The preoccupation of Japanese and EU leaders at their video summit yesterday was inevitably co-operation on the pandemic and its aftermath. But both sides, led by Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and European Council and Commission presidents Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, were also exploring mutual geopolitical concerns, notably the defence of multilateralism as the US goes it alone and China becomes more aggressive.
The EU has been reluctant to side with Donald Trump in his wars of words with Beijing over the pandemic and trade, but member states have been increasingly determined to stand up to Beijing. Military threats to "safeguard" Chinese sovereignty in Hong Kong and Beijing's attempts to reinforce its maritime claims in the South China Sea have hardened attitudes here.
China has deployed a twin-track strategy of soft and hard-power diplomacy. It has shown willingness to assist with tackling coronavirus but in doing so has drawn attention to global dependence on Beijing for medical supplies. The EU’s diplomatic wing has accused it of running a “global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic and improve its international image”.
Trade issues have become more sensitive. The German cabinet has approved new laws to prevent foreign takeovers of medical companies and French finance minister Bruno Le Maire has said “some companies are vulnerable, some technologies are fragile and could be bought by foreign competitors at a low cost. I won’t let it happen”.
Former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer has written recently of the coronavirus crisis ushering in a reordered world balance of forces. And “most signs suggest that China, the emerging superpower, will prevail, inaugurating an East Asian century . . . The pandemic is reinforcing the general impression that the US is a decadent superpower, soon to be supplanted by a strategically deft and economically dynamic China. The age-old story of the rise and fall of great powers is now being written by a virus. We can only hope that this chapter plays out peacefully”.
His words are echoed by Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, who said on Monday that the arrival of an Asian century "is now happening in front of our eyes…We need a more robust strategy for China, which also requires better relations with the rest of democratic Asia, " he argued, urging the stepping up of relations with India, Japan, and South Korea.
That tougher policy must be based on robust engagement, Fischer argues. “The key is to distinguish between strategic engagement with China and submission to it. And maintaining that crucial distinction will require Europe to avoid becoming economically or technologically dependent on the West’s rival.”