One specific area of focus should be China’s Belt and Road Initiative — a vast network of infrastructure and connectivity projects, underwritten by China, across Asia, Africa and Europe. Some of those projects provide much needed investment. Many, however, lack transparency, leave the host country riddled with debt, and require political favors in return. Given the scale of China’s investment, it is tough for Europe and the United States to offer viable alternatives. They should still try.
They could also do more to help countries avoid the Belt and Road Initiative’s many pitfalls. Last year the United States Treasury sent a team of evaluators to Myanmar to help it navigate the challenges of a Belt and Road project. Europe should be doing the same thing. They could start that work not halfway around the world but in Portugal, Greece, Italy and Serbia, which have already signed on to Chinese projects and are looking at more.
It may be hard to imagine the Trump administration doing any of these things. This is an administration, after all, that has undermined, not strengthened, America’s network of alliances from the start. It prefers to see the world, as two administration officials put it in a 2017 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, as “not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”
Mr. Trump is right to claim that America finds itself in an era of great power competition with China. Where his administration has repeatedly missed the mark, though, is in its determination to deride the very “global community” that could help America in its challenge. If the president were serious about competing with China, he would be doing more to get as many allies on his side as possible.
Working with Europe will not be easy. The two will never be in perfect lock step on China, especially when it comes to security issues. Europe doesn’t have anything resembling America’s forces in Asia nor does it share America’s security commitments. Even inside Europe, there will continue to be different approaches to China. Nonetheless, the smartest thing for Europe and the United States to do would be to find areas where they can come together. Right now, they are not positioning themselves for even modest levels of success. They aren’t competing, and China wants to keep it that way.
Julianne Smith (@Julie_C_Smith) is a former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden and now is a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
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