China’s rule versus the power of rules

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This post is part of a series on the issues discussed at the ECFR Annual Council Meeting in Rome (12-13 June). You can find more content and audio from the council meeting here

On 13 June 2014, during the ECFR Council MeetingChina’s rule versus the power of rules was discussed between Robert Cooper, former Counsellor of EEAS, Teresa Patricio Gouveia, Trustee of the Board of Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, and Volker Stanzel, former German Ambassador to China and Japan. The discussion, moderated by Lluís Bassets, Deputy Director of the Spanish daily El País, focused mainly on the threat of violent conflict in Asia, and whether China could trigger a serious crisis. The consensus on the likelihood of war, putting the Asian order at stake, highlighted the dimension of the  consequences for Europe, and the urgency for Europeans to deal with the present escalation of tensions. Europe’s interests in the stability of the region makes it imperative to improve relations with every Asian country – not just major trading partners such as China – and to try to defuse the situation.

Despite concerns over increasing volatility of China's  disputes with Japan and South East Asian states (mainly Vietnam and the Philippines currently) over territorial questions, the panellists agreed that China does not want a war. It may, however, be ready to risk it. One problem is that the complexity of linkages between Chinese foreign and domestic policies leave the outside world uncertain over Beijing’s next steps. One of the participants compared China's behaviour to that of Japan in the 1930s, where economic policy objectives, ideology as well as nationalism played a similar role in causing an aggressive foreign policy. There is a clear leader (xi Jinping), and the elite is largely Western-educated, which influences China's perspective of the outside world. Xi Jinping has ended the power balance in China and seems to have foreign-policy decision-making in his hands too. He initiated China's policy of competing strategically with other players in the region, moving regional frontiers, and pushing to become a normative power in the region the way the United States are. As one of the panellists put it: China wants to make the rules, not ask for the rules. Meanwhile, Asia’s response is illustrated by political alignments of smaller countries in Asia towards the US or China. Global interdependence might prevent large scale conflicts but it is not the magic that can cure all ailments; it may even increase tensions. This is the danger the world is confronted with today in East and Southeast Asia.

All these different aspects currently converging bring home the urgent necessity for Europe to take developments in Asia seriously, and present itself as a proactive player. A simple question asked by one the discussants might suit best to summarize the conclusion of the discussion: If Europe is economically that interdependent with China today, shouldn't it have ways to have some political impact as well?

 

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