The Rise of China and the Disunity of the Liberal West

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

Under a possible situation of power transition between the hegemonic power, the United States, and the rising power, China, Washington's European partners are reluctant to close ranks with their traditional ally.

Sun rising over Beijing © Zhang Kaiyv / Public Domain / Unsplash

In an increasingly multipolar world, there is no country that has the economic and military means to dominate the international order by itself. On the contrary, a large number of partners and allies with common interests are needed, and diplomatic power becomes a key element. It is in Europe where, traditionally, the United States has found its closest allies, not only in terms of interests, but also of shared ideas and values.

Washington and its European allies have constituted, since the end of World War II, the core of the coalition that determines the norms, institutions and practices of the international liberal order, committing themselves to its maintenance and preservation. During the Cold War, they faced the systemic challenge posed by the rise of the Soviet Union and opposed the spread of communism. That is why it is especially striking that, under the context of China´s rise - the greatest challenge in systemic terms that the US has faced in decades -, its European allies have not only not closed ranks with its position, but are also determined to adopt an independent foreign policy, which has often placed them at opposite poles. This trend, which was already seen during the presidency of Barack Obama, has become even more noticeable since Donald Trump came to power, as his government has increased tensions in the transatlantic relationship.

Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain are the five largest economies among the US's European allies, and also have the highest military spending in absolute terms in NATO, except for Turkey. Therefore, it is possible to assume that their behavior and the way in which they perceive their alliance with Washington - as well as the commitments derived from it - have an important effect on the international leadership of the United States. Given the positions they have taken regarding their relations with China, the prospects for this leadership are not optimistic.

AIIB, the Belt and Road Initiative, 5G and NATO

The nature of the relationship between China and the five countries mentioned is far from identical, but in all of them there is a commitment to the deepening of economic relations with the Asian country, regardless of the fact that they may sometimes demand greater reciprocity in trade matters. This aspect does not seem to be particularly favorable for the position of the United States. The way these countries have perceived their participation in Chinese initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road, the adoption of Huawei's 5G technology, and the possibility of considering China as a “threat” within NATO´s framework are examples of this.

The case of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which at the time of its announcement in 2013 was seen by some analysts as a potential challenge to the Bretton Woods institutions, and in particular the World Bank, is especially paradigmatic. Although the US encouraged its European allies to reject the initiative, many announced their willingness to join it as founding partners, with the United Kingdom, Washington's closest ally in the region, at the helm, giving a global dimension to a regional financial institution. Washington's opposition to the initiative turned it into a test of the global influence of the US that this country ended up losing, reflecting how intensely it wanted to keep its European allies out of the bank and, above all, its inability to do so.

In turn, the US's European allies have not been in favor of imposing a total ban on Huawei's participation in the domestic deployment of the 5G network, despite American objections. Washington considers the Chinese company a threat to its national security and an opportunity for Chinese espionage. In fact, it has warned that the adoption of Huawei's 5G technology could mean that it stops sharing intelligence reports with its European partners. But for the moment, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Spain have refused to prevent Huawei's entry into their 5G networks, although the first two have been favorable to the idea of ​​limiting it to non-strategic sectors. Nonetheless, this has not been enough to satisfy Trump, who at the beginning of February was outraged during a telephone conversation with Boris Johnson because he refused to veto the adoption of Huawei's 5G network.

The disagreements with the US have also been transferred to the Atlantic alliance. In late 2019, NATO first called China a "strategic challenge" at an alliance summit in London. At this summit, the concern shown by the US and its smaller allies in Central and Eastern Europe about the international impact of China's rise, already seen as a threat in terms of security, was not shared by its Western European allies. French President Emmanuel Macron was the one who most clearly expressed his position, stating that China should not be seen as an enemy in military terms.

The reluctance of most Western European countries to take part in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the only good news for Washington. Italy is the only country among them that has signed a memorandum of understanding with China for its official participation in the initiative. But unfortunately for the US, considerations about America´s global position do not seem to be the most important factor in explaining the rejection of the Belt and Road Initiative by the majority of its Western European allies. On the contrary, the decision is explained rather by the calls to unity made by the European Commission - now no longer related to the United Kingdom - regarding to the adoption of a common position on the BRI. This initiative was received with suspicion and mistrust by the European institutions, who saw it as a possible source of disagreement between member states.

The nature of the cooperation of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain with China seems to show clearly not only that they will cooperate with China as long as it is in their own interests, but also - and this is even more important - that they do not seem to show special consideration for how the rise of China may affect the international position of the United States. Something similar could be said with regard to the international liberal order itself. Western Europe does not seem to view China's rise as a long-term challenge to that order ... or if it does, it does not seem to care much.

The holding of the EU-China summit in the German city of Leipzig, which was initially scheduled for September this year and was postponed due to Covid-19, would have shown to what extent an understanding between the two powers is feasible on issues as diverse as the signing of an investment treaty, the achievement of greater reciprocity in economic and commercial relations, and the promotion of sustainable development and environmental stewardship. An understanding that will not be easy. The meeting held by videoconference on June 22 in the framework of the 22nd EU-China Summit between Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, representing the European Union, and Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, representing China, reflected the difficulty of reaching concrete agreements on economic matters, as well as the growing concerns of the European authorities about the situation in Hong Kong. In fact, despite the convergence of both partners around the defense of multilateralism and the fight against climate change, no joint communiqué was produced after the end of the meeting. In any case, in a context of growing tensions between the US and China, the images of the first meeting in history between the Chinese president and the leaders of the 27 EU member states in Leipzig would have sent a signal that would doubtfully have been well received by Trump in the middle of the electoral campaign.

It remains to be seen that the current situation of global crisis due to the Covid19 pandemic will produce a realignment between the US and Europe and a profound reassessment of the latter´s relations with China. The idea also doesn't seem particularly feasible with the current White House tenant. In this sense, the result of the US presidential elections in November will largely influence the future course of the relationship between the two shores of the Atlantic, at a time as changing in terms of global distribution of power as the current one.

Antonio José Pagán Sánchez- EG Co-founder. You can find the Spanish version published on "Política Exterior".

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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