World View: EU and China must counter US reassertion of primacy

Li Keqiang’s meeting with EU officials is step towards balanced, mature relations

Chinese premier Li Keqiang and European Council president Donald Tusk: meeting was a breakthrough in terms of issues such as the Chinese 5G communications technology which European powers fear will compromise their security. Photograph: Susana Vera

Chinese premier Li Keqiang and European Council president Donald Tusk: meeting was a breakthrough in terms of issues such as the Chinese 5G communications technology which European powers fear will compromise their security. Photograph: Susana Vera

 

“China is, simultaneously, in different policy areas, a co-operation partner with whom the EU has closely aligned objectives, a negotiating partner with whom the EU needs to find a balance of interests, an economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership, and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.”

This sophisticated description of the European Union’s relations with China comes from a European Commission paper published last month. EU-China: A Strategic Outlook catches up on a long period of relative neglect of the relationship by the commission. Individual EU member states competitively pursued their own relations with China. Latterly weaker and more peripheral southern and eastern members have become associates of the huge Belt and Road Initiative to link China and Europe by land and sea.

Italy’s decision to join that group by endorsing associated investments jolted awareness of the need for a more coherent European response. Geopolitics and geoeconomics are equally at play here. President Xi Xinping’s recent visits to Rome, Monaco and Paris brought them together as he called for a more balanced relationship and signed huge trade deals.

President Emmanuel Macron invited commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and German chancellor Angela Merkel to his meeting with Xi in Paris. Their future links are part of a wider strategic game involving the United States and its pursuit of a renewed primacy. In contrast, the EU and China need to find a combination of multipolarity and multilateralism in a changing world to counter that US assertion of its interests. Multipolarity concerns relations between centres of power, multilateralism refers to how they forge alliances with smaller and weaker partners for common goals at regional and global levels.

WTO rules

This week, the EU-China meeting in Brussels between the Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang and leading EU officials made decisive progress towards a more balanced and mature relationship. China agreed to negotiate a treaty by next year on opening its markets to foreign investors, dealing with state supports and forced technology transfers. They pledged to work together on changing World Trade Organisation rules in an unexpectedly detailed joint statement.

World View latest

China agreed to negotiate a treaty by next year on opening its markets to foreign investors, dealing with state supports and forced technology transfers

Donald Tusk said this meeting represents a breakthrough, including on such contentious issues as the Chinese 5G communications technology which individual European powers fear will compromise their security. One European official said the keyword was “reciprocity”, a recognition that a more balanced relationship is needed. That does not deny China is “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance,” but it emphasises the other more positive aspects of the EU-China relationship highlighted in the commission paper.

Linking that to their mutual wider concerns about US unilateralism, Li Kequing told a news conference: “We both believe that we need to uphold multilateralism, respect the international law and respect for fundamental norms governing international relations with the UN at its core . . . We also believe that we need to uphold a multilateral trading system with the WTO rules at its core.”

Multipolarity became a more popular way to describe a world emerging from the United States’s “unipolar” moment in the 1990s as it emerged victorious from the end of the cold war with the Soviet Union. It appealed to Chinese, Russian and French leaders and realist theorists who resent US domination and unilateralism. It has been reasserted in response to Donald Trump’s proclamation of US primacy.

Pillars of power

But, as the economic historian Adam Tooze put it in a recent lecture carried in the current London Review of Books, while it is a “gross exaggeration to talk of the end to the American world order” because “the two pillars of its global power – military and financial – are still firmly in place” what “has ended is any claim on the part of American democracy to provide a political model”. There is “a radical disjunction between the continuity of basis structures of power and their political legitimation”.

It is a 'gross exaggeration to talk of the end to the American world order' because 'the two pillars of its global power – military and financial – are still firmly in place'

A shrewd Russian writer, Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council argues that “multipolarity should go down in history as a justified intellectual and political reaction to the arrogance, haughtiness, and various excesses of the hapless builders of a unipolar world – nothing more and nothing less. With the twilight of the unipolar world, its opposite – multipolarity – will inevitably face its twilight as well.”

In its place, multilateralism is to be preferred, he argues, because “ a multilateral world develops by accumulating elements of mutual dependency and creating new levels of integration.” That is the challenge facing China and the EU.

pegillespie@gmail.com

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