Competition of Powers

What are the perspectives and prospects for cooperation, competition, and confrontation between China, Europe, and the United States? On September 18, 2018, experts discussed this question at the Berlin Representative Office of the Robert Bosch Stiftung. That very same day, the U.S. Administration imposed new tariffs amounting to 200 billion USD on Chinese imports, making the debate even more relevant.

David Weyand | September 2018

The event, co-hosted by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and The Brookings Institution, was part of the Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative (BBTI) and the Foundation’s Berlin-based discussion series “Engaging with China.” Some 150 guests attended the event, which was also streamed live on the internet. Online viewers could submit questions for the Q&A with the panelists via YouTube comments.

In his welcome remarks, Christian Hänel, Senior Vice President International Relations America and Asia at the Foundation, mentioned the findings of a survey conducted by The National Interest, a U.S. magazine, among American and Chinese experts: While some considered a military confrontation with China inevitable, others stated that there were many factors indicating that the peaceful cooperation would continue.

The event’s host, Janka Oertel, a transatlantic fellow in the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, asked the audience in Berlin which option they considered more likely. The result: Nobody expected intensified cooperation, and in fact most members of the audience believed the competition between the countries would pick up. However, only a handful of guests expected military conflict.


For Dingding Chen, Professor of International Relations at Jinan University in Guangzhou, China and a non-resident fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) in Berlin, the latest developments did not come as a total surprise: “Another round of U.S. tariffs had been suspected for a while now and was also discussed internally by the Chinese government. Only the timing was a little surprising.” Nevertheless,  Chen was convinced that “these two large economies need each other, as much as they need good relations with Europe and Germany.” He expected cooperation to pick up again in the future; it was only a matter of when.

Chen pointed to climate protection as a policy field with major potential for cooperation between China and Europe. In this context, city networks and NGOs could play an important role, a member of the audience added in the subsequent Q&A session. However, transparency and openness, primary prerequisites for success, were still lacking in many instances of Chinese investments in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America.


Mikko Huotari, Deputy Director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), took a more skeptical stance, not expecting current conflicts to disappear in the short term. On the contrary, in his opinion they constituted a fundamental element of Chinese-American relations: “This is certainly not just about trade and trade deficits, it is about technological leadership and the strategic rivalry between these two countries, which will characterize decades to come.” He called for Europe to finally define its own policy positions and no longer be a junior partner in the game of the big players. “That would include communicating very clearly with Washington, and letting them know: We oppose a trade war because it goes against our fundamental interests.”

Torrey Taussig also observed an increasing “great power competition.” A non-resident fellow in the Brookings Foreign Policy Program, she is working as a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow in Berlin in 2018/2019. Taussig stated that in the West, you could currently see a rise in populist parties and right-wing extremist groups, while dissatisfaction with democracy was growing. At the same time, China and Russia were systematically expanding their global political, economic, and military foothold—among other things, to propagate “a different type of governance system.” According to Taussig, China was developing a valid alternative to the liberal, democratic government model. “It’s a competition of ideas we must engage in,” she insisted.


However, China and the USA are not only heavyweights in terms of economic and political power but also military prowess. Is war between China and the U.S. inevitable? Ryan Hass, who served on the National Security Council staff under the Obama Administration and is currently a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution, emphasized that there were no inevitable conflicts; such decisions were taken by the political leadership. There was no mathematical equation stating that emerging and established powers had to clash. “It would be a failure of diplomacy if we ever reached that point.” Regarding the South China Sea, Mr. Hass saw no real threat of war in the present situation but rather a stalemate: China could only realize its ambitious goals by taking military action against the U.S. Navy, an unrealistic scenario in the foreseeable future. The United States, in turn, would keep their troops stationed and welcome increased military commitment from the Europeans in the region. “The more parties are involved, the less confident each power is to demonstrate their strength there.” Dingding Chen concluded that, given the country’s strong growth momentum, China’s intention to defend its interests also on a global scale was relatively normal.

At the end of the event, the findings of the initial audience survey also seemed to be confirmed by the participants of the panel discussion: The experts expected declining cooperation and greater competition, but no full-blown confrontation between China, Europe, and the United States.

Quotes from the panelists