China – EU: Toward a geopolitical alliance?

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A note posted on the Tweeter page of UK’s prestigious Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs), on 14 September 2017, signals an unavoidable reality in the field of identifying major trends in international relations, regardless from what geographical or ideological standpoint one looks at it. Here is the note: “The EU and China have a lot in common, they are each other’s largest source of imports.” In brief, the reference made is to the very close economic ties between the two power poles, which in the language of economists can also mean mutual dependence. This last observation instantaneously moves us closer to the geopolitical domain and the mutations that have lately occurred in it.

It is a mention worth remembering in connection to what this common EU-China economic foundation may mean for a potential turn of events that will finalise in the more recent or more distant future. The reference made by the said note is to a Chatham House publication consecrated to the economic relations between the two giants and the outlook for 2025 – https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/eu-china-economic-relations-2025-building-common-future .

What this analysis says, is it really unprecedented at global level? Written during 18 months by a consortium of European and Chinese think-tanks – Bruegel, Chatham House, the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges and the Institute of Global Economics and Finance – this report foresees a future competition for primacy in the Westphalian system. Which is not a novelty at all, well over a decade ago – it is difficult to pin-point the exact moment but in 2007-2008 there was already talk of an “Easternisation” of global politics because of China’s dynamic growth – numerous other reports started signalling this competition, which is in line with systemic logic. What is a first is the fact that one of the conclusions of the joint Sino-European report renders intelligible – by arguing the U.S.’s geopolitical opposition to this new systemic reality – the fact that Washington opposes the creation of the EU-China geopolitical alliance. Such a possibility of an EU-China geopolitical alliance would definitively modify the face of the world in the next 10 years. On the other hand, this conclusion reveals that the EU needs the U.S. less than the U.S. needs the EU in order to continue to be “still number one,” to use a frequently-used term.

Here is the mentioned conclusion: “The identification of common interests in promoting effective multilateralism, as well as the lack of any direct strategic or security conflicts between the EU and China, have long been cited as reasons for the two parties to work more closely together as strategic partners, including in global governance. This congruence of interests and approaches should indeed be a key driver for the development of the relationship. However, as noted in the introduction, achieving the sort of strategic partnership envisaged at times by European and Chinese leaders has proved difficult. This is partly because of the triangular relationship with the US, which has been skeptical about the EU and China coming too close together.” In diplomatic terms, what the mentioned report shows as being of special sensitivity is the fact that the package of common shared values – which would allow a geopolitical alliance between the two global entities (EU and China) – is allegedly the essential cause that prevents economic realities from taking shape in global governance. Here is how the report expresses this reality: “But the challenges have also been due to differences between the EU and China in terms of priorities, values, domestic economic models, and more detailed visions of world order, and where power should rest in that order, which go beyond a broad agreement on the importance of multilateralism. Historically, EU–US cooperation in global governance has been easier for the EU than working with China.”

Thus, historically, there is an inertia in EU-U.S. cooperation based on a community of values, a liberal model of development, which signals significant differences between Beijing and Brussels in the fluidity of cooperation. Which is understandable because, while the EU is a democratic community firmly founded on liberal and neo-liberal values, China is a Confucianist ideological actor interwoven with an ideological fabric of Marxist type. Definitively attached to the post-modernist current that the Trump administration programmatically refuses (see the recent Charlotenville confrontations), at least for the duration of the current president’s term, sympathetic to the domestic opposition to the White House, the EU will not hesitate to support American progressivism. In these circumstances, the EU-China geopolitical alliance is even more difficult, of course, not because Beijing does not tend to enter the post-modern era but because Washington, led by Trump, will block any Sino-European rapprochement.

On a wider plane, this is also about the unity of the West, of the Western civilisation in general, in the face of what is called “Easternisation” (Gideon Rachman’s term), namely the shift of the global centre of gravity to Asia. At present, the EU still feels comfortable in its geopolitical alliance with the U.S., because the Chinese alternative could force the U.S.-Russia systemic rapprochement, obvious today in Syria and elsewhere, and thus the world would be divided into two potentially confrontational camps. At the same time, one should not forget – and this is basically the cardinal element – that the EU is not a single entity but the sum of the opinions of 27 members on foreign and security policy, and its nuclear umbrella is, in principle, the U.S.’s, even though France and UK and nuclear powers. This is where the Russian factor intervenes, in its turn very important in the issue of the EU-China geopolitical alliance, which will tend to avoid what it believes to be an encirclement (see the Cold War situation). If, for instance, on the issue of values, the EU were to abandon its support for American progressivists against Trump, to the benefit of a Chinese option, this would make possible the Trump – Putin geopolitical alliance, an immediate possibility being the unravelling of the unity of the West. But, like often underscored, given globalisation and the rapid evolution of technology, the old systemic paradigms are losing relevance, and the new rearrangements are rapidly taking place beyond religious or cultural walls, the predominant economic factor being decisive.

The report mentioned here correctly outlines that some of the trends observed today will continue to strengthen by 2025, among them “changes emanating from the US, as well as developments within the EU, the continued rise of China and other emerging economies, and the changing nature and importance of non-traditional security threats, from terrorism and climate change to infectious diseases.”

As the conclusions of the report emphasise, the international system, which today is centred on the U.S., is heading toward multilateralism, based on three commercial poles – China, the EU and the U.S., each with multiple bilateral and regional arrangements. Already, the existing framework of multilateral institutions is being superseded by the visible orientation of the three large actors mentioned, which no longer limit themselves to it but promote plurilateral, regional and bilateral engagement. On receiving this important report, which reflects a significant systemic trend, European Council President D. Tusk noted on his Twitter account on September 14: “Good meeting on importance of EU-China economic relations and responsibility to uphold rules-based international system.”

Hence, there is a major trend worth following closely because it will define the international system at least in the following decade, the EU, the U.S. and China maintaining the current multilateral framework but engaging in heightened systemic multilateralism. Hence, not so much a new global order as the upholding of the current one, with a more complex working paradigm defined by the three giants.