance” that would reassert western values against “authoritarian powers” and “closed economies”.

The missing ingredient is a willingness to admit the geopolitical collision with Beijing, and China’s efforts to divide and rule through the “17+1” co-operation group established to shape its relationship with mainly eastern and central European nations. German chancellor Angela Merkel remains prominent among those unwilling to let go of the idea that economics and geopolitics can be neatly separated.

Global issues such as pandemics and climate change necessarily require partnership with China. There is nothing to be gained from a headlong rush into a new “cold war”. But collaboration cannot be at the expense of a clear-eyed understanding of Beijing’s ambitions and methods. Europe will have to take sides.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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