Ever since he belatedly admitted their importance (see here and here), a foundation of President Biden’s strategy for dealing with the wide-ranging challenges posed by China has been bringing America’s long-time treaty allies on board.
As the President made clear in a major speech shortly after his inauguration, China is America’s “most serious competitor” and “America’s alliances are our greatest asset” in countering this threat – and dealing with other global threats and crises.”
Mr. Biden seems to be making progress in mobilizing support from America’s Asian allies, both in terms of pushing them to get serious about their military budgets, and by winning meaningful cooperation for U.S. efforts to stay ahead of China in the means to produce ever more advanced semiconductors – which are central to creating the cutting-edge military systems of today and tomorrow.
But on the Europe front, this allies-focused strategy is hitting some serious roadblocks. Specifically, as Bloomberg.com just reported, although the continent’s major economies – especially the Netherlands, home of ASML, the company that makes the world’s most important semiconductor manufacturing equipment – have gone along to some degree with this American campaign, they’ve also warned that their cooperation will be limited in important ways.
Most disturbingly, particularly given U.S. plans to expand its new, sweeping controls on doing advanced semiconductor business with China, the Netherlands trade minister declared that the country “will not copy the American measures one to one. “We make our own assessment….” His remarks came after Chinese dictator Xi Jinping urged Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to “oppose the politicization of economic and trade issues and maintain the stability of the global industrial chain and supply chain.”
Less disturbingly (because his country isn’t nearly as important a link in the global semiconductor supply chain) but disturbingly nonetheless (because it has always spoken with an outsized voice in European councils), France’s President Emannuel Macron told a group of business leaders, “a lot of people would like to see that there are two orders in this world. This is a huge mistake, even for both the US and China. We need a single global order.”
As a foreign policy realist, I can’t possibly criticize these and other countries for prioritizing what they view as their own national interests. Nor should American leaders. (Criticizing the accuracy of these views? That’s another story.) But Washington should call out avowed allies like the Netherlands and France for what looks like another version of long-time European national security free-riding, and make clear that continuing to play the game of what Bloomberg reporters call “carving out a middle ground when it comes to China” will carry severe consequences.
After all, Macron is right that the United States and China are “two big elephants” in a jungle, and that “If they become very nervous and start a war, it will be a big problem for the rest of the jungle.”
By the same token, however, allies that can’t be counted on when such conflicts start aren’t really allies at all, for their uncertainty makes impossible sound military planning, and could lead to dangerously erroneous miscalculation and other decisions.
In 1931, Florence Reece, the wife of a union organizer, wrote the classic protest song “Which Side Are You On?” to decry the notion of fence-sitting during times of conflict like those in Kentucky’s coal fields during that era. It’s a question that American allies like the Netherlands and France soon need to start answering much more clearly as China’s systemic threat to the United States grows ever more serious.