The EU and the Dilemma of Balancing its Relations with China and the United States

Document Type : Research Paper


1 Professor, Department of Regional Studies, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran

2 PhD in Regional Studies, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran


With the rise of emerging powers, the multilateral liberal international order, which has always been characterized as having the full support of the transatlantic alliance partners, is grappling with the challenges of inadequacy of the United States as a hegemonic power, and illegitimacy of rival powers such as China. In the meantime, the European Union, as a key actor believes in the indirect exercise of power through the institutions of global governance, and seeks to protect and restore the legitimacy and effectiveness of the multilateral international system as an entity that can provide more space and opportunities for Europe to safeguard its interest. Recent developments in the structure of the international system have affected the relative position of the three major global actors (i.e., the European Union, the United States and China) in the existing world order and its management mechanism which will be influenced by new interest-based alliances. By collecting qualitative data available in governmental and non-governmental studies and reports, and by developing and analyzing possible scenarios, the authors attempt to answer the following  research question:  What choices do the EU status-quo supporters have in order to create a balance between the revisionist United States and opportunist China?
Based on Schweller's theory of revisionist or status quo behaviors of governments, and his four types of governments (i.e., lion, lamb, fox and wolf), the policies of the United States, China, and the European Union have been analyzed in terms of maintaining or changing the status quo. Within the context of this theory, in their research hypothesis, the authors postulate that given the common interest of the EU and the United States in maintaining the Western-oriented international order  and the common interest of the EU and China in upholding multilateralism (particularly trade multilateralism) as a mechanism for managing order, the EU has formulated its policy of balancing relations with the US and China. For hypothesis testing, five probable scenarios are developed and analyzed. It is asserted that the use of scenarios and public goods game as a research tool will be useful in carefully examining the contentious issues in the relationship between key international actors. Scenarios help to better understand the worldviews and policies of multiple stakeholders. Public goods games have been useful in understanding the role of rationality in actors' decision-making and the key behavioral incentives which determine what choices will be made for cooperation and conflict in inter-state relations. The EU's share in the supply of global public goods (based on Western values) and the role that the EU should play in this international game are determined based on “absolute personal interests”. The key factors which work as incentives  for the role of the EU in the supply of public goods are the self-seeking benefits of their contributions, the expected costs associated with the failure to participate in the supply of public goods, and the concerns about the irrational or opportunist behaviors of the other international players which might try to maximize their own benefits at the expense of the EU.
In conclusion, it is argued that the most likely scenario would probably be a hybrid scenario in which the European Union is reasonably anticipated to follow its own independent path in order to maintain global multilateralism, but in parallel with its transatlantic cooperation with the US to contain China, and its continued policy of  keeping its trade ties with China intact. Such a dual-purpose policy would be adopted to maintain the EU's capacity for independent action while balancing its relationship with both China and the US. In other words, the European Union is primarily seeking to enhance (and then maintain) its capacity for independent action so that in case of the intensification of the renewed great power competition and even hostility, it could use this capacity in cooperation with the middle powers of the international systems for the purpose of safeguarding its independent position in global affairs. The EU is aware of the undeniable role of the United States and China in shaping the world order, and  is eager to increase the breadth and complexity of its relations with these two players.  It is not surprising to observe the EU’s continued efforts to maintain good relations with both China and the United States based on a set of common interests since it wants to avoid being relegated to a bargaining chip in a probable US-China confrontation.. In sum, the EU is forced to play a balancing act  between China and the US, but it is also interested in forming interest-based alliances with the middle powers.



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Volume 51, Issue 4 - Serial Number 4
February 2022
Pages 935-917
  • Receive Date: 11 August 2020
  • Revise Date: 14 November 2021
  • Accept Date: 04 January 2021
  • First Publish Date: 20 February 2022