The U.S. has turned to Europe to help contain the People’s Republic of China. However, expecting nations which aren’t much interested in defending themselves to take on Xi Jinping’s ever more aggressive communist state is a forlorn hope at best.
NATO’s members refuse to arm against Russia. Most European governments, including of Germany, Italy, and Spain, which along with France and the United Kingdom have the continent’s largest economies, fail to make the alliance’s pitiful two percent of GDP defense spending standard. The countries geographically closest to Moscow are most likely to tik the two percent box, but if they truly feared attack they would devote much more than two cents on the Euro to a "porcupine" defense, designed to make the cost of conquest too high.
However, few Europeans imagine a Russian attack. And all of them expect America to solve any problems that might arise. Their main reason to spend more on the military is to quiet US criticism of cheap-riding. Even before President Donald Trump the hapless kvetching and wailing from Washington about the issue was depressing to behold. However, America’s apparent willingness to forever cover for the Europeans discourages them from doing more.
Yet Trump pressed and now the Biden Administration is pushing for European aid against the PRC. European countries have found much to criticize China in terms of both human rights and COVID-19. Europeans even roused themselves to back the navigational rule of law in the Pacific.
For instance, last September Berlin joined London and Paris in a note verbale to the United Nations emphasizing "the importance of unhampered exercise of the freedom of the high seas, in particular the freedom of navigation and overflight, and of the right of innocent passage." The German government separately addressed policy in the Indo-Pacific, criticizing China for its aggressive maneuvering in nearby waters and supporting "the international rules-based order," a code phrase for the post World War II status quo as created and enforced by Washington.
However, rhetoric is cheap. Washington wants military support but that remains a tough ask. As noted earlier, European countries are inclined to leave the dirty business of their own defense to America. If they don’t want to confront Russia to protect themselves, what is the likelihood that they will take on the PRC to protect other countries?
Moreover, many European nations have substantial trade and investment ties with China. Serbia and Italy are two notable examples, while Germany’s affection for Chinese cash is even more notorious. Earlier this year the Merkel government won approval of a continental investment treaty with Beijing, subsequently held up in the European Parliament over human rights issues. An impending change in government, with elections next month, might lead to a somewhat more skeptical attitude toward Russia and China in Berlin, but such changes tend to be modest.
However, last week, after a sharp internal debate, the German frigate Bayern set sail for Asia. It has a long list of port calls to make, including Australia, Singapore, Guam, and Japan. More controversially, the ship will venture into contested waters in the South China Sea and make a port call in Vietnam. The purpose of the voyage, according to Berlin, is to promote freedom of navigation and "open societies." I.e., obviously but indirectly target the PRC. Thorsten Benner of the Global Public Policy Institute claimed that the trip was "a small miracle and a big achievement for "Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who very much pushed for this."
She is a Christian Democrat, but more willing than Merkel to challenge Beijing. Kramp-Karrenbauer explained: "We want existing law to be respected, sea routes to be freely navigable, open societies to be protected and trade to follow fair rules." All reasonable objectives, but how Bayern’s journey will achieve any of them is unclear.
Indeed, coalition German governments rarely do anything without compromise. So while ostentatiously sending the Bayern to Asia to back Washington’s more aggressive naval maneuvers, Berlin requested Chinese permission to include a friendly port visit in Shanghai. This may reflect the fact that Germany’s Foreign Minister is a Social Democrat, whose party leans pacific.
Alas, the Chinese were not impressed. Beijing requested more information on the purpose of the voyage and instructed the German government to "earnestly abide by international law." An unnamed Chinese diplomat explained: "regarding this warship operation, the information released by the German side before and after is too confusing. China will make a decision after the German side has fully clarified the relevant intentions." Permission likely will be only reluctantly granted, if at all, after discomfiting Berlin as much as possible.
Suggesting more but promising even less were Germany’s "two plus two" meeting with Japan earlier this year, when their foreign and defense ministers met. Both countries are notorious cheap riders and are unlikely to do much in the other nation’s region. The U.S. has pressed Berlin to contribute to "integrated deterrence," which envisions use of economic and other forms of power against the PRC. However, that requires Berlin to be willing to sacrifice its access to the Chinese market. In any case, the likelihood that the Deutsche Marine, let alone Luftwaffe or Heer, will end up in action against the People’s Liberation Army is vanishingly small.
Germany is not alone play-acting as a Pacific power. Earlier this year France sent a nuclear submarine through the South China Sea. This journey, explained Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly, was "striking proof of the capacity of our French Navy to deploy far and for a long time in connection with our Australian, American and Japanese strategic partners." However, the ability to send one sub does not signal willingness to use French naval assets in battle against the PRC, let alone to strike such fear in Beijing that it will agree to become suitably docile.
More significantly, the United Kingdom, a traditional naval power, recently sent a Carrier Strike Group led by the new HMS Queen Elizabeth through the region, though without challenging Beijing’s expansive territorial claims. London also plans joint naval maneuvers with Japan later this year. Japanese Foreign Minister Tochi Motegi said that "We will take security and defense cooperation between Japan and the U.K. to a higher level."
The PRC appeared more irritated than afraid of this maneuver. China’s nationalistic Global Times asserted that "the very idea of a British presence in the South China Sea is dangerous" and the Brits should "remain restrained and obey the rules." As for impressing Beijing, stated the paper: "if London tries to establish a military presence in the region with geopolitical significance, it will only disrupt the status quo in the region. And the UK simply does not have the ability to reshape the pattern in the South China Sea. To be precise, if the UK wants to play the role of bullying China in the region, it is demeaning itself. And if there is any real action against China, it is looking for a defeat."
In practice, the Europeans appear more interested in "showing the flag" than in confronting Chinese claims. And the Global Times, which typically reflects common thinking though not necessarily Beijing’s official position, warned: "The US wants to ‘play a role’ in the South China Sea, which shows its hegemony and has made the region a new front line of the contest between great powers. Here in the South China Sea, China will end the struggle between hegemony and anti-hegemony forces with the US All other countries outside the region are advised to stay away from this confrontation to avoid ‘accidental injury’."
Which they almost certainly will do.
And, in fact, they should do so, until they handle their most important military responsibilities first. If the Europeans aren’t willing to take over their own defense, they aren’t likely to go to war against China on America’s behalf. Let them show that they are willing to protect their own territory, people, and continent. If they ever do that – hopefully the age of miracles is not over! – then the US might take seriously their talk about confronting the emerging superpower in Asia.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.