The world has been changing dramatically, and its centre of gravity is shifting from Europe and North America to Asia – and to China first and foremost. This has been going on for quite some time, but the global economic crisis has made it much more visible.
The rise of China has been most striking of all economically. The country has now enjoyed more than 30 years of a type of economic growth never before seen in history, and it looks like that growth is going to continue for at least the next 10 years, so transforming China into the biggest economy in the world.
This will greatly influence the global distribution of power, and will certainly have consequences for the strategic EU-U.S.-China triangle. It will also influence the balance in Asia and the relationship between the three major Asian powers – Japan, China and India. China clearly is the front-runner, while India is a little behind and Japan is losing out – even if the Japanese are ahead in high technology.
It is in this changing environment that Europe has to position itself. It will certainly occupy a smaller role than before, but Europe will nevertheless still be a major player because of the size of the EU economy. The question is whether the EU countries can collectively get their act together and present common positions, rather than giving priority to bi-lateral relations. And what will really be crucial is whether Germany, as Europe’s biggest national economy, is ready to spur the overall EU economy and forget the lessons it learned back in 20th Century history about the virtues of fiscal restraint. It is also unfortunate that the WTO’s Doha round of trade liberalisation negotiations have stalled, and left the world with the prospect of a growing number of bi-lateral free trade agreements. As this is certainly not good for the Europeans, the EU should be putting forward a new proposal to get the trade-talks back on track.
In the political area, China’s buoyant economy, huge financial reserves and investment power now give it a great deal of influence. That’s especially so as China has been playing its cards wisely, negotiating with the EU as a group but at the same time dealing with the member states individually.
It’s a “divide and rule”-strategy that by and large has worked well for Beijing, even though in some ways it has failed to deliver as much as the Chinese hoped. When they tried to get rid of the arms embargo imposed by the EU in the aftermath of the bloody Tiananmen square massacre of dissident students in Beijing in 1989, the Chinese failed for two reasons. First, the whole process dragged out for so long that public opinion was mobilised against it in many of the EU member states, and secondly the U.S. put maximum pressure on the EU countries to maintain the embargo.
“For organisations like the ASEAN, the EU can be source of inspiration and we Europeans can provide valuable expertise when it comes to tackling obstacles to trade and commerce”
This was something of a turning point in Beijing-Brussels relations. The Chinese had hoped Europe would distance itself from the U.S., and when that failed the Chinese leadership realised this strategy would not work out and dropped their efforts to get the arms sales ban lifted.
European policymakers should nevertheless guard against being naïve. Even if the EU and the U.S. to a large extent share the same values, this has not prevented the U.S. from “ganging up” with China to prevent developments where European and U.S. goals differ; on enlargement of the UN Security Council, for example.
In the military field, we will see increasing Chinese capabilities. It will take many years before China will be a military super-power, but it is already taking the necessary steps. And although there are few expectations that Europe should play a major role in Asian security, on certain occasions Europeans will very probably be called upon by the U.S. to share its burdens and responsibilities.
It is in the economic field that first and foremost the EU can make a difference. For organisations like the ASEAN, the EU can be source of inspiration and we Europeans can provide valuable expertise when it comes to tackling obstacles to trade and commerce. For most Asian countries, resources like energy and clean water are scarce, and the EU should provide them with technology transfers to help them achieve sustainability of their economic growth – or at least diminish the tremendous strain being imposed on them by the challenge of climate change and environmental responsibility.
So what is, then, Europe’s role in the Asia of the future? A smaller one certainly, but still a very important one. How important that role is to be will depend very much on ourselves. European politicians will have to start looking further than the next election and focus instead on long-term strategic goals. They could learn a lot from the Chinese. Europe’s political leaders will have to put aside their petty internal squabbles and work together, and they must stop allowing China to buy them off one by one with big export orders. And the same European politicians must also demand that China lives up to the international conventions and standards it has accepted, whether in matters of commerce or of human rights and respect for fundamental freedoms.
Europe’s to-do list in Asia can be summed up simply enough:
- · Take a bigger stake in Asian security problems.
- · Engage China fully in international economic and political structures.
- · Get the Asians to take their share of responsibility on global problems like climate change.
- · Transfer technology from the EU to Asia to help save the environment.
- · Breathe new life into the Doha Round by co-operating more closely with Asia.
If Europe succeeds in these aims it will not only have a positive impact on the Europe and Asia relationship, but it will also contribute to making the world a better and safer place. And if we Europeans fail to achieve them, we will not only sideline Europe in global terms but we will also see the world developing in ways that we would not want to bequeath to our grandchildren.