PERIODS of global change and transition are invariably tense and difficult. As the centre of economic power and political gravity shifts from West to East, with emerging countries consolidating their strong economic performance and polishing their diplomatic credentials, we are living through an especially challenging time.
Many in the US and Europe are willing to pay lip service to the need to readjust to a world of rising powers but are, in fact, deeply uncomfortable with the growing self-confidence and assertiveness of these nations. For proof, look no further than the current frazzled state of relations between China and its partners in Europe and the US. China’s relations with both the European Union and the US are currently riddled with mutual suspicion, lack of trust and an array of misunderstandings.
Chinese’s much-publicised visit to Washington last week spotlighted the dilemma facing America as it tries to come to terms with ascendant China and life in an increasingly interdependent world. While President appears comfortable with the changing fortunes of America and China, others in Washington remain committed to viewing China as an adversary.
Policymakers in Washington, Brussels and other European capitals accuse Beijing of manipulating its currency to boost exports, engaging in intellectual property theft and running a state subsidy programme which discriminates against foreign investment. Concerns are expressed over China’s military expenditure. There are fears over Beijing’s often tense relations with its Asian neighbours.
China says such accusations are unfair and unjustified. “China’s development ... is conducive to world peace,” China’s vice-premierwrote recently in the Financial Times. Meanwhile President Hu Jintao told the Washington Post that he wanted an increase in “strategic mutual trust” between China and the US.
For many Chinese officials, the EU’s failure to lift the weapons embargo against Beijing and to give China market economy status are proof that Europe is kowtowing to US diktat. The emerging consensus in the West appears to be that rising China is in a confrontational mood and that this requires an equally tough response from America and Europe.
Such a conclusion certainly satisfies public hunger for easy answers in a complicated world. However, it misses the complex reality of rising China. It also fails to take account of the wider geopolitical changes under way as emerging powers challenge older ones and the overarching fact that — whether they like it or not — policymakers in Europe and America will have to adjust to living in a multi-polar world.
Whether it is climate change, nuclear non-proliferation or energy and food security, today no global problem and no international challenge can be tackled without consulting and cooperating with China. In addition China — which has for years been the biggest buyer of US treasury bonds — has now promised to be a “committed and sustained” investor in European debt, thereby enhancing global economic inter-dependence.
As it spreads its wings, China is no longer willing to be lectured and hectored in public over its domestic or international policy and conduct. Disagreements over trade and business practices and different approaches to dealing with geopolitical challenges such as Iran and North Korea as well as Burma/Myanmar certainly need to be tackled. But such discord should not be allowed to poison China’s wider interaction with Europe and America. To ensure this, policymakers on all sides should discard past clichés and take a fresh look at how best to work together.
The challenge is to put relations on a solid, sustained track so that points of discord and friction are dealt with in a rational manner and do not jeopardise the overall relationship.
It is not going to be easy. In off-the-record comments, American and European officials still insist that history will repeat itself because rising powers always end up in military conflicts with others. China’s large defence budget is seen as evidence that Beijing is getting ready for war.
As the economic crisis worsens, public opinion in both the US and Europe is turning even more anxious about foreign competition. Most western politicians are making the situation worse by further stoking fears about globalisation, especially the rise of China.
As the world changes, clinging to the old way of dealing with each other is no longer an option. The EU needs to revisit and reassess what it wants from its strategic partnership with China. Idealism and megaphone diplomacy are sometimes less effective than pragmatism. It is a lesson that the European Parliament and some EU governments have yet to learn.
Beijing, in turn, has to balance its focus on the US with a renewed interest in Europe as an international political power, not merely an economic player. Reacting angrily to European criticism of its policies is not conducive to building stronger ties. Differences over values, norms and interests between the EU and China will not disappear. But progress on other fronts should not be allowed to become hostage to such discord.
The EU is engaged in efforts to enhance its knowledge of China and its rapidly changing and increasingly complex landscape, including China’s domestic reform efforts, regulatory changes and environmental and energy security challenges. Further study is required of China’s 12th Five-Year Plan and of the country’s political priorities as it prepares for the longawaited 18th Party Congress in autumn 2012.
Without such efforts, relations between China and its key western partners will remain trammelled by fear and anxiety. And in an interdependent and interconnected world, that is not in the interest of Beijing, Brussels or Washington. ¦ The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.