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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.