Europe must pursue a strategy of “cooperative containment” on China if it is to punch its weight on the international stage, write Peter Clever and Christian Moos.
Peter Clever is a member of the EU-China Round Table for the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC); Christian Moos is the president of the EESC’s Transatlantic Relations Follow-up Committee.
Europe is facing some enormous political challenges and has so far not been able to rise to the occasion. If it could do so, it would have the opportunity to contribute to world peace on a scale far beyond the current European peace narrative.
But it needs to show the political will to make an active contribution to revitalising and consolidating a multilateral world order. Otherwise, it will be unable to save its own values of democracy, the rule of law and respect for indivisible human rights – or, therefore, defend its fundamental political and economic interests in the 21st century.
The crucial factor for Europe is the rise of China as a new global power. As shown by the reflections in Brussels on “strategic autonomy”, Europe is looking for a safe place from where it can survive the rivalry between China and the United States unscathed, but it cannot succeed by standing on the sidelines like a larger-scale Switzerland.
On the contrary, Europe can and must play a major role in averting the apparently inevitable clash between America and China. Every member state, both big and small, must swiftly grant the EU exactly this role because only the EU as a whole has the strength to fulfil it.
At the moment, the EU is pursuing an “approach” based on muddling through, thus demonstrating indecision at a time when decisiveness is what is needed. The European order is based on the rule of law.
This is true not only of the constitutional structure of the EU itself and of its member states (though some of them are known to have serious problems in that respect); it must also apply to that of the international order.
If the power of the law is increasingly replaced by the law of the powerful, it will not be possible to save the liberal democracy that is inextricably linked with the rule of law.
It is not clear whether China’s leadership will seriously honour the investment agreement with the EU that was just about pushed through at the end of last year under the German Presidency, including with respect to the key aspects set out in the form of reciprocal memoranda of understanding.
Practical experience casts doubt on whether these agreements will be honoured.
It is also questionable whether the timing of the agreement, just before the new US president was sworn in, benefited Europe. After all, particularly in times of strained relations, it is only in close solidarity with the US – if at all, that Europe can require or compel China to comply with the word and spirit of the agreement.
That is why Europe’s key opportunity lies in firmly reanchoring the transatlantic alliance in solid ground – despite the multiplicity of domestic problems facing the United States.
There are compelling reasons for the EU to move closer to the US and all allied democracies than it has been in the past, and to refrain from anything that has at times been described as “equidistance”.
The idea of maintaining the same distance from the United States as from China – and where possible from Russia too – is quite foolhardy. Only by acting in concert can democratically governed nations and supranational entities ensure that the existing world order, however imperfect it may be, remains open and geared towards a fair balance of interests.
Unfortunately, the leaders of the People’s Republic of China are increasingly and aggressively asserting the law of the powerful – openly and militarily in its immediate neighbourhood, covertly and imperialistically through the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’.
Contracts will only be respected for as long as this serves their own interests. Hong Kong is a brutal and ugly example that exhorts us all not to give China a pass on its flagrant breaches of commitments entered into under international law.
Because the EU on its own is too weak, it must pursue a strategy that we call “cooperative containment”.
Unlike the “containment” of the Cold War, this means that Europe and all of its democratic allies will respect and defend China’s legitimate rights and interests; at the same time, however, they will give a politically tough and diplomatically consistent response when, for example, Taiwan is threatened or concentration camps are set up to re-educate minorities such as the Uyghurs.
Beijing is consistently following the path of using overt displays of friendship to gradually box states in economically and politically such that, in the end, they have no options other than those granted by the powers that be in China.
Clearly naming this form of power enforcement does not mean rejecting cooperation: on the contrary, cooperation should be close and comprehensive.
But we Europeans will only be able to safeguard our values if we consolidate democratic alliances that break up the game in which everyone has for so long been entangled, with the aim of defending and developing an open, reciprocal and equitable world order.
Only such a strong alliance of democracies can effectively promote the process of containing China in a non-aggressive way.