China and the EU: Rivalry or Cooperation?
If a dual leadership is to take form, it is crucial for the EU and China to find their own way of maintaining cooperation and dialogue, based on mutual recognition of universal values.
Notwithstanding Western admiration, suspicion, uneasiness or rejection, the undisputed growth of China brings into question a global status quo that is Western in nature. In reality, however, of every 10 inhabitants on the planet, two are Chinese, two are Indian, and another two are African, while the other two are from the rest of Asia, America, Europe and Oceania combined. In fact six out of 10 people in the world are Asian.
Despite these facts, we continue believing that everything globally is about the West, that our culture is “the (only) culture,” that our civilization is “the (only) civilization,” and that our values are “universal values.” Oftentimes, when we hear in the media “the most beautiful in the world” or “the most advanced in the world,” we think about our Western small, wealthy, and advanced world, but which in reality only represents 14 percent of the planet.
A western vision
This Western vision is based to a large extent on the fact that we have dominated the planet for the past five centuries, and that our two Anglo-Saxon empires – the British and the American – are, and continue to be, the expression of that Western vision. This paradigm is passed on from one generation to the next by universities, business schools, think tanks, and even religious institutions and our families.
The Western vision is that dominant power has allegedly given us the right in the past, after the inevitable emancipation of the colonized world and its aftermath, to forge the so-called “established order” and shape the “international community” and its organizations — like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO), international courts, and credit-rating agencies. In short, this Western vision is to build the entire institutional foundations according to our own parameters, while leaving a small window for “the others” to participate. For example, the actual voting power of China in the IMF is equivalent to that of Belgium, and we can find an array of similar cases. This allows us to add “international” to the title of all those organizations. Another prime example is the so-called International Space Station, of which China is deliberately excluded.
This Western vision, or dominant power, seems like it has also given us the right to ignore, not value and not recognize other organizations that make up the international community, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (which represents more than three billion people), the China-Africa Cooperation Forum (which represents 2.5 billion people), BRICS (which represents the population in the world’s leading emerging countries) and its bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Boao Forum for Asia, amongst others. We ignore or do not value all of these “other” international institutions simply because we Westerners are not part of them.
Despite all of this, China still wants to participate in this institutionalized international community and accepts the “status quo,” albeit demanding greater participation, while simultaneously fostering and collaborating toward a “new order” in other multilateral organisms.
China’s emergence in the international arena as an indispensable player is not taking place the way we expected or under our references. Furthermore, China seems to threaten our identity, our political system, our financial and economic power, and our rules. So, how do we include China in our world? Or better still, how do we fit into China’s world?
These two questions cannot be answered without taking into account other key international leaders, such as the U.S. and the EU.
The U.S. has opted for nationalism and bilateralism, thus renouncing its global leadership because of pressures and sanctions. In that sense, it is hard to see that it will contribute in any way to China’s integration into the international community. If anything, the U.S. is waging endless battles against China on every front – economic, political and technological, and only makes a move in accordance with strategic rivalries.
Europe, evidently, is no longer the axis of the world, as it had once been for several centuries. As a matter of fact, the Atlantic axis formed by the U.S. and Western Europe no longer has the power it used to have against the former USSR during the Cold War. Nonetheless, the EU is an essential player in a new world order for an array of good reasons. In this sense, it can and must bring its undisputed strength to the table, especially with the values that are at the center of its origin and development.
It is crucial that the EU and China work toward this respect, even more so in the current scenario in which the U.S. has stepped down from multilateralism and its efforts for global governance. However, there are still serious difficulties up ahead for the materialization of a profound understanding and collaboration between China and the EU.
The joint document published in March 2019 by the European Parliament, Commission, and Council called EU-China – A Strategic Outlook talks about “systematic rivalry,” which has led those European leaders most suspicious of China’s growth, or those that are closest to the Atlantic block, to highlight a supposed insurmountable incompatibility between the EU and China. In effect, China’s political system is completely different to that of the EU, and in that respect, they could in fact be considered to be rival political systems. However, the document goes into detail about all the opportunities for collaboration, cooperation and synergy that unequivocally exist with China. Eleven pages are dedicated to all the aspects, forms, and levels whereby collaboration can take place and be beneficial not just to both parties, but also to the rest of the world at large, beyond some discrepancies that may complicate the relationship, but which can be solved through dialogue and negotiation.
Doubtless, there are political discrepancies that make dialogue and cooperation more difficult, as was evident in the last EU-China Summit, but also due to some disagreement in relation to China’s new National Security Law. Similar disputes will always arise between two systems that are different. Nonetheless, collaboration, dialogue, and synergy are possible as long as respect for the sovereignty of each country prevails, along with the principle of non-interference in the other’s domestic affairs. In the case of Europeans, after centuries of being dominant, this requires a special effort as we tend to dictate certain terms and conditions on others. It is, however, something that we are working on.
It is evident that nowadays there isn’t just one country that has taken on a global leadership role. A shared global leadership like that of the G20, devoid of institutional and political structure and lacking consensus amongst its members, has yet to mature. A Chinese leadership isn’t yet accepted by the West, nor does China want to take on that role unilaterally, and is instead more inclined toward international cooperation. At the same time, other emerging countries are still not strong enough for such a mission. Thus, the EU’s leadership would require a true political union.
If a dual leadership is to take form, it is crucial for the EU and China to find their own way of maintaining cooperation and dialogue, based on mutual recognition of universal values. This way, they may build a solid understanding toward global governance based on consensus, which will simultaneously serve as a catalyst for other forces.
Marcelo Muñoz is the founding president of Cátedra China and chairman of Spanish Businessmen in China.