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Which Way for Europe on China?

Under its new leadership, the European Union has promised to step up its engagement on the world stage to ensure that it does not become a pawn in an escalating Sino-American great-power rivalry. To succeed, it will have to strike a careful balance between economic priorities and its own security.

STOCKHOLM – Recognizing that the European Union is facing a number of vexing challenges on the world stage, Ursula von der Leyen, the new European Commission president, has promised to lead a “geopolitical Commission.” Echoing this sentiment, Josep Borrell, the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has challenged the EU to decide whether it wants to be a global “player,” or just a “playground” for other powers. So, which way will Europe go?

Of all the challenges Europe faces, few are as important as forging a strategic policy for managing its relationship with China. The stakes are enormous. The EU is China’s largest trade partner, and China is the EU’s top trade partner after the United States, with bilateral trade exceeding $1.1 billion per day.

Over the past few years, the US has adopted an increasingly aggressive approach to China. In fact, “confronting” China seems to be one of the few things that unite Americans politically nowadays, even though no single factor is driving US policy. President Donald Trump seems primarily concerned with the bilateral trade deficit, whereas the US security establishment worries about China’s ongoing military and technological development, which could eventually position it to challenge US strategic supremacy.

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