Copyright: Florian Freund

Copyright: Florian Freund


Debrief Munich Security Conference: The American Strategy towards China

During the Munich Security Conference in February 2020, AmCham Germany co-hosted the official luncheon for the US Congressional delegation and members of the US Administration.


Over 80 guests, including high-level representatives of American and German companies, discussed current challenges in the transatlantic relationship among them industry, trade and energy. Frank Sportolari, President of AmCham Germany, stressed that although this year’s conference headed the motto “Westlessness,” the best way for transatlantic business to cooperate “is through investing in each other’s markets, creating jobs and upholding Western values.”

The US Strategy towards China

In the aftermath of the MSC, AmCham Germany had the opportunity to talk with Elbridge Colby, former Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security about the idea of Westlessness, the American stratetegy towards China and US expectations towards Europe and Germany.


Mr. Colby, how did you perceive the atmosphere at this year’s MSC?
The atmosphere was a little hard to gage, because people experience the MSC differently. But I think both, the executive and the legislative US-delegation, brought a pretty clear message of focus on China. There is discomfort on the European and the German side, but I think the message seems to be getting through that the US priorities lie on China and that needs to be a focus for Germany as well. That’s the view of both Republicans and Democrats in Washington.


What key message do you take with you from the MSC?
From the American side, the focus was definitely on China. There was a pushback on a kind of Westlessness idea, which seems to me to be a little solipsistic maybe even navel-gazing. I think the American perspective from Secretary Pompeo was to say: Look we are doing well. He stated: “Free nations are simply more successful than any other model that’s been tried in the history of civilization.” And regarding cooperation between the US and Germany he said: “Our governments respect basic human rights, they foster economic prosperity, and they keep us all secure.” I believe that from the German side there is a small and slow progressive movement towards a more engaged leadership role. But from the American perspective, it remains a bit desultory, given how important Germany is and the relevance of the issues we are facing, such as Huawei, China’s increasing assertiveness and coercive efforts against other states including Europe and North America.


Europe is under immense pressure and facing real economic costs, as Chinese representatives have been clear that an exclusion of Huawei from European markets would have severe consequences. What if US-China tensions came to a head?
We need to be able to scale what China is able to achieve and what not. We should definitely not foster an increase of Chinese leverage by becoming even more dependent on China and hereby worsen the situation, as we know that China is going to turn economic leverage into a political demand. They already do that now in many smaller and huger countries and we have many negative reports on that. Therefore, every country needs to define a clear approach on China.

We know that China is becoming more powerful and that its military capability has dramatically increased. Therefore, the US is going to defend its allies, and balance Chinese power by planning a moderate engagement with China. This means the US will by continuing to trade and in the meantime reduce the threat to our own autonomy posed by China’s different forms of leverage. The youngest trade war was a vital and costly way of demonstrating that the US will not accept the Chinese behavior and that it will have to treat our companies and our allies fairly. We are in a strategic competition and therefore we need to enforce our rules and we need to be aware that with China there is always a risk on the table.


How can Germany and the US work together to strengthen Western values?
In this case, the Huawei decision is a critical one. The American perspective on this is that, values without strength are hollow. Kissinger once said that values without strength are comparable to dancing without music. If there is nothing backing up our sonorous phrases of a rules basing national order than people will ignore. I think China is so strong and so increasingly rich and militarily powerful and they have shown over the last 30 years that they will follow their own line or the line they think is best or the government thinks is best. This is why we need to be strong together. That doesn’t mean that we disengage, particularly in a commercial orientation. Obviously, we are going to keep trading with China which in the sense is good but we have to minimize the degree of exposure to Chinese cores of leverage that we are exposed to.

It’s kind of a selective decoupling and I’m shocked that the Huawei issue is even an issue in Germany. Germany which is so concerned about data security and data privacy largely widely and then this country exposes itself to a company that is officially and legally suborning to the Chinese state and the Chinese surveillance apparatus. An apparatus that is known to have security vulnerabilities even from open source, let alone from confidential government sources. Germany should stand tall. Beijing should understand that not just the West but also Japan and India and others will work together to protect their ability of future sovereign course towards free values.