Europe finally seems to be waking up to the fact that it has been the object of China’s extended “western strategy” for the past two decades. In Brussels, there is an emerging awareness that the flow of Chinese money into Europe has positioned Beijing to shape the Continent’s economic landscape and influence its politics. But one aspect of Beijing’s long march west that has yet to register fully is its determination to alter the military and security calculus in Europe and across the Atlantic. If unchecked, this push into Europe will turn the Continent into yet another battleground for Beijing’s deepening great power competition with the United States.
China’s economic modernization has been accompanied by geostrategic assertiveness, first along its immediate periphery, then deeper into the Indo-Pacific, and now across Central Asia into Southeastern Europe. China’s military forays into Europe ramped up in 2011, with the first notable deployment of the People’s Liberation Army Navy in the Mediterranean. Since the publication of its 2015 “white paper” on military power, Beijing has pursued, in addition to military modernization, a determined long-term effort to increase the equipment and skill level of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and to gain access to key ports in the Mediterranean as a gateway to southeastern Europe. PLAN naval operations in the Med have increased rapidly in the past two years, with Beijing leveraging new logistics capabilities and the supply base it opened in Djibouti in 2017. In the fall of 2018 the PLAN completed its first joint naval exercise with the EU Naval Force in the Gulf of Aden. The degree of interoperability in the Mediterranean and in the Black Sea today between the PLAN and the Russian Navy, which have conducted joint drills since 2015, further underscores the shifts in the regional balance of power in southeastern Europe over the past decade. The PLAN is also targeting the High North; China is currently building a 30,000-ton nuclear-powered icebreaker.
The PLAN has been mapping out the operational zones it deems strategically important, gathering maritime information, and building on the extension of the Belt and Road Initiative and the 16+1 format to grow China’s political influence. Through its growing number of port calls and joint drills, the Chinese navy aims to gain experience from advanced naval powers, including Europe and Russia. China’s current stakes in port facilities in the Mediterranean, including in Greece, Egypt, Spain, Morocco, and Italy, have positioned Beijing to project power into southeastern Europe and deeper into the Continent.
Equally important has been China’s military entry into the Baltic Sea, and especially its seeming determination to expand its reach further north into the Arctic. Chinese-Russian joint maneuvers in the Baltic in 2017, including Russia’s granting PLAN vessels access to the Baltiysk naval facility in the Kaliningrad District, speak to the growing level of cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. There are also indications that the PLAN intends to deepen its cooperation with Russia’s Northern Fleet, with the Barents Sea serving as the gateway to the Arctic. This increased cooperation between the Chinese and Russian militaries reflects the larger alignment of their geostrategic objectives.
While China still lacks full blue-water capabilities, the Chinese Communist Party has prioritized investment in the PLAN, with Beijing reportedly planning to operate five aircraft carriers by 2025 (at least one of them, and possibly two, nuclear-powered), with some projecting that by 2035 China will be operating four nuclear-powered aircraft carriers. As these new ships come online, China will be poised to expand its global naval presence and to increase exponentially its activities in the European theater. Since Europe’s alliance with the United States is central to the global power distribution, the effects of China’s competing for influence will ripple across the globe.
Whereas the United States sees European states as key allies, China sees Europe as a region whose wealth and technology can be mined to further its strategic objectives. At its core, China’s Europe strategy, including its economic push, seems to be driven by Beijing’s determination to prevent Europe from helping the United States contain its global rise. Launched in 2000, the larger Chinese “western strategy” has followed a three-pronged approach. The first prong involved targeting Eastern Europe with Chinese cash for infrastructure development to solidify continental links to Belt and Road Initiative projects in Eurasia. Next came China’s acquisition of assets in Southern Europe after the 2009 Eurozone crisis. Finally, China has targeted Western Europe, aiming its largest investments at corporate acquisitions, especially European high technology companies, to accelerate China’s decoupling from the United States as its principal supplier of know-how.
While the Chinese military’s growing interest in Europe follows almost two decades of rapidly increasing economic activity across the Continent by Chinese- and Hong Kong-based entities, the trend has truly ramped up over the past ten years. On the investment side, Europe has seen about 50 percent more activity from China than from the United States. China has also established a dominant position in Europe as the preferred provider of current and next-generation digital networks. Washington’s concern over Huawei’s provision of 5G technology across the European Union is but the most recent indicator of this trend. Ranging across loans, infrastructure projects, stocks, real estate, and technology acquisition, China has embedded itself in Europe in a way that is poised to change both intra-European relations and the very foundations of security cooperation across the Atlantic. The 16+1 format in Central and Eastern Europe, established by China in 2012 (Greece just declared its intent to join, and the organization will be renamed 17+1), has indirectly framed the Italian government’s decision to sign on to the Belt and Road Initiative as the latest manifestation of this trend.
Two key developments have aided the rise of Chinese influence in Europe: first, the resurgence of a revisionist Russia along Europe’s eastern flank, which has drawn NATO’s focus away from Southeastern and Western Europe; and second, the rise of centrifugal tendencies in Europe following the Eurozone crisis and MENA immigration debacles, which make a coherent EU-wide response to the surge of Chinese influence unlikely. Developments in the Caucasus and on Europe’s eastern flank over the past decade have proved fortuitous for China’s Europe strategy. Since the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, China has benefited from Russia’s great power revisionism, which has drawn the attention of the United States and Europe to the Continent’s periphery. Russia’s seizure of Crimea in particular was helpful for Beijing, as it cast Russia in the role of America’s principal adversary. Meanwhile, the regnant globalist ideology and the lingering consensus in Washington that market access and export-driven modernization would lead China down the path of democratic transformation reinforced the policy of “benign neglect” toward China.
The hardening of U.S.-Russian relations also made it easier for China to deepen its influence in Central Asia. Squeezed by sanctions, Russia has struggled with a host of economic issues, giving it little choice but to accede to China’s “Big Eurasia” agenda. Over the past decade, Central Asia has restructured its economic links away from Russia and toward China. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently remarked that Moscow has no issue with China’s Eurasia strategy. China is now decisively outpacing Russia in the region on investment, trade, and infrastructure development, investing heavily in the Kazakhstan-China oil pipeline and the Central Asia-China natural gas pipeline.
For the United States, there is a clear national security dimension to the impending tectonic economic shift in Europe. Increasingly, Beijing’s financial and political influence, both in the United Kingdom and on the Continent, are calling into question America’s traditional assumptions when it comes to close cooperation with our allies, including issues surrounding sensitive technologies. The situation is likely to get even more difficult in short order, as the next round of U.S.-China great power competition is poised to extend beyond the economic and military domains, morphing into an ideological competition between American free market democratic capitalism and Chinese state-driven mercantilism.
China’s deepening involvement in Europe is now registering at multiple levels—financial, technological, political, and increasingly military—and could soon reorder the foundations of Euro-Atlantic relations. If current trends continue, one consequence may be the bifurcation of Europe into one area, in which the Transatlantic link remains strong, and another, in which China will increasingly shape not just the economic but also the political and military security environment. Though the outcome of China’s accelerating competition with the United States is by no means preordained, one thing is clear: China has become a power in Europe, perhaps even a “European power” increasingly capable of shaping the Continent’s destiny and Europe’s relations with the United States.