Will Europe turn to China in era of Trump?

By Toni Michel & Jiang Yuan Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/22 21:53:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

For historians, it is always attractive to search for turning points in history - a moment that symbolizes and encapsulates a new trend or direction. Many thought they witnessed exactly such a moment when Chinese President Xi Jinping carried the banner of free trade and fighting climate change at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos in January.

Appalled by Donald Trump's rejection of the global consensus on climate change and his isolationist rhetoric, Europeans suddenly found themselves outside their traditional value system when thinking about global problems.

With the US pursuing a destructive and inward-looking policy, is China picking up the banner of solving the world's most pressing issues as Europe's new partner? Or, in the words of a WEF delegate, German economist Klaus Schwab, "Particularly today, in a world marked by great uncertainty and volatility, the international community is looking to China."

Moreover, the recent visit of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Europe has clearly been an unusually high-profile event. Are we witnessing a realignment of Europe's strategic direction in favor of China?

Clearly, China's continued commitment to the Paris Climate Accord is greatly appreciated in Europe. When talking about the vital issues of trade, though, a much closer examination of the facts is necessary.

The Trump presidency certainly has reinvigorated the EU's trading agenda - but so far mainly with China's regional rivals. Brussels and Tokyo are envisioning a trade deal by the end of 2017, while the European Parliament recently called for a further deepening of trade relations in the context of the existing Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with South Korea.

Moreover, while the finished text of the FTA with Vietnam is currently legally reviewed as part of the ratification process, negotiations with Australia are about to begin.

China-EU trade relations, in the meantime, remain stuck in disagreements over steel subsidies and market entry requirements.

Consider security. In order to effectively tackle Islamic State (IS) terrorism and the refugee problem stemming from war-torn Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, the powers Europe primarily engages with are Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US. An EU-China alliance would also not effectively address Europe's second hotspot, the Ukraine crisis.

Here, nobody realistically expects that Beijing would bring sufficient pressure to bear on Moscow to return Crimea to Ukraine and pull its troops out of the Donbas. Despite the visible tensions during the NATO summit in May, the alliance and its transatlantic component remain the cornerstone for tackling security for Europe - be it through troop deployments in the Baltic States or through the US-led anti-IS coalition.

Third, the strong institutional and personal links that bind Europe and the US together cannot be ignored. It would be next to impossible even for the US president to destroy the bonds that support the transatlantic political relationship, namely decades-long student exchanges, NGO cooperation or family ties.

In this context, it is more likely that we are witnessing a bad weather period in the relationship that will give way as soon as Trump leaves office.

In the meantime, the European Union might very well do some serious soul searching in the security sphere and consider substantially integrating its defense capabilities and cooperating much more closely in terms of intelligence sharing as well as inter-military defense planning.

There is of course potential for increased EU-China cooperation - for example by building local infrastructure and helping African states provide services to their citizens. These longer-term approaches could prevent migration movements toward Europe in the future. As mentioned, Europe will be interested in cooperating in renewable energy and climate-friendly technologies while its companies will certainly have an eye on profiting from Chinese investments in the context of Beijing's widely publicized Belt and Road initiative.

The main benefit for China in the context of the current transatlantic woes between Europe and the US is therefore rather in the mental sphere.

Even if Beijing might not gain a new ally in the EU, China will gain confidence in its chosen path internally and internationally. It will take time for Europe and the US to again begin doing the same.

Toni Michel is an international affairs analyst and specialist on the European Union. Jiang Yuan is an international affairs analyst and specialist on China. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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