“Europe needs to become more independent of China”

Each year, the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich analyses key geopolitical trends. Oliver Thränert, head of the think tank at the CSS, explains which new developments will impact global affairs. A conversation on European security and China as a challenge to the transatlantic alliance.
Chinese president Xi Jinping met Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow on 21 March 2023. (Photograph: The Kremlin Moscow)

Mr. Thränert, which issue worries you the most?
Oliver Thränert: The war in Ukraine continues to cast a big shadow over global affairs. We’re caught up in a geopolitical confrontation between Russia, a nuclear power, and the Western and other states that support Ukraine. And with China now siding with Russia, the US government even goes so far as to characterise it as a global confrontation between democracy and autocracy.

But many of the democracies in the global South, such as India, Brazil or South Africa, do not regard themselves as in either the Russo-Chinese or the Western camp.
This is where the US view is flawed. In Strategic Trends 2023, we take a closer look at India. The Indian government has refused to publicly condemn the Russian attack on Ukraine. India remains dependent on Russia to procure many of its weapons; economically, it relies heavily on China. But at the same time, New Delhi is keen to maintain good relations with Washington. If you look at all these factors together, it’s easier to understand India’s ambiguous and sometimes shifting stance. 

Turning back to Europe: following the Russian attack, there was much talk of an epochal turning point, particularly in Germany. Has this really happened?
In Europe, it’s beginning to dawn on us that we need to prepare for a prolonged conflict with Russia. That means paying much more attention to military questions than we have over the past 30 years. We have to refocus on our defence and deterrence capabilities.

And that means?
It means that the only way we can be reasonably safe from being attacked by Russia, for example, is to ensure we are capable of defending ourselves militarily and by having a credible deterrent. Younger generations, in particular, who never experienced the Cold War, will have to become reacquainted with this disagreeable fact. That’s especially difficult in Germany, where there’s a strong desire to push anything to do with the military into the background.

How secure is Europe right now?
Russia is the world’s largest nuclear power. Despite its losses in Ukraine, it remains a threat to Europe. This, in turn, means that Europe’s security depends on a united NATO front and upon the credibility of its nuclear deterrent as constituted by the US and by the two European nuclear-weapon states, France and the United Kingdom. In the Baltic States or in Poland, people still have faith that, in an emergency, the US would use its nuclear weapons to defend NATO territory. The war in Ukraine has shown once again that the transatlantic alliance with the US represents a life insurance policy for Europe.

How long will the US still be prepared to protect Europe?
The Biden administration has shown great solidarity with Europe. The US is supplying by far the most weapons to Ukraine and is also bearing the lion’s share of the financial burden. But it is unclear how long Europe can continue to rely on the US. Joe Biden will be the last US president to feel strong familial ties to Europe.

What will ensure US support once such ties no longer exist?
If the Americans see that Europe is failing to support the US over its interests regarding China, this could put significant strain on the transatlantic relationship. Should Biden not be re-elected, and a Republican takes the White House, US policy could change rapidly.

What does the US expect from Europe with regard to China?
The US doesn’t expect Europe to provide major military assistance in the event of China invading Taiwan. It’s more a matter of Europe becoming more independent of China, technologically and economically speaking, and being prepared, if need be, to support economic sanctions. Europe must be willing to diversify its supply chains away from China, even if this comes at a cost. That applies to Switzerland, too. If Europe is unwilling to do this, Washington will think twice about providing Europe with as much military support as it is doing right now.

In other words, the transatlantic alliance is being put to the test.
Not only that: a powerful China, together with its partner Russia, is challenging Western ideas of order.

What ideas are these?
The network of rules and institutions that is often referred to as the liberal or rules-based international order. It arose after the Second World War under the strong influence of the United States.

What characterises this order?
At its core is the principle, enshrined in the UN Charter, that all states, large or small, possess the same sovereign rights. This not only guarantees territorial integrity and outlaws war as the pursuit of politics by other means; it also, and above all, ensures a state’s right to choose which alliances it wishes to join.

In what way exactly are China and Russia challenging these principles?
They see themselves as great powers with a special status, and they think in terms of spheres of influence. In the eyes of Moscow and Beijing, any states located within such spheres enjoy only limited sovereignty. This applies for instance to Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Caucasus, and it applies to Taiwan and the South China Sea.

What links China and Russia beyond thinking in terms of spheres of influence?
Both are autocratic states and nuclear powers with permanent seats on the UN Security Council. Apart from that, what the two share is a rejection of a world order dominated by the United States. China and Russia are working together to roll back the influence of the United States – especially in their own backyards. They are revisionist powers that want to change the existing world order to their own benefit.

Are there any differences between the two?
China remains unwilling to provide Moscow with direct military support, since it fears Western sanctions, which would harm its economy. It also disapproves of the Russian threat to use nuclear weapons. In this case, Beijing is urging restraint because it fears that its own neighbours might be motivated to acquire nuclear weapons themselves. 

Are Russia and China equal partners?
With its economic power, China is clearly the stronger of the two. In the longer term, Russia risks becoming too dependent on China. Russia is hoping to replace the gas customers it has lost in the West with new ones in the East, particularly in China.

What impact will this have?
China’s influence over Russia is growing. Russia also has a long common border with China. The Russian population along this frontier is thinning, but the Chinese population on the other side continues to grow. That also makes Russia vulnerable to China.

Strategic Trends 2023

The Strategic Trends series offers an annual analysis of key developments in global affairs, with a focus on international security. The current issue contains the following articles:

  • China, Russia, and the Future of the World Order
  • Silicon Curtain: America’s Quest for Allied Export Controls against China
  • Alliances and Extended Nuclear Deterrence in Europe and Asia
  • How India Navigates a World in Transition

Read the current issue here.