MADRID – For the first time in centuries, the focus of the global economy is shifting to the East. The United States has commenced its “pivot” to Asia, and its relations with China, in particular, seem constantly to be flirting with Thucydides’s trap, the historical pattern that suggests that a rising power will inevitably collide with a reigning power. But, with the US and China regarding each another warily in the foreground of world affairs, where does Europe fit in?
The European Union is at a critical historical juncture, one that demands its own pivot eastward – a coherent and decisive Asian strategy that builds on Europe’s strengths. Although the EU’s population is only one-fifth the size of that of China and India combined, and its military presence in Asia is minimal, its €12.6 trillion ($16.8 trillion) economy is the world’s largest.
This has not gone unnoticed by Asia’s governments, which are heavily dependent on economic growth to meet their young and growing populations’ demand for jobs and prosperity. Currently, Asia is the EU’s main trading partner, surpassing North America and constituting one-third of its total trade. Trade with China alone is worth more than €1 billion per day, second only to trade with the US.
Moreover, the EU has a somewhat paradoxical asset at its disposal: it is not a Pacific power and does not carry the burden of great-power status in Asia. Far from being a weakness, this is precisely the source of the EU’s potential strength in Asia, for it provides a degree of diplomatic agility that the American heavyweight cannot muster.