Europe and the US-China Rivalry
While President Xi Jinping aims to establish a "new type of great power relations" with the United States and Washington is responding with a policy of cooperation and containment, Europe still needs to define a common and coherent approach to China and its foreign policy. Germany could and should play a leading role in the formulation of this strategy. But in order to do so effectively, Berlin will need to overcome its aversion to geopolitics and power plays.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel visit to China on Oct. 29-30 is her eighth trip to the Middle Kingdom since 2005. While the negative effects of China's recent economic downturn and currency devaluation on German businesses will surely be a central topic, the visit again highlights the special relationship between Berlin and Beijing. Since Xi's visit to Germany in March 2014, this relationship has officially been referred to as a "comprehensive strategic partnership." Xi's meeting with Merkel follows the Chinese president's highly publicized trip to the UK, which both the Chinese and British sides have described as heralding a "golden era" of UK-China relations.
During the Obama-Xi summit in Washington in late September, the overall tone of the meeting was perceptibly cooler. While Obama and Xi tried to hail progress on climate change and announced that they had reached a "common understanding" to curb the threat of cyberattacks, it was obvious that the US and China remain at odds on central issues such as Beijing's strategic buildup on artificial islands in the South China Sea or the origin of hacker attacks. Underlying these issues is a long-standing and increasing rivalry between the two countries, which has also become a topic during the US presidential election campaign. Under Xi, the concept of "Peaceful rise/ development" (PRD), which was begun under Deng Xiaoping, arguably continues to be China's current grand strategy. However, the term is somewhat misleading: from a Chinese point of view, China is not rising but rather returning to its inherent, rightful position as the leading regional power in Asia. The Chinese president's tough stance is also apparent in his insistence that dealings between the US and China be between two equal, great powers.
With its so-called "pivot to Asia" the Obama administration has followed a dual-track approach of trying to further integrate a (peaceful) China into the international community while simultaneously attempting to stymie Beijing's increasingly assertive foreign policy, visible in the South and East China Seas or cyberspace. Washington's goal of implementing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement - the deal still needs to be approved by Congress - that includes the US and 11 other Pacific Rim nations, but excludes China, is a central initiative to counterbalance Beijing's increasing dominance in the Asia Pacific. China, on the other hand, has in recent years successfully expanded its economic ties with countries in the region. In fact, economic diplomacy may be the preferred choice of policymakers in Beijing in order to increase China's global influence. However, domestic political problems, potentially triggered by an economic crisis, or an accidental spiraling out of control might lead to war between China and one of its neighbors. In the context of an increasingly muscular Chinese foreign policy under Xi, it remains to be seen how Beijing and Washington will manage to avoid the possible escalation of conflicts.
Cue the European Union and Germany. The intensifying rivalry between the US and China in the Asia Pacific region should be seen by policymakers in London, Paris and Berlin as a challenge and chance to formulate a coherent foreign policy on the European level. Not only do the member states of the EU have a strong economic interest to maintain peace and stability in the region, but successfully positioning the EU as a mediating third player would set an example of how a common and constructive EU foreign policy can look like. To be sure, policymakers in Beijing and Washington have reason to remain skeptical as to how efficient a union of 28 member states with their own agendas can be, especially when it comes to a common foreign policy. Still, pointing to the bigger picture, the EU should not sell itself short but realize what is has to offer: it has set a remarkable historic example of promoting peace and stability through economic integration. Rather than staying a spectator in the rising competition in East Asia, the EU should try to distill practical and applicable lessons from its own experience and seek to introduce them to the major players in the region. While such a scenario may prove to be overly optimistic, it would surely be a missed opportunity and strategic mistake should the EU fail to focus on how to play a more active role in East Asia.
Merkel should build on strong German-Chinese economic ties to strengthen a common European foreign and security policy. An appreciation of its special standing in China must go hand in hand with the realization that alone, Germany, as all the other member states of the EU, will not be able to play a decisive role on the world stage vis-a-vis China or the United States. While the US and China may not eagerly invite Germany and the EU to play a more active role as a conflict mediator in East Asia, there are tendencies that could work in favor of the approach. Both the US and China should have some interest in a strong Europe that is willing to take on more responsibility in matters of international security. While from an American perspective, Europe, as part of the "West," is a natural partner, China has shown interest in Europe as a counterbalance to the US and as a contributor to a multipolar world. The real challenge for policymakers in Berlin will be to overcome their traditional discomfort with clearly stating German and European interests and to stop shying away from power politics. Only if they manage to enter the same geopolitical mindset as the US and China will Germany and the EU be able to establish a new kind of triangular diplomacy in East Asia and themselves as effective mediators.
Dr. Johannes Kadura is a founder and managing director of the Think Asia Group, a consulting firm that specializes in political risks and risk management in the Asia-Pacific region. He is also an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and an adjunct professor at Peking University.
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