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Among the American officials I spoke with, there was an air of what felt like panic—over what they saw as the global spread of Chinese influence through Xi’s Belt and Road initiative, the lack of an American alternative to Huawei, and the persistent failure of the World Trade Organization to tackle China’s unfair trade practices.
One senior administration official likened discussions of China policy to the period after the 9/11 attacks. Inevitably, this person said, there will be an “overreaction” from Washington, with “collateral damage” for other countries, before U.S. policy settles down. In Brussels, senior officials are comparing the Trump administration’s China policy to Brexit. Both, they say, are based on the deluded notion that a fading great power can reverse the course of history and return to its glorious past.
The irony is that senior U.S. administration officials acknowledge in private that American success in its competition with China might ultimately hinge on what happens in Europe. Yet many U.S. officials have no patience, at least in the highest ranks of the Trump administration, when it comes to working with European allies. Nor do they have much appreciation for the steps Europe has taken over the past year to push back against China. Several U.S. officials described the EU’s recent measures as baby steps that fall far short of what is needed.
“The Americans are out to beat, contain, confront China,” a senior EU official who asked not to be identified told me. “They have a much more belligerent attitude. We believe they will waste a lot of energy and not be successful.”
This does not mean that transatlantic channels of communication on China have broken down. A group of hawkish pragmatists including Matt Pottinger, who oversees Asia policy at the National Security Council, and Randall Schriver, a senior Pentagon official, have been trying to reach out to Europe for months, U.S. and European officials confirm.
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Last year, discussions focused on measures to protect against Chinese acquisitions. More recently, they have shifted to talks on next-generation 5G mobile networks, as well as joint responses to Belt and Road, an issue about which Washington and Brussels agreed last month to hold quarterly coordination meetings, according to EU officials. And last month, an American delegation traveled to Berlin for talks with German officials on China as part of a biannual get-together that began under the Obama administration and has continued, without a hitch, under Trump.
Other changes are under way too: Last year, according to U.S. and European officials, the State Department appointed China point people in many of their European embassies, with officials estimating that roughly 150 U.S. diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic now spend at least part of their time focusing on China in Europe; at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Washington in late March, China was on the agenda for the first time; and Belt and Road could be a discussion point when France hosts a G7 summit in Biarritz in August, European officials have suggested.