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Europe on a Geopolitical Fault Line

China has begun to build a parallel international order, centered on itself. If the European Union aids in its construction – even just by positioning itself on the fault line between China and the United States – it risks toppling key pillars of its own edifice and, eventually, collapsing altogether.

MADRID – Two months ago, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed his fear that a “Great Fracture” could split the international order into two “separate and competing worlds,” one dominated by the United States and the other by China. His fear is not only justified; the fissure he dreads has already formed, and it is getting wider.

After Deng Xiaoping launched his “reform and opening up” policy in 1978, the conventional wisdom in the West was that China’s integration into the global economy would naturally bring about domestic social and political change. The end of the Cold War – an apparent victory for the US-led liberal international order – reinforced this belief, and the West largely pursued a policy of engagement with China. After China became a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001, this process accelerated, with Western companies and investment pouring into the country, and cheap manufactured products flowing out of it.

As China’s role in global value chains grew, its problematic trade practices – from dumping excessively low-cost goods in Western markets to failing to protect intellectual-property rights – were increasingly distortionary. Yet few so much as batted an eye. No one, it seemed, wanted to jeopardize the profits brought by cheap Chinese manufacturing, or the promise of access to the massive Chinese market. In any case, the thinking went, the problems would resolve themselves, because economic engagement and growth would soon produce a flourishing Chinese middle class that would propel domestic liberalization.

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