Defusing US-China tensions: European geopolitics in the making

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a news conference after a virtual summit with China's President Xi Jinping, in Brussels, Belgium, 14 September 2020. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

It is in the European interest not to become a battlefield for an American-Chinese war, and only a strong EU can defuse the disputes between Washington and Beijing, writes Piotr Maciej Kaczyński.

Piotr Maciej Kaczyński is a senior fellow with the Centre for International Relations.

The geopolitics of the European Union is taking shape. The moment will most likely define the world for the next generation. European climate policy sets trends in the world. Europe is working on its own digital sovereignty making itself independent of both China and the United States. Still, each of both powers expects to attract the EU its way.

The US wants the EU to choose its NATO ally. The Chinese argue for European openness towards modern technologies. Meanwhile, the Old Continent is only defining its priorities in the digital revolution. In the shadow of the pandemic, a new geopolitical order is being defined. The European Union has a chance to become a player in the new game.

When we focus on the pandemics and the economic fallout, when we discuss the new financial arrangements of the Union and the fires of Moria, when we witness protests in France and riots in Bulgaria, our focus is on “events, dear boy, events”, as Harold McMillan once said about politics.

Yet there are slower, but constant and long-term geopolitical undercurrents taking place in the world. Last week, in her first State of the Union address, Ursula von der Leyen’s focus was on the human spirit.

It is the citizen who must be at the centre of Europe’s attention. The same president who announced last year to lead “the geopolitical Commission”, today is dealing not only with the pandemics and the refugee camps fires. The new twenty-first-century geopolitics is facing Europe urgently.

The big players are already playing their game on the European scene. Will Europe be able to respond in time?

The world is changing before our eyes. Apart from security, the most important challenges of today relate to the digital revolution and climate change.

Clearly, there are three world actors who together will define the frame for global cooperation. We may still care for the role of smaller states, but the rivalry of the United States and China will dominate global geopolitics in the first half of the century.

The third actor is the European Union, whose geopolitical limitations translate into (limited) trust. The EU is much more predictable than the leaders in Beijing and Washington. But the same European Union will never become an equal power because it will never become a state.

We Europeans need to get used to the fact that Europe stumbles over its own feet. For example, the Cyprus veto on the Belarusian sanctions last week is a great example showing us the limits to our collective capacities. In other words, this is the price of having a national veto on foreign affairs.

An objective limitation that causes point paralysis. If small paralyzes do not lead to division and structural weakness, they will not derail the EU’s foreign policy.

For us, Europeans, it remains a task to define the geopolitical goals of the Union. It is up to us to ensure that the European interest is defended, and within this European interest, all the national interests are defined in such a way that they are consistent. That the vectors of our national politics would point in the same direction.

The second task is to offer the two giants of world politics a new formula for resolving conflicts between them. The existing framework proves to be insufficient: the UN Security Council deals with security, but not as much with the digital security, and the EU is not a member of it.

China is missing from the G7. The World Trade Organisation is paralysed by the Americans who have withdrawn from WHO and UNESCO, as well as from the climate agreement. The degradation of the international system continues.

Instead, there is a series of conflicts between China and the US: a trade war, security tensions in East Asia, conflict over 5G, and their disagreement over the climate change.

Between the Americans and the Chinese, we are naturally closer to our NATO ally, but if we, as Europeans, want to be an entity that realistically decides about the space above our heads and has a shot to resolve disputes, we must first define our common European interests.

It is in the European interest not to become a battlefield for an American-Chinese war. The EU’s climate policy is clearly going in the right direction. Europe has its goals to decarbonise.

Von der Leyen talks about reducing the EU’s CO2 emissions by 55% by 2030. Last week she recalled that since 1990 the emissions have fallen by 25% while the economy has grown by 60%. The climate revolution is already underway. All EU countries have to redefine their own policy within the European objective.

The European Union wants to be climate neutral by 2050. China has just announced that it wants to become neutral by 2060.

In the digital context, however, it is a completely different story. The 5G conflict between America and China is becoming more severe. It is easy to argue that Europe is already digitally irrelevant, and ask for a safe American security umbrella. But, first, is seeking this umbrella real, and second, is it just the right approach?

Our individual member states are not and will never be (again) world powers. But that does not mean we should compromise our European values, such as freedom and human dignity. In the modern world, we should not be nonchalant to hand over decisions regarding the 5G revolution to giants from other continents.

Von der Leyen outlined what the European approach to the digital revolution is, putting the European citizen at the centre of attention with his rights: the right to privacy, connectivity, freedom of expression, free flow of data and digital security.

We already know that Europe will create its own cloud network for industry based on the Gaia-X project.

The European approach to the digital means taking care of data from the citizen’s perspective, regulating the artificial intelligence and developing infrastructure in an inclusive way so it reaches all Europeans. Europe hopes to regain its digital sovereignty.

By surrendering to the Americans or the Chinese, Europe would become a battleground for supremacy between two global giants. Doesn’t that sound like déjà-vu? The Cold War division of Europe stemmed precisely from the treatment of Europe by the USSR and the USA as a playing field.

Europeans had nothing to say. According to military plans, the atomic bombs were supposed to be detonated here, away from the homes of American citizens and Soviet manufacturing plants.

Do we want to go back to the Cold War and divisions into spheres of influence? Do we want to be dependent on the blink of an eye of an unpredictable host in the White House?

We cannot want it for another reason either: someone has to ease the US-Chinese disputes. Berlin alone cannot deliver. Neither can Moscow nor Delhi. A partner with sufficient clout is needed for the American and Asian giants.

Only a Europe independent from Washington and Beijing, developing its own digital sovereignty, can be a reliable partner for the 21st century of world politics.

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