Europe Between The US and China.

                      by Philippe Valdois RSA

When asked about Europe’s position regarding the US-China confrontation, more questions than answers came to my mind. Can we see a consensus emerging, and as multilateral institutions and rules are coming under attack around the world, will it be possible for European countries to tune up their violins? Another major issue concerns the fear of coercion by superpowers. It could divide, or unite European countries. And what about the fear of war? Considering how complex the nature of this confrontation was, this essay would quickly become a review of sorts calling out for the opinion of a number of experts, in economics, in finances, in AI, in IT, in security, in diplomacy or in the military. There is however one central issue rarely debated as it should be, the digital economy, that I would like to introduce first as example. If we hear Washington criticizing China under the guise of protecting national security, the trade battle is in fact more about who will control the digital economy. 

I will then leave the other issues to be sorted out by experts and examine instead from a larger perspective how fear and incertitudes are amplified on various fronts, for political or economical gains. This might help us understand better how the EU could develop strategies aimed at restoring multilateral alliances and reestablish a better relation of trust with its trade partners, in a world where economic interdependency prevails, regardless of the numerous attacks on the multilateral system I mentioned previously. There isn’t any unique solution to this set of challenges and it is difficult to be optimistic. The European Union, like the ASEAN, is promoting multilateralism and integration, but as such is now facing an existential threat. The Covid-19 has exposed divisions inside those institutions and has offered an opportunity for the US and, beyond politicians’ words and slogans, China, to erode cohesion. The US-China confrontation will make it even more difficult for the EU to maintain a semblance of neutrality. 

Fear of War

The greatest fear of all is the threat of war. I do not subscribe to the theory of the Thucydides Trap. However, looking back at the Soviet-American Cold War that took place between 1962 and 1979, there is no doubt in my mind that the confrontation between China and the U.S. now taking place shows all the attributes of a cold war. If no proxy wars are being waged and if the barbs traded between Washington and Beijing often turn into a debate on the merits of multilateralism, there is not one day when the media do not mention acts of espionage, coercitive mesures taken to ensure that allies will follow in step as economic actions are taken, or false statements used as propaganda tools. 

Willis Sparks offered on Sept. 21, 2020 an eight days timeline under the evocative title US-China: Temperature rising. He mentioned a wide range of initiatives, sanctions and warnings related to and not limited to trade, economics and security. One case even involved the Chinese Union Development Group and a project conducted in Cambodia and associated with Beijing’s Belt and Road project. 

The US administration is not shy in naming the enemy, and it is China. War games and simulations usually involve an unnamed enemy. This is no more the case. Both US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other high-profile members of the US administration have use harsh words directed at China. In fact, naming the enemy while condemning the country’s regime and its strategic ambitions might be one thing, but it is irresponsible in the context of a potential military confrontation with the second economy in the world to call for a change of regime.

Secretary of Defence Mark Esper reiterated Pompeo’s narrative in his speech at RAND Corporation’s Los Angeles office on Sept. 16, 2020. 

China, for example, is exerting its malign influence through its ‘One-Belt, One-Road’ Initiative. This campaign has left weaker nations with crushing debt, forcing them to take their economic relief at the expense of their sovereignty. Additionally, Beijing’s aggression and disregard of its commitments in the South and East China Seas – such as the sinking of a Vietnamese vessel and escorting of Chinese fishing fleets into the exclusive economic zones of Indonesia and the Philippines – are further examples of the Communist Party’s attempts to reshape and undermine the international order that has benefitted nations, large and small. 

He was even more blunt two days later when, on Sept. 18, 2020, according to USNI News he said that “the Navy needed to ensure it was investing in its people, their training and their families so they could be ready to deter or fight China.”

We are reminded of President George W. Bush’s famous words pronounced before the Congress 9 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” The current US administration made it clear that its allies would have to choose camps. As Washington multiplies its contacts with Taiwan and tensions intensify, The conduct by France, the United Kingdom and other US allies of freedom of navigation operations, in both the Southern China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, could be construed by Beijing as strong acts of provocation. 

Fear of coercion

Coercion can take milder forms but still create serious dilemmas for the EU as it did with the Iran issue. The US expects European countries to apply its economic sanctions against China. The EU has to walk a tight rope, not exacerbating the tensions or exposing itself to retaliation from China or a mercurial US. Australia, as a geographic neighbor and major trade partner of China, is more exposed than the EU and can offer Bruxelles an example of what the EU could expect in terms of retaliations from China if it was to engage in a war of words with Beijing or align itself with Washington in criticizing China for its response to the pandemic.

Trade could suffer but we see similar issues arising in the supply chains in the IT sector. It is clear that most attacks directed at China are for domestic consumption and that branding has been a constant in Donald Trump’s arsenal. As Brett O’Donnell, a veteran debate coach, commented:

“What makes the President difficult to debate is that he does stuff through branding. He doesn’t make these long-drawn out substantive arguments. … He just sort of brands you to make a point and then hopes it will be filled in after the fact,”

This trait applies to all his dealings, including with foreign dignitaries. Regarding the IT sector, we can see Donald Trump branding Huawei among other Chinese entities as “thieves,” or “a threat to the world,” but this conflict is not about fairness but about who will control the future, and more importantly for the US President, to offer the image of China as an unfair trade partner to show potential voters that he is protecting the US against Chinese aggression. Here too, The EU is in a position of spectator since out of the seven digital technology giants, the FAAAM (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Alphabet and Microsoft), Tencent and Alibaba, none is European. The bloc’s historical defense of privacy in the form of strict rules and penalties makes it wary of any attempts by the Chinese and US governments to collect personal information, directly or indirectly, resulting, for example in the rejection of the EU-US data transfer agreement. 

I mentioned various characteristics of what could be described as a cold war. It is not difficult to conclude that public opinion is already influenced by lies, misleading informations and propaganda. In China, however, the support for the government and distrust towards the US did not need much nudging from the regime to rise in response to Washington’s virulent anti-China campaign, at least when attributing the responsibility of the propagation and even the “creation” of the new coronavirus virus to China. Part of the support from Chinese citizens was based on the perception that Beijing has done a good job in bringing the pandemic under control. The numbers made apparent to them the fact that the US administration campaign had for main objective to deflect domestic public opinion from the White House failures. A recent Pew Research pol found that 78% of Americans thought that the “Chinese government’s initial handling of the coronavirus in Wuhan is a great deal/a fair amount to blame for the global spread of the virus.” It is to be noted that the level of satisfaction of Chinese citizens for their national leaders is higher than for the local ones, which shows that if nationalist propaganda plays a great part in shaping opinion, the average citizen was able to understand where most of the blame lied.

It is to be noted that if the US negative view of China appears extreme regarding China’s response to the Covid-19, most industrialized countries, including in the EU, share this criticism. However, in Negative views of both U.S. and China abound across advanced economies amid COVID-19, Laura Silver, Kat Devlin and Christine Huang analyze the results of a survey of 14 advanced countries that show a lack of confidence in both China and the US. Here are their conclusions:

  1. Most people have unfavorable views of both China and the U.S. – but more see the U.S. favorably.
  2. Most people rate China more positively than the U.S. in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
  3. Few have confidence in either country’s president – but across much of Western Europe, more have confidence in China’s Xi Jinping.
  4. More see China as the world’s leading economic power than the U.S.

We might be led to believe that China is better positioned than the US under Trump to lead the efforts in reinforcing a multilateral world system. However, other factors are influencing European’s opinion. 

I mentioned Australia and a case of economical retaliation by Beijing in response to Canberra criticizing its policies. China’s authoritarian regime is more and more denounced for its heavy-handed initiatives. In Europe and the New Sino-American Cold War Nicolas Regaud reminds us that the EU has designated in 2019 China as a “rival systémique,” ou systemic rival. Additionally, if the EU is not willing to budge on human rights issues, Nicolas Regaud explains that:

Brussels considers that deep disagreements with Beijing should not prevent it from cooperating with China on global issues such as climate change, refusing the zero-sum game that seems to prevail in Washington. 

However, and here we go back to the question of cohesion among the EU members, Axios revealed on October 6, 2020, that “A high-ranking German official suppressed a sensitive intelligence report in 2018 on China’s growing influence in Germany out of fear it would damage business ties with China.” Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, the writer and expert on China concludes that “German business interests, as well as the country’s top economics official Peter Altmaier, have thus tended to downplay China’s growing human rights violations and security challenges.” This goes against the official position of the EU regarding human rights and shows that, like with the decisions made by individual states regarding the Covid-19, we can expect a lack of cohesion in the bloc. 

Conclusion

We have seen that the confrontation between the US and China is susceptible to generate much damage. Europe cannot align with one of the two superpowers without attracting retaliation by the other. It cannot ignore its own system of values to give way to pragmatism, given a rising authoritarianism and intensifying repression not seen in China since Mao Tzsetung. I suggested that Europe was in a similar situation as the ASEAN with dangerous and exigent neighbors. In answer to the simple question: what can Europe do? I would offer the following perspective.

It is on purpose that I chose to focus this essay on the idea of fear, recognizing that world leaders might be as much in the dark as any average citizen about the future. The growing rejection of “professional” politicians in Europe and elsewhere by the average citizens can be seen in part as the understanding that our leaders don’t know what they are doing. Being on a rudder-less boat on a rough sea with a blind captain can be frightening and the fear of the unknown might be what characterizes the best today’szeitgeist. Leaders might actually be the ones most afraid of the unknown and this again would explain the rise of authoritarianism and ultra-conservatism both in China and the US. Europe, thanks to its diversity is in a unique position to embrace the unknown as described by Frederick Kempe in U.S.-China confrontation is like nothing we’ve seen before. He says about the “epochal enormity” of what’s unfolding:

…It is also new because the U.S. and China, after four decades of wishful collaboration, are now locked in a contest that could define our times. It isn’t a struggle, as the hyperbole would have it, over “world domination,” which no country has ever achieved. But it could have significant impact on “world determination,” influencing whether democracy or autocracy, market capitalism or state capitalism, are the flavors of the future.

It is a unique period as well in that this unfolding contest coincides with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and an era of unprecedented technological change driven by big data, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, bioengineering and so much more.

The European Union will have to adapt to this rapidly evolving reality and be proactive in encouraging reforms in international organizations such as the WTO and the WHO. Facing the rapid evolution of technology, it is vital that codes of conduct and rules be decided if only to alleviate the malaise of the population. There is no better way to encourage cooperation and promote a consensus on global issues such as health and climate change among countries than to promote education and restore the trust in science. I would mention as example space exploration and the Artemis Accords.

What about the November US presidential election? I am also pessimistic. If Joe Biden is elected, he will have to deal with two different agendas, implementing expected reforms in a context of pandemics while dealing with trade and security issues, including those involving China, and repairing the damage done during Trump’s mandate, by restoring trust with US allies, etc. Compromises might help him alleviate criticism from the other side, and this would include maintaining sanctions and adopting a tough position towards Beijing.

Photo: Thijs ter Haar via flickr

Turkey The New Regional Power?

                      by David Parmer / Tokyo

The face of Turkey today is the face of its leader and president, Recp Tayyip Erdogan. Mr. Erdogan is imposing his vision of the way things might be not just on his own country, but also on his region and indeed the world.

The once proud and powerful Ottoman Empire disappeared after WWI, but it seems to many that the president is determined to bring back the days of glory when the Ottoman Turks were both feared and respected. Mr. Erdogan, using a combination of soft power and military force, might just be the man to do it.

Under Mr. Erdogan Turkey has asserted and inserted itself around its region and beyond. In the not-too-distant past Turkey joined NATO as its only Islamic member and was looking toward possible EU membership. But then Turkey began to assert its own policy which while not anti-western was certainly pro-Turkey.

In home waters Turkey has had an ongoing dispute with the EU over drilling for energy resources off Cyprus. The dispute began in 2018 regarding the exclusive economic zone around Cyprus. Despite opposition and recommendations from the European Council in 2019 Turkey has continued with its exploration activities.

In 2016 the powerful Turkish military began an incursion into Syria to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS/ DAESH). A long and bloody conflict ensued which had its roots all the way back to 2011. During its involvement in the Syrian civil war Turkey has lost at least 300 personnel killed and had numerous aircraft and armored vehicles destroyed. Turkey conducted another major incursion into Syria in 2019 to protect its borders and remove pro-Kurdish forces.

In January 2020 Turkey entered the Libyan civil war on the side of the side of the GNA or Government of National Accord, the established government of Libya. Turkey has reportedly supplied intelligence support, air and naval support as well as introducing Syrian mercenary fighters in support of the government. Turkey’s support and the victory of its proxies would demonstrate to the region and o the world Turkey’s ability to project power and influence the outcome of regional conflicts. In 2020 Turkey has also backed Azerbaijan in its fight with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

And it is not just its neighbors and the Europeans with whom Turkey is asserting itself, now it is the United States. In what seems to be a “no winner” contest Turkey and the US are embroiled in a very unfriendly discussion over Turkey’s decision to buy the Russian S-400 “Triumf” missile system, and incredibly lethal air defense weapon that far surpasses the US Patriot missile system.

Turkey was on board to buy the Patriot system but the US refused the technology transfer that would enable it to be copied and built. The Turks retaliated by turning to Russia for the S-400 system and the US retaliated by excluding Turkey (a NATO partner) from its F35 fighter jet program. As of later 2020, Turkey is going ahead with its S-400 acquisition (including test firing) and the US is talking sanctions.

It seems that Mr. Erdogan is determined to make Turkey a real regional power going forward. The Turkish economy is predicted to make a healthy rebound in 2021 despite some contraction. Given that and the president’s popularity among the voters, there is a good chance that modern Turkey just might become the new Ottoman Empire, at least in spirit.

Photo: Pavel Vanka via flickr

 

How Will A Democratic Win in November 2020 Affect US-China Relations?

                        by David Parmer / Tokyo

US-China relations aren’t at their lowest ever–before President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the US and the PRC were not even talking to each other. No, things are not that bad, but in many ways they are still pretty bad.

The current US-China tensions are fueled by an ongoing trade war between the two superpowers mostly based on the Trump administration’s underlying assertion that the US has been taken advantage of by China over the decades and that it is now time to the US to stop being victimized by China. The second point of contention is that China is a rising superpower and now the world’s number two economy and that the US must compete with China.

This translates into seeing China as America’s most dangerous potential adversary and building alliances to handle this perceived threat. And of course, there is the question of Taiwan. The US continues to sell weapons and to upgrade weapons systems for Taiwan. China objects to this, but the US ignores those objections.

 What’s more, in 2018 the Trump administration did a $225 million upgrade of its Taiwan mission facilities. On top of this, in 2018 the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act which encouraged high-level officials from both the US and Taiwan to make reciprocal visits. As noted earlier, this could be construed by the PRC as the US walking back recognition of the PRC and the One-China Policy and upgrading of the status of Taiwan.

 So US-China relations are not at their worst, but they are certainly not very good. Now there is a good chance that in the 2020 election Donald Trump will not get a second term and that former Vice-President Joe Biden will be elected to replace Donald Trump as president. All indications are that it will be a contentious, dirty, hard fought election with allegations of foreign interference, vote tampering and vote suppression. Past performance indicates that Donald Trump will not be a graceful loser.

So with a Democratic president in the White House in the form of former Vice President Joe Biden, what could we expect with regard to US-China relations?

Indo-Pacific Strategy–Don’t look for much, if any, change here. This area is seen as of significant importance to America’s global power and reach, and is seen as a potent force to counter Chinese influence in the region.

South China Sea–Same again; not much, if any, change. America’s presence in this area will not diminish. It is seen as much too important to the overall US strategy to give any leeway on this issue.

Taiwan–The long-standing US commitment to Taiwan, especially from the US congress is not likely to change. What might change, however, is the US government’s emphasis on Taiwan. The support will be there, but actions by a Biden administration would be less confrontational than those of the Trump administration. US support goes all the way back to its support of Chiang Kai Shek and the Republic of China after WWII. So a less provocative stance by the US might be on the cards, but fundamentally no real change in policy except the avoidance of overtly-provocative actions that the PRC could not ignore like port calls by US warships for example.

Hong Kong–Not much change here either. Democrats are basically liberals, and what they consider human rights will be a priority for them. If US prestige is restored after the Trump debacle presidency, then “human rights” as preached by the US might again have some meaning around the world. Moral support for Hong Kong democracy will continue.

Xinjiang–In the same manner as with Hong Kong, American Democrats will continue to push for human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet.

Trade–This is a real problem for the US, and the Biden administration will have to do some serious “fence mending” with China (and many others). Tough negotiations are part of the game, but politically-motivated trade policies only hurt the perpetrator. One great concern is whether Chinese buyers will trust American suppliers again after relations have been fractured during the Trump Administration’s trade war with China. American products might be attractive in terms of quality and price, but buyers will have to consider whether the flow of commodities will be turned on and turned off like a faucet at a political whim in the future.

Overall: If there is a Biden administration in power, China can expect a return to normalcy in the US, i.e. a government run by professionals and not by ideology. There will be an end to the demonization of China and an end to the racist attitudes towards China, the PRC, and the Chinese people.

We can assume that the Democrats will fill the vacant jobs in the US government at all levels from ambassadors to department heads and again attract dedicated professionals to government service. Finally, a Biden administration might restore some order to the chaos caused by Donald Trump personally and by his ideologue cronies.

Will things return to normal? Will Joe Biden become the next president? It would be good for US-China relations, and probably good for the world. However, if we learn anything from China’s epic novel by Lo Kuan-chung, The Romance of The Three Kingdoms, it is just this: the good guys do not always win.

Photo:Marco Verch via flickr