Thursday, August 21, 2014
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The Old World’s New Roles

CAMBRIDGE – China’s rise has raised many questions for the West, with some wondering whether it is set to usurp a struggling Europe’s global leadership role. As one columnist put it, “there is nothing much European governments can do in East Asia, save serve as marketing managers for their domestic businesses.” With neither the diplomatic weight nor the military heft to make an impression in the region, Europe had better leave the heavy lifting to the United States. But this does not have to be the case.

For Europe, the implications of China’s rise are far-reaching, beginning with the United States’ strategic “pivot” toward Asia. After more than 70 years as a top US priority, Europe is beginning to lose its privileged position in the eyes of American policymakers. Moreover, European sales of high-tech dual-use products that complicate America’s security role in Asia is bound to create friction.

Nonetheless, warnings that the Atlantic partnership is eroding are unduly dire. Tellingly, US President Barack Obama’s administration has replaced the term “pivot,” which implies a turn away from something, with “rebalancing.” This change reflects a recognition that China’s increasing economic dominance does not negate the importance of the European Union, which remains the world’s largest economic entity and a leading source of economic innovation, not to mention values like the protection of human rights.

This is not to say that Asia’s rise will not demand adjustments. When the Industrial Revolution began, Asia’s share of the global economy began to decline from more than 50% to just 20% by 1900. By the second half of this century, Asia is expected to recover its former economic dominance – that is, account for 50% of global output – while lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

This power shift – perhaps the most consequential of the twenty-first century – implies serious risks. Historians often warn that the fear and uncertainty generated by the emergence of new powers like China can trigger serious conflict, like that which Europe experienced a century ago, when Germany overtook the United Kingdom in industrial production.

With Asia riven by territorial disputes and historical tensions, maintaining a stable security balance will not be easy. But there are levers in place that can help.

In the 1990s, when US President Bill Clinton’s administration was considering how to respond to China’s increasing economic might, some urged a policy of containment. Clinton rejected that advice: It would have been impossible to forge an anti-China alliance, given the enduring desire of China’s neighbors to maintain good relations with it; more important, such a policy would have guaranteed future enmity with China.

Instead, Clinton chose a policy that could be called “integrate and insure.” While China was welcomed into the World Trade Organization (WTO), America revived its security treaty with Japan.

If China pursues a “peaceful rise,” its neighbors will focus on building strong economic relationships with it. If it throws its weight around – which some say is implied by its recent actions on the Indian border and in the East and South China Seas – its neighbors will seek to balance its power, with an American naval presence offering backup.

Where does Europe fit into this picture? For starters, it should monitor and restrain sensitive exports to avoid making the security situation more dangerous for the US. Even in trading terms, Europe has an interest in regional stability and secure sea lanes.

Furthermore, Europe can contribute to the development of the norms that shape the security environment. For example, Europe can play an important role in reinforcing a universal interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, rather than China’s idiosyncratic version – especially given that the US has not even ratified the treaty.

Contrary to the claims of some analysts, China is not a revisionist state like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, eager to overthrow the established international order. Indeed, it is not in China’s interest to destroy international institutions – such as the United Nations, the WTO, and the International Monetary Fund – that have helped to facilitate its rise. Given Europe’s leading roles in such institutions, it can help China gain the multilateral legitimacy that it seeks, in exchange for responsible behavior.

Though China is not attempting to upend the global order, it is now undergoing a profound – and destabilizing – transformation. With the rise of transnational issues like climate change, terrorism, pandemics, and cyber crime – brought about by rapid technological progress and social change – power is being diffused not among states, but among a wide range of non-governmental entities. Addressing these challenges will require broad international cooperation, with China, the US, and Europe each playing an important role.

Finally, there is the question of values. Europe, together with the US, has already resisted Chinese (and Russian) demands for greater Internet censorship. And European countries like Norway and Germany have willingly taken economic hits in the name of human rights.

While it is impossible to predict how Chinese politics will evolve, other countries’ experiences suggest that political change often occurs when per capita income reaches roughly $10,000. If such change does occur, Europe will have an opening to promote its core values even more effectively.

Whether China’s economic interest in an impartial world order based on the rule of law will lead to greater protection of individual rights remains to be seen. Only China will decide that. But Europe can make a strong case.

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  1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Nye suggests the "Old World" should assume "New Roles". However he has Great Britain as the "Old World" in mind, as the British Parliament is linked to his article. Westminister was the symbol of colonial power a centuray ago. Today Britain is just a shadow of its former self.
    When Mr. Nye asks whether China's rise "is set to usurp a struggling Europe’s global leadership role", he must mean the European Union. Yet its role as the political leadership for the 28 member states leaves much to be desired. It is still forging an economic and political integration. It has a common currency and promotes freedom of movement. The principle of trade without frontiers makes Europe the world's largest single market. Its enlargement raises hackles in Russia and casts doubt, whether it will be able to cope with the myriad of challenges. Its vision for a common foreign and security policy is still in the making.
    Some member states, such as Britain baulk at the idea of giving Brussels much greater power. David Cameron has threatened to exit, if the EU doesn't opt for reforms. The Eurocrisis showed that the EU still lacks political leadership. How would it be able to play a global role?
    Before Russia's invasion in Crimea, many Europeans didn't really care about America's "strategic “pivot” toward Asia". Since the conflict in Ukraine erupted, the Baltic and Eastern European states, which are NATO members, worry and wonder whether they can rely on the US for their security.
    Under Catherine Ashton, EU foreign ministers have taken a more concerted line on issues in the Middle East, such as sanctions against Iran's nuclear programme. She has also played a key role in striking a preliminary deal with Iran in November 2013. Apart from the nuclear issue, the EU had played a role in Syria and Ukraine, yet it is largely John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov, who steal the show.
    If there is a new role for the EU to play, it is to build one bridge between Moscow and Washington and one between Beijing and Washington, as America's relations with China and Russia fray. Although Europe is the cradle of human rights, nowadays they are not on the plate of diplomacy and realpolitik, much to Beijing's and Moscow's relief.
    That the EU as a model worthy of emulation is Putin's example of forming his own Eurasian Economic Union. Europe does have "a strong case" for Asia. If countries there have an institution to match EU in cooperation and peaceful coexistence, no doubt the Asians will be able to improve their relations and strengthen regional ties.

  2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    I hope as an East Asian that Europe will at least refrain from exporting sensitive materials and information to China. I hope that it will consider or reconsider its "business as usual" or "business is business" in terms of East Asian liberal order.

  3. CommentedPaulo Sérgio

    The European Union and broader Europe has tremendous soft power and economic clout. As a trading colossus, further European integration will enhance its role.

    It's always easy to discount the EU in the face of a fully integrated US - I do it all the time. But recent years have seen a dysfunctional US display the same kind of disintegration as that shown by the EU during the sovereign debt crisis of many of its members. Both the EU and US have work to do not just for an unified approach to global issues, but also to their respective domestic constituencies.

  4. Commentedhari naidu

    You're a cold war warrior...and neither EU (or for that matter Berlin) will take order from US with regard to its national interest vis-à-vis mainland China. EU is currently largest trading partner of China...and growing.

    Trade and investment treaties are in the pipeline and they will inevitably accord PRC rights and obligations inside EU single market.

    Obama's outlook towards mainland China is one of historical containment...ie. rebalancing to Asia means giving Abe's Japan the right to change its post-war constitution to fight proxy wars for US and its allies.

    History has a lot to teach US about its inadequacies of understanding ancient China's historical evolution - EU doesn't not.

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