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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.