Transatlantic Cooperation on China: More than an Ocean Between

Transatlantic cooperation on East Asia is characterized by benign neglect, at best. It’s been two years since then U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and then EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton issued a joint U.S.-EU statement on Asia-Pacific, and cooperation on the region seems to be even more remote today. Daniel R. Russel, Assistant Secretary for East Asia at the U.S. State Department, demanded that “as the U.S. leans with Europe on Ukraine, Europe should lean with the U.S. on Asia.”[1]

However, Europe’s resources—let alone attention—are eaten up by a plethora of geographically proximate crises with conflict in eastern Ukraine, ISIS in the Middle East, and Ebola in western Africa. It prefers that the United States operate in Asia-Pacific with Australia and its other allies there, and with European partners in Europe’s neighborhood. President Barack Obama underpinned his preferences for allies for operations in the Asia-Pacific at his recent G20 speech at the University of Queensland, emphasizing that Australia is everything the United States wants as an ally in Asia-Pacific as “we’re cut from the same cloth—immigrants from an old world who built a new nation,” sharing the same spirit and values and “that we don’t have to carry with us all the baggage from the past […]” and therefore are able to build the future “together, here in the Asia Pacific region.”[2] The speech illustrated the division in Washington that shapes U.S. foreign policy: Europeanists look west, Asianists look east, back to back and with little interaction in between.

Like a long-married couple, the transatlantic partners are sure of each other—but China is the new sexy in town, provocative, different, and attractive. Transatlantic cooperation on East Asia does and will not come naturally, although both sides of the Atlantic share the same interests—preventing conflict in the Asia-Pacific region to promote growth and trade while keeping the international order. In short, both sides of the Atlantic must work together to strengthen cooperation with China, Asia’s rising great power, within the existing order instead of watching the order erode to an era of power balancing, instabilities, and rule-defecting as a new norm in international systems.

Engaging Each Other: The Missing Transatlantic Link in the Triangle

Germany and the United States both have major stakes in engaging China: The People’s Republic is Germany’s third and the EU’s second largest trading partner, while it ranks at number two for the United States. In return, China’s exports to the EU make up 21.8 percent of all Chinese exports (5.6 percent of its GDP), while Chinese exports to the United States account for 17.1 percent of the PRC’s exports and 4.4 percent of its GDP in 2013.[3] Although the hype about “G2” has vanished—neither the U.S. nor China is interested—the recent Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting underlined once more the centrality of the Sino-U.S. relationship for the region and globally. In particular, the agreements on climate change issues that Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping signed at the summit made headlines—even if it remains questionable whether it will indeed be realized. Germany, on the other hand, is the only country (so far) with which China has held government consultation, including almost the entire German cabinet and their Chinese counterparts. A major member state of the European Union, Germany’s share alone counts for more than half of the Sino-European trade volume. Germany’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), often technology leaders in their sectors with extensive know-how in environmental affairs and technology, are of great interest for Chinese investors, trade, and acquisitions.

On the Chinese side, Xi Jinping has courted both countries and their leaders. Indeed, his concept of a “new type of great power relations” can be read as an attempt to engage the United States in a pact for mutual non-aggression, leading to some sort of co-existence while avoiding conflict between the two powers, which has been labelled “inevitable” by pundits like Hugh White from the Australian National University.[4] It remains tricky. The concept, initially yet no longer embraced by the Obama administration, seems to entail an acceptance of China’s “core interests,” which range widely from the U.S. changing its approach to Taiwan to China’s conduct in the South China Sea to reducing surveillance activities in the region.

On the European side, Xi Jinping’s proposal of a “New Silk Road” that would terminate in Europe can be read as an attempt to further engage Europe, moving major trade routes away from Asia-Pacific and the South China Sea. As a source of investment, particularly a source for technology and know-how, the European Union and especially Germany are attractive partners for Xi Jinping’s ambitious challenges of reform and modernization. The Chinese have an immense interest in the “urbanization partnership” with the European Union and Germany, where it was signed as part of the German-Chinese declaration on “innovation partnership” in October 2014. Xi’s proposal to increase the cooperation between China and Germany on improving the current international system can also be seen as an appeal to Germany and the EU to support China’s preferred version of international order: a multipolar system.[5]

However, on the German-U.S. (or the EU-U.S., for that matter) side of the triangle, cooperation has not really gone much beyond words, despite the high stakes: both Germany and the United States want to keep the current liberal world order that has enabled China and the region to prosper, and that has been under attack by certain non-Western states for the past ten, fifteen years since the Kosovo war. In spite of the Western support for the liberal order, one can say that the Kosovo campaign without a UN mandate, the following recognition of Kosovo by many Western states, as well as the dismissal of the UN’s role under the Bush administration regarding Iraq have contributed to the erosion of legitimacy of international rules and regulation by setting examples of disregard of internationally agreed-upon principles, providing arguments for legitimizing breaches of greater extent. A striking illustration of this is Russian President Putin comparing the annexation of Crimea to the international response to Kosovo. Germany has benefitted most from the liberal world order; keeping and restoring it with joint efforts should be a core interest for the transatlantic relationship. Moreover, as China and the Asia-Pacific region are major trade partners, both sides have an interest in maintaining a stable Asia-Pacific region and keeping open maritime routes (sea-lanes of communication, SLOC). Moreover, the United States and Germany (along with other major European states) want to engage China on a number of global challenges ranging from climate change to non-proliferation. And although the Europeans and Americans lack a coordinated security strategy for the region, both sides have a major impact as its main arms exporters. In the region with the highest increases in defense spending, South Korea is primarily supplied by the U.S. and Germany; India, the world’s biggest importer, gets quite its share from France; and Australia and Singapore rank the U.S., Germany, and France as their top three suppliers.[6]

German-American and EU-U.S. areas for cooperation are plentiful, ranging from maritime security to conflict prevention mechanisms to cyber security—all areas of contention in which both partners are engaged with China and that would benefit from transatlantic coordination.

Cyber Security

On cyber security, the United States and Germany (as well as the EU) are engaged with China on bilateral dialogues and task forces on cyber security: The U.S.-China Cyber Working Group (interrupted since May 2014), the German-Chinese Cyber Dialogue on State Secretary level (since 2014), and the EU-Chinese Cyber Task Force (since 2012). While these forums are intended to find areas for cooperation to fight cyber crime and cyber espionage, differences go beyond the mutual distrust of suspecting each other as major perpetrators of cyber-attacks. On the regulatory level, China is promoting an “International Code of Conduct for Information Security” on the United Nations level that favors a state-dominated internet governance model, while Germany and the European Union prefer a multi-stakeholder solution that would give the power to regulate the internet to the main stakeholder which, in addition to states (political authority), also includes business and academics (experts) and civil society actors (societal legitimacy).[7] Closer cooperation and coordination between the United States and Germany would significantly strengthen their individual positions within the UN negotiations and should give an incentive to clarify the bad blood created over the handling of the NSA affair.

Maritime Security

Maritime security is another area where both sides have a major interest in promoting peaceful solutions to the simmering territorial conflicts in the South China and the East China seas. Sharing lessons learned from joint EU-China counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden (EU Atalanta and CTF 151, coordinated in the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) mechanism) will improve the effectiveness of the operations. Cooperation on promoting UNCLOS—of which the U.S. is a major enforcer, but not a ratifying state, while Germany and the European States have ratified—will strengthen negotiation power and credibility.

Other Traditional Challenges

Further in the realm of non-traditional challenges, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) and the water-energy-food nexus (WEF), both sides will gain from better cooperation and coordination. Some examples include the United States recently involving China in the biannual RIMPAC exercise; the EU actively contributing knowledge to the last DiReX exercise by the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) on non-traditional challenges; as well as EU member states such as Germany promoting know-how in coping with traditional and non-traditional challenges by training Chinese (and other Asian) officers in its officer staff and other courses and promoting regional approaches to conflict resolution mechanisms regarding non-traditional challenges such as river management by supporting the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

Environmental Security

The recent Chinese-U.S. agreement mentioned above illustrated the large area of possible cooperation regarding climate change and coping with global challenges. Climate change and urban sustainability—with China seeking solutions for clean energy as well for coping with rampant urbanization—offer a very concise field for cooperation between the United States and Europe/Germany. For example: with China’s cities reliant on coal-fired power stations for energy production, the majority of Chinese cities face unhealthy smog levels; headlines about sky-rocking PSI amounts in Beijing’s air dominated global news last winter. In addition, energy-generation from coal is water-intensive, but China is a country facing acute water scarcity. U.S. and European cooperation can be two-fold: first, the United States is leading in clean coal technology where sulfur dioxide is removed from the coal before burning, and second, Europe is a technological leader in the development of the circular economy, turning waste into resources. Together, U.S. and European technology can help China’s cities become more environmentally sustainable and thereby provide a very concrete area for transatlantic cooperation on engaging China on local and global challenges.

Challenges: The Ocean is Wide

Still, challenges remain. As Phillip C. Saunders put it, the EU and the United States share objectives in the Asia-Pacific region ranging from limiting tensions, keeping the SLOCs open, and struggling against cyber threats and cyber espionage, yet “they do not share solutions and mechanisms to reach these objectives,” making the U.S. pivot a “major challenge for transatlantic relations as it highlights these differences and lacks clear guidelines for transatlantic cooperation.”[8] On the one hand, Europe does not and will probably never share the United States’ hard power perspective on Asia-Pacific. The U.S.’ rebalancing to Asia-Pacific was spurred by strategic military consideration and is seen in an economic view only secondarily, with the Trans-Pacific Partnership under negotiation. For the Europeans, and particularly Germany, the Asia-Pacific region and the relationship with China is shaped by the “tyranny of distance,”[9] with Russia in between consuming most of the strategic thinking and resources that Germany and Europe entertain eastward.

According to different views toward China and the Asia-Pacific region, levels of expertise differ greatly among the Europeans and particularly between Germany and the United States and add difficulties in transatlantic coordination and exchange. Even on the micro-level, differences in definitions and approaches provide stumbling blocks.  In cyber security, for example, the EU has implemented compulsory measures to respond to cyber-attacks and the U.S. has called for voluntary sharing of cyber information. Finite resources in Europe and Germany have been aggravated by the ongoing euro crisis, acute crises in the neighborhood, and limited military capacities. Furthermore, U.S. and European experts see these challenges through a narrow lens—with Asianists looking eastward and Europeanists looking westward, and connecting personalities like Kurt Campbell out of office. An eroding basis of trust, spurred by the handling of the NSA affair, as well as an understanding of “taking the transatlantic relationship for granted” further complicate coordination and cooperation. But most challenging seems to be the lack of political will to make it happen— the transatlantic partnership is being taken for granted but severely lacks appeal for passionate engagement. It seems that there is not much willingness to go beyond words, particularly from the U.S. side. As President Obama pointed out in Queensland, the major allies for the United States in the Asia-Pacific are located in the region.


While taking each other for granted, Germany as well as the United States are putting great attention on their ever more important relationship with China, both being courted by China for “special relationships”. Although their interests—and those of the European Union, for that matter—coincide in a general interest in keeping the Asia-Pacific region stable, keeping maritime routes open, contributing to the establishment of conflict resolution mechanisms and institutions, and engaging China in regional as well as in global challenges, de facto cooperation and coordination has not readily bloomed, and the Clinton-Ashton declarations on East Asia have not been followed by significant cooperation and coordination. The lack of resources, expertise, a common perspective and priorities, and especially the lack of political will to jointly deal with China undermines the concrete coordination that has taken place thus far. With both the United States and Europe’s clear interest in maintaining the liberal international order, the stakes are high. Unfortunately, the impetus still seems to be missing to turn declarations into deeds.

May-Britt U. Stumbaum is Director of the NFG Research Group “Asian Perceptions of the EU.” 


[1] As quoted at the conference “Towards a Post-US Regional Security Order in Asia?” European Institute on Asian Studies, 27 November 2014, Brussels, Belgium.

[2] The White House, Remarks by President Obama at the University of Queensland, 15 November 2014, (27 November 2014).

[3] CLSA Asia Pacific Markets,

[4] Hugh White, Presentation at the 27th Asia Pacific Roundtable, 4 June 2013.

[5] Shannon Tiezzi, “China and Germany’s ‚Special Relationship’,” The Diplomat, 08 July 2014.

[6] SIPRI, China’s military expenditure continues to rise, SIPRI, 14 April 2014,

[7] Annegret Bendieck and Ben Wagner, “The State of the Internet: Reconstituting ‘Cyberspace’. Suggestions for a common EU strategy for Internet security,” IP Journal, 19 December 2012,“cyberspace” (30 November 2014).

[8] Phillip C. Saunders (2013) “The Strategic Logic of the U.S. Rebalance to Asia and a Potential European Role,” in Transatlantic Security Cooperation in Asia after the U.S. Pivot, Working Session, 18-19 April 2013 (Paris, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, June 2013), ( 30 November 2014).

[9] Michael Yahuda, “China and Europe: The Significance of a Secondary Relationship,” in Chinese Foreign Policy: Theory & Practice T. W. Robinson and D. Shambaugh (eds), (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.