Bridging the Ocean: Challenges and Opportunities for Transatlantic Cooperation on China


In 2011, EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht stated that “America and Europe may often bicker, but in the end we know we are each other’s partner of choice.” The same is often applied to the German-American relationship. We take it for granted just as much as we take our knowledge of each other—our strategic interests and approaches—for granted. But on a practical level, both sides are too busy with responding to major, on-going crises—ranging from the Ukraine conflict to Syria, the refugee crises and Da’esh—in order to take the time to talk about cooperation on key strategic issues.

Perhaps the most important issue—and partner—for both countries is China.  The launch of the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)—a Chinese initiative which Germany alongside with the UK, France, and others joined as a founding member but the U.S. did not—was a loud wake-up call that we have divergent approaches to China’s new global governance initiatives.  The issue shows that it is indeed time to consider the long-term cost of non-cooperation beyond the short-term gains of competition and negligence.

In this essay, I examine areas, opportunities, and obstacles for cooperation and why we should take the time to invest in a better mutual understanding and tangible cooperation across the Atlantic. My four key points are:

1.) AIIB was a wakeup call.  With a more cooperation-minded generation increasingly in charge, there is growing momentum for increased interest in transatlantic cooperation on China policy.

2.) Still, a lack of institutionalized formats persists: cooperation and exchange is still dependent on personalities and individual initiatives and so far focuses on the higher level, with little follow up on the working level.

3.) The costs of long-term non-cooperation will outweigh the competitive short-term gains.

4.) Obstacles to cooperation include deviating paradigms and political cultures and a lack of knowledge about each other; still, opportunities and areas for cooperation are manifold and preponderant.

Reasons and Formats for Cooperation

In the current flux of an international order, China has emerged as the key new player that is exerting increasing influence on global governance.  Meanwhile, Germany has joined the United States as two core actors of the “West,” Germany’s influence shaped and supported by its role in dealing with financial and security crises alike, from the euro zone to Ukraine, Syria, the refugee crisis, and Da’esh. For both countries, China has become the foreign policy priority and a core partner in dealing with global challenges: the United States perceives China as its only remaining strategic competitor and core actor, while Germany is concurrently cooperating and competing with China on everything from economics to climate change. China and the Asia Pacific region have superseded North America in terms of trade from a European/German perspective with China being the third biggest trading partner for Germany alone, with German-Chinese trade comprising more than 50 percent of EU-China trade, while the U.S. only comes in fourth. President Barack Obama’s “rebalancing to Asia” (aka the “pivot to Asia”) underpins the salience of the region for U.S. foreign and security policy. Germany and China now hold biannual government consultations (with 200+ Chinese officials in Berlin for the last meeting); the U.S. and China hold the annual U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED) (with 400+ Chinese delegates at the last meeting).

Germany’s relationship with China mirrors the U.S.-Chinese relationship in density.  “Strategic Partners” since 2003, Germany and China entered into a “Comprehensive Innovation Partnership” in October 2014 that encompasses all areas from addressing global crises and non-traditional challenges including climate change, to technology cooperation, urbanization, and modernization. Issue-area specific dialogues regularly bring experts together on a working level.  Since 2015, Germany and China have entertained a high-level Dialogue on Foreign and Security Policy at the level of State Secretary of Foreign and Defense Ministries; a “Sino-German High-Level Financial Dialogue” since March 2015; the long-running Rule of Law Dialogue; and the only Human Rights Dialogue on a national level among European countries, complementing the EU Human Rights Dialogue. In terms of security cooperation, Germany’s export control authority BAFTA has executed the “EU Outreach” program to train Chinese export control officers while training selected Chinese offices at its UN Center, its Defense Academy, and for shorter courses, in the different military branches. China and Germany have memberships in fifty shared international organizations (IO) and, on the civil society level, enjoy a rich web of cultural and academic exchanges, with an intense level of decentralized scientific cooperation and eighty city twinnings spread throughout both countries.

Interests shared by the U.S. and Germany range from policy areas to global governance aspects, including the joint desire to re-consolidate the international system/liberal order while integrating and adapting to a rising China; overarching business interests such as the Bilateral Investment Treaties (BIT) that the U.S. and the EU are both concurrently negotiating; and a common interest in peace and stability in Asia Pacific, given major trade maritime routes running through the South China Sea and elsewhere in the region.

With Germany seeing itself strongly entrenched in the European Union, the dense German/European and U.S. networks provide multiple entry points for coordinated initiatives on issues of common interests vis-à-vis China where concerted messages will reinforce the intensity and impact of these approaches. The Clinton-Ashton declaration of 2012 , the first joint “U.S.-EU Statement on the Asia-Pacific Region,” was a great opening on the U.S.-EU level, but saw no follow-up in future initiatives.  For example, Kurt Campbell’s outreach to the Europeans to initiate more transatlantic cooperation on Asia and China by, for example, reviving the U.S.-EU Strategic Dialogue on East Asia, set up in 2005 after the furious transatlantic debate on the EU’s intended lifting of its arms embargo on China, was not taken up on the EU’s side. Formats such as the semi-annual Quint meetings—bringing together the Asia directors of Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and the United States—remain informal and ad hoc while Track 1.5 initiatives such as the GMF’s Stockholm China Forum remain rare.

Germany’s Approach toward and Interests in China

Germany’s approach is shaped by its historical experiences of European integration, enlargement, Ostpolitik, and geography.  While the U.S. and China have the Pacific between their shores, the distance between Germany and China is filled with shorter-distance strategic interests that demand immediate attention: Russia and Ukraine, Syria and the Middle East. Germany’s policy is also shaped by a self-assessment of the limits to its influence—an assessment that is often counter to the U.S.’ view of Germany’s possible power. At the core of the German approach to China is the idea of engaging and influencing through assistance; that is, participating and shaping Chinese international projects from “inside” and encouraging internal Chinese development through focused support while voicing critical aspects on the basis of trust. Connecting China’s actual modernization needs and the German portfolio of required know-how and technology with Germany’s policy interests is the goal of the “Modernization partnership” of 2014, which includes the “Industry 4.0/China 2020” plan, the rule of law dialogue (“Rechtsstaatsdialog”), and actual capacity building in the region[1].  This comprehensive approach goes far beyond the “just trade” accusation often made, as seen in German chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent open comments in favor of involving international institutions such as the International Court of the Seas in finding the solution to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Beyond strong trade interests that imply a strong interest in stability,[2] Germany’s interests in China encompass consolidating and adapting the  global governance system, working with China on issues ranging from climate change (with the complex interrelationship of energy/environment/climate at the core of 2014’s government consultations) to improving the financial global infrastructure.  Germany’s founding membership in the AIIB—also at the request of its Southeast Asian partners—is only example of its policy of shaping the institutions from within. China has now become an aspect of all German foreign policy just as the United States is a part of all German foreign policy. Accordingly, there is an ever-growing interest not only in a transatlantic debate on the strategic and tactical level to have a better exchange, to better demonstrate that Berlin and Washington are communicating on Chinese initiatives and China’s impact on regional and global issues—but also on following-up the talk with tangible joint initiatives.

German-American and EU-U.S. issues for cooperation are equally plentiful, ranging from maritime security and freedom of navigation (FON) to conflict prevention mechanisms and cyber security—all areas of contention in which both partners are engaged with China and that would benefit from transatlantic coordination. Concrete issues to date include the negotiations about bilateral investment treaties between the U.S. and China and the EU and China (Germany signed its BIT in 2003, but supports the EU negotiations) that would benefit from coordinated approaches to achieve a common overarching framework that still leaves individual outcomes for bilateral treaties possible. In a similar area, concerning business and civil society alike, the drafts of new NGO and IT laws in China have led to similar concerns in Germany, the EU, and the U.S. and can be further addressed with coordinated messages. On the security side, a core issue is the internationalization of issues such as the South China Sea territorial disputes where Germany and the EU can reinforce the importance of following international law, regulations, and standards—with both enjoying a considerable degree of credibility when talking about rule-based orders. On capacity building in the region—primarily by encouraging ASEAN to undertake OSCE-like initiatives—both sides of the Atlantic can join resources. Germany will be presiding over the OSCE in 2016 and aims to make the issue of interconnectivity—central to Asian considerations—a core issue. Last but not least, cyber is a central area of concern that has been given little reason for optimism but will remain a key area for cooperation, with Berlin, Brussels, and Washington all sharing concerns and convictions.

Challenges to Cooperation

As nice as cooperation sounds, as difficult it is to put words into practice.  Transatlantic cooperation on China faces a plethora of challenges that are responsible for a persisting lack of cooperation despite years of different declarations. Challenges encompass diverging paradigms, interests, approaches, political cultures, and sheer bureaucratic obstacles. The following are just a few obstacles intended to give an idea of the impediments to cooperation:

Time and Resources

Time and resources are two of the key factors limiting German-American cooperation. Strategic discussions on China happen and are often on the agenda of the numerous high-level transatlantic dialogues held throughout the year; however, they are often overshadowed by the on-going list of pressing crises that consume most of the resources for emergency responses. With most exchanges at high levels, the portfolios are broad in nature and the likelihood of the meeting being overtaken by events is high. When to involve the transatlantic partner in a new policy is also an issue. First, each actor’s agencies and departments spend considerable time finding a consensus among themselves. Second, the speed at which ideas are pursued varies: ideas seem to be embraced and discarded faster in Washington than in Europe, while the German mentality, reinforced by consultations on the national and the European levels, rather prefers slower but sturdier commitments once an agreement has been found. Where Americans are more focused on outputs for measuring success, Europeans and Germans often focus on the process—especially since the on-going European integration process is seen as a success to prevent another war in Europe. This often leads to frustration in Washington about Germany and the EU dragging their feet, while the U.S.’ partners feel they are expected to share the burden, but not be part of the decision-making process—or differently put, “to fall in line with the U.S. approach and interests.”[3]

Lack of Knowledge and Level of Expertise

 Cooperation is also hampered by a lack of knowledge and level of expertise, that is, U.S. officials are often unaware of what their German counterparts are doing with their Chinese partners, their interests, and their approaches—and vice versa.  The “siloing” of experts in Washington—Asianists looking at Asia, Europeanists looking at Germany and Europe—often leads to German officials speaking with experts on Europe, but almost never with officials working on Asia.  This is true in Berlin as well, with their East Asia officials travelling to Beijing rather than to Washington. “Like-minded groups” in Beijing—regular meetings among foreign policy officials of like-minded countries like the U.S., Germany, and others—help to overcome this division, but short rotation cycles, particularly for U.S. Foreign Service officials in Washington, make networking and the flow of information difficult.

Although both countries engage a system of “generalists” among foreign policy officials, the German side spends less time and resources on preparation for a new position—for example, initial Mandarin language training before going to China often differs from 0 – 6 weeks for Germans to 2 years for Americans.  Additionally, the difference in personnel numbers—on average provides a different level of expertise in Berlin and Washington, with Berlin’s Asia experts covering a broader spectrum and their U.S. colleagues focusing on a narrower, more in-depth portfolio within their assigned areas (with some exceptions of outstanding knowledge depth on the German side).  Both factors hamper communication and momentum.

This different level of expertise is also mirrored in the think tank world. Contrary to the U.S., German think tanks do not serve as idea labs for policy people before or after time spent in office, due to Germany having far fewer political appointees and no system of “revolving doors.” It is still a relatively small crowd of people in German think tanks trying to cover the broad spectrum of issues as best as possible, which leads to less depth of readily accessible knowledge for policymakers. With Germany’s general system of “stove-pipe careers,” (where people stay within their chosen professional field in terms of business/civil service/academia with little horizontal change between these fields), career diplomats, and small number of political appointees, these external experts are unlikely to experience how policy is made from the inside, while their expertise will be called on only sporadically.

Deviating Paradigms and Roles

 Driven by a different geopolitical position as well as by a different traditional approach to strategic issues, German and U.S. paradigms deviate in how to assess China’s rise and how to deal with it. Different assessments of “what is effective,” a rather cautious approach to military issues in Germany, and a more military-centric strategic discourse in Washington further underpin the deviating paradigms. The U.S. preference of choosing cooperation partners according to the challenge at hand contradicts the German view of utilizing long-standing alliances to tackle all sorts of challenges, a mentality groomed since the post-World War II period. History is also a significant factor for Germany, still coping with its new role as a leading power within Europe.

The Nitty Gritty: Recommendations for Making Transatlantic Cooperation Tangible and Persistent

The allure of pursuing short-term gains by acting competitively instead of arduously investing resources for cooperation to avoid long-term costs is difficult to counter in times of headline-driven fast politics and short election cycles. Nevertheless, given the long-term strategic interests of Washington, Berlin, and Brussels, and the relative decline in power for “Western” countries, cooperation will be the only way to successfully pursue mutual interests. The following is a list of recommendations drawn from interviews with policymakers and the analysis above:

  • Keep putting “China issues” on the agenda of meetings with U.S. and German officials. The repetition will make the topic salient and ensure that it will be taken up despite time-consuming omnipresent crises.
  • Request meetings with Asia counterparts, and not (only) counterparts in the European departments of the White House, Department of Defense, Department of State, etc., during high-level visits of German representatives to Washington, and vice versa.
  • Involve German partners on concrete initiatives and vice versa. Tangible results will spur further and steady cooperation and facilitate a better understanding of each other’s mindsets in the process.
  • Strive for an institutionalization of exchange in order to decrease dependency on personal agency and relationships. The frequent rotation of Foreign Service officials as well as political appointees aggravates a regular exchange.
  • Set up regular contact on the working level and across country offices, e.g., the German East Asia section head visiting Washington, DC, and vice versa.
  • Involve business into strategic discussions by inviting business people dealing with/in China to transatlantic discussions to connect trade and security paradigms and promote joint initiatives.
  • Promote and build up more regular Asia strategic analysis and expertise among German officials and think tanks to come to par with a U.S. level of expertise.
  • Set up a regular Track 1.5 dialogue between Germany and the U.S. on China to use continuous knowledge on think tank level, build up institutional knowledge and memory, overcome the fallacy of rotations, and promote out-of-the-box thinking across bureaucratic obstacles.

Dr. May-Britt U. Stumbaum was a DAAD/AGI Research Fellow in October and November 2015. Dr. Stumbaum is the Director of the NFG Research Group “Asian Perceptions of the EU” at the Freie Universität Berlin and Editor of the Blog “The SPEAR – Security and Politics in Europe-Asia Relations.”


[1] For example, Germany is directly supporting the professionalization of ASEAN’s press work while the EU is also cooperating on crisis communication as a tangible contribution to humanitarian assistance/disaster management (HADR).

[2] The American Chamber of Commerce has launched “door knock” events in which American business people doing business in/with China are invited to think tanks in Washington, DC to discuss security issues. European and German business share the interest in stability, yet broader discussions on the context of business and stability are still nascent, increasing with the growing concern about stability in China and the region.

[3] Interview with U.S. senior Asia expert, November 2015.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.