CLAIRE BERLINSKI, PARIS AND VIVEK Y. KELKAR, MUMBAI
Part III of a three-part article. China uses revisionist history and the trade cudgel in its bid for global hegemony.
The crucial bit of Yi’s speech comes further down. To commemorate the CCP’S centennial, Yi says—“a milestone full of youthful vigor”—and guided by Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, China will “advocate a new type of international relations.”
You have to read carefully to notice what’s important. He discusses China’s relationship with the rest of the world’s crucial regions, one by one. Look at the order in which he discusses them.
His first priority is describing the intimacy of China’s relationship with Russia. In 2021, he says, China will “deepen China-Russia comprehensive strategic coordination,” and “jointly build pillars for world peace and security as well as global strategic stability.” Later, in the interview with Xinhua, he would add that ties between Russia and China have “reached a historic high in all respects.”
Then he reveals what is apparently the new Party Line: China and Russia have always been allies. They were, you see, the key defenders of the post-World War II global order:
The two sides have worked in concert to defend the victorious outcomes of World War II and uphold international fairness and justice and firmly supported each other against foreign interference and stigmatization, acting as important players in safeguarding global strategic stability.
In case you’re tempted to discount the significance of this, read it again in Xinhua, where he repeats it, almost word-for-word:
China and Russia have worked in concert to defend the victorious outcomes of World War II and uphold international fairness and justice. The two countries have extended mutual support on issues concerning each other’s core interests and stood side by side against power politics, which further underscores the global significance of China-Russia relations.
That’s an astonishing bit of historical revisionism. The Sino-Soviet split has gone down the memory hole. In Xinhua, he even goes off-script: “In developing China-Russia strategic cooperation, we see no limit, no forbidden zone and no ceiling to how far this cooperation can go.”
What a world to look forward to.
THEY KNOW EUROPE’S PHONE NUMBER
Next Yi discusses the EU. More good news. Chinese and EU leaders, he reports, have “agreed to strengthen coordination and cooperation, deepen strategic mutual trust, firmly uphold multilateralism, and jointly meet global challenges.”
They have? NB: This was on December 11.
On November 26, recall, the European Council on Foreign Relations described the bargain the EU hoped to strike with the United States under Joe Biden’s leadership. We recommend reading that document in full, too.
The ECFR lamented the “hijacking” of the “architecture of global governance” by “China and other powers.” But if the EU and US “acted together,” they wrote, they would be “more likely to succeed in pressing reluctant countries like China” to accept, for example, better surveillance over emerging diseases. As a team, they could force concessions on “big polluters, such as Russia and China, which often engage in economic practices Washington regards as unfair.”
They specifically wrote the following—and linked, too, to a host of policy documents the ECFR had recently produced to support this view:
Over the course of the last four years, member states across the entire EU have markedly changed their views on China. Most are still willing to seek cooperation where possible, but they have grown increasingly sceptical of the economic benefits of close interaction.
These concerns are shared across the Atlantic. Europeans are ready to work with the US on an economic agenda focusing on China’s market-distorting practices, taking a joint lead in setting the standards for new technologies like 5G and green technologies, and increasing the cost for China if it continues to engage in large-scale theft of intellectual property.
Europeans are also now thinking more geostrategically about Asia generally. France, Germany, and the Netherlands have proposed their own Indo-Pacific strategies and taken a greater interest in maintaining the status quo in the Taiwan Strait in the face of increasing Chinese aggression.
The document concluded with what it explicitly called “an offer.”
The transatlantic [alliance] should seek to match the scale of the offer that China makes on trade, digital infrastructure, and economic development to countries around the world through the Belt and Road Initiative and other mechanisms. Europeans and Americans would set common standards on state aid, transparency, and technology. In return, Europeans can offer enhanced support on maritime security and safeguarding the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.
How did we go from this, on November 26, to a Yi so confident he had the EU in his back pocket that he said this on December 11?
In the first three quarters, China became EU’s largest trading partner for the first time. The two sides signed the agreement on geographical indications, a demonstration of their shared commitment to intellectual property protection. The two sides decided to establish two new high-level dialogue mechanisms, one on environment and climate and the other on digital cooperation, and build partnerships for green and digital cooperation. Closer partnership between the two sides in these areas will add new dimensions to the China-EU comprehensive strategic partnership. Negotiations toward a China-EU investment treaty has entered the final phase, with both sides working to conclude the negotiations by the end of this year.
By the time he spoke to Xinhua, Yi was rapturous. “The most important conclusion is that our cooperation and common understandings far outweigh competition and differences. China and the EU are comprehensive strategic partners, not systemic rivals. The most important mission is to jointly tackle global challenges, promote a multi-polar world, economic globalization and greater democracy in international relations, and inject more stability and certainty into a turbulent and changing world,” he said.
The China-EU investment treaty, he added, would give “fresh, strong impetus to China-EU cooperation,” and was “great news for the struggling global economy.”
“This is a clear example of how, by working together in the spirit of mutual understanding, mutual accommodation and equal consultation, the two sides can open up broad prospects for China-EU cooperation,” he exclaimed.
Henry Kissinger asked—or was said to have asked—“Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”
Apparently, the right answer is not “The European Foreign Policy Council.”
THE ROGUE STATE
After lavishing praise on Russia and Europe, Yi regrets he must discuss a sad problem. The United States. On that front, he can but shake his head wearily. The past year, he says, has been the most challenging since diplomatic ties were established.
“As the world needed solidarity and cooperation the most, the United States headed down the path of unilateralism, which has become the most disruptive factor in the international system,” Yi argued.
The usual complaints follow. Americans are biased; they say hurtful and untrue things about China; they misconstrue China’s peaceful intentions.
“These unpopular moves should stop now. Otherwise, they will damage US credibility, jeopardize world peace and stability, and will ultimately be rejected by people of the world and by history. The China-US relationship [represents a choice between] multilateralism or unilateralism, progress or retrogression, and justice or hegemony. What China defends is not only its own legitimate rights and interests, but also the common and long-term interests of all countries. What China safeguards is not only the political foundation underpinning China-US interactions, but also the basic norms governing international relations applicable to all countries. What China advocates is not only its own legitimate propositions, but also fairness and justice of the world,” he said. We bet they just lap that up in Hong Kong.
Yi even has the chutzpah to say to Xinhua, “The principle of for the people and by the people has been a source of strength for the Communist Party of China. It is also the defining feature of China’s diplomacy.”
Yet the thing Americans must grasp is that other countries are lapping it up. Why? Because they are small countries that need a superpatron lest they be gobbled up. The only world power that rivals China has spent the past twenty years starting wars it couldn’t end, making promises it couldn’t keep, then finishing the geopolitical joyride by explicitly telling the rest of the world to go screw itself.
What China and the United States both want, of course, is unilateralism. So would every country, if that were within its reach. But only the US has been stupid enough to say so. Smaller countries, for obvious reasons, want multilateralism, and they want “rules that apply to all countries.”
This really shouldn’t as hard for Americans to grasp as it is. Germany likes the idea of “multilateralism” for the same reason Arkansas likes the Electoral College. The country that pays more lip service to multilateralism—then backs it up with more money and military power—will look quite persuasive to an audience that wants this to be true. China has adopted the vocabulary Americans used when they decided, in the wake of the Second World War, that the world would be a better place if, basically, they ran it—but they didn’t want people to think they were just European colonialists in a new guise. Yi even has the chutzpah to say to Xinhua, “The principle of for the people and by the people has been a source of strength for the Communist Party of China. It is also the defining feature of China’s diplomacy.”
Say what? “The principle of for the people and by the people?” Of course, yes, that’s from Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a New Era. (Actually, the words entered China’s consciousness via Sun Yat-Sen, the first leader of the Kuomintang and a great fan of Lincoln.) But government “by the people?” The Communist Party’s influential weekly journal Qiushi reminds us that “The West has been harping on about freedom, democracy and human rights for some 200 years, and has nothing new to add.”
Nonetheless, Yi grasps that phrases like “by the people,” “multilateralism,” and “peace” will sound more reassuring to the Merkels of the world than the Twitter feed of the President of the United States or Putin’s Novichok in your underwear.
We already know your objection: Come on! And the US does a lot, too! We took down Ebola in Africa. And AIDS. We saved Europe from the Nazis and Asia from imperial Japan—and then we rebuilt them! And what about soft power? Does anyone in the world think it would be great to live under the principles of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics? Doesn’t America just look like more fun?
After sadly concluding the US has gone down the tubes, Yi moves on to cheerier matters. Asia’s in great shape, he reports, and with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Pact, everything’s coming up roses.
Yes and no. America under Trump has not looked like fun at all. Since the pandemic began, half a million Americans have died an agonizing death—alone, terrified, drowning in the fluid in their lungs. Armed militias roam the country intimidating people. They look no more attractive in the United States than they do in Somalia. Corruption, nepotism, and cronyism don’t become winning just because the Stars and Stripes are flying. If that’s what you want, why not model your development on the superpower patron who at least speaks to you respectfully?
Coup plots don’t look more impressive in the US than they do in Bolivia. If anything, they look much worse. Every country, after all, has its own talents. Italy is good at la dolce vita; the English are good at gardening; Bolivia is good at coups. America’s special talent, the world has long been told, is democracy. If we can’t even do that what’s left?
The scenes we’re seen coming out of the US of late are the way you lose a soft-power war. (And the scandals that have characterized the US Navy in recent years are the way you lose a hard-power one.)
FROM POLE TO POLE
After sadly concluding the US has gone down the tubes, Yi moves on to cheerier matters. Asia’s in great shape, he reports, and with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Pact, everything’s coming up roses. Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga “reached a new, important common understanding on steadily improving and growing China-Japan relations.” China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations made “the historic breakthrough” of becoming each other’s largest trading partners.
China, Japan, and South Korea have “strengthened cooperation in revitalizing regional economic activities,” and “steadily advanced the trilateral free trade negotiations, elevating regional economic cooperation to a higher level.” The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, too, has “deepened cooperation” in “safeguarding regional security and promoting economic growth.” China has launched a new foreign ministers’ meeting with five Central Asian countries, too. It’s called the C5+1, for “Central Asia Plus China.” That could be confusing: There’s already a C5+1. It stands for “Central Asia Plus the United States.” I suppose China’s not worried about that.
As for India, “China has resolutely and appropriately handled the boundary disputes, in an effort to steer China-India relations in the right direction.”
Africa is looking good. Xi and African leaders Y lists so many “major initiatives” in the region one loses count. The Middle East? “[A]ll sides agreed to build a community with a shared future for China and Arab states, opening up even brighter prospects of Sino-Arab relations.”
Good news in Latin American and the Caribbean, too: China’s launched a loan program there to combat the effects of Covid-19. All of these efforts “fully attest to our conviction in supporting the solidarity and progress of developing countries and upholding the shared interests of the developing world,” he reports.
In fact, by Yi’s account—apart from the disagreeable United States and the tedious business of steering India in the right direction—China is making the whole world happy:
China has sent medical expert teams to developing countries in need to help them beat the virus and tide over the difficulties. China has pledged to make vaccines a global public good once they are developed and deployed, as a contribution to vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries. China has taken an active part in formulating the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) and implemented all debt service suspension requests that are DSSI eligible, ranking the first among G20 members in terms of deferral amount.
Yi carefully laid out China’s agenda, from the north pole to the south. The CCP intends to run everything. It’s not exactly a secret.
So we come back to the question we started with in Part I: Why was Merkel so keen to sign up for this vision?
Some figures bear telling. Between January and September of 2019, aggregate EU-China trade was 413.4 billion Euros. Aggregate trade with the US was slightly more, at 461 billion Euros. During the same nine months of 2020, though, China-EU trade was 425.5 billion Euros, overtaking trade between the EU and the United States, which declined to 412 billion Euros.
European companies have more often than not been excluded from lucrative contracts in Belt and Road Initiative countries, both in Asia and in Africa. The deal was seven years in the making. It’s notable that Beijing was willing—and able—to grasp the complexity of the EU. Chinese diplomats mastered their briefs, figuring out how to make best use of the member states’ intricate, entwined political and economic concerns and rivalries. They figured out where the real power lay; whom to pressure, whom to cajole, and when.
The deal may well be ratified despite the howling. That it’s come this far shows that even a transatlantic strategic rapprochement is unlikely to curb China’s appetite. China will be pragmatic, to be sure, but it clearly now has the heft to inflict a great deal of punishment on anyone who tries to erect obstacles to its strategic ambitions.
IT’S ALL ONE REGION
In March 2019, Europe’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy issued a communiqué to the European Parliament and the European Council. EU-China—A strategic outlook illustrated another key current in European strategic thought, one in conflict with its transatlantic longings.
There was “growing understanding” in Europe, said the communiqué, “that the balance of challenges and opportunities presented by China has shifted. In the last decade, China’s economic power and political influence have grown with unprecedented scale and speed, reflecting its ambitions to become a leading global power.”
It makes the case for “differentiating” the tools of EU engagement with China, depending on the issues and policies at stake. It argues that EU policy should be based on three objectives:
- Based on clearly defined interests and principles, the EU should deepen its engagement with Chinato promote common interests at global level.
- The EU should robustly seek more balanced and reciprocal conditions governing the economic relationship.
- Finally, in order to maintain its prosperity, values and social model over the long term, there are areas where the EU itself needs to adapt to changing economic realitiesand strengthen its own domestic policies and industrial base.
This, we think, is the idea that motivated Merkel, and proved more convincing to her than the Atlanticist vision. It might be possible to separate trade from human rights, she thought; and perhaps the deal would offer Europe more European leverage over China, not less.
In September, the German federal government produced Policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region. This too is an interesting document. Previous German guidelines had spoken of various regions of Asia—there were guidelines for East Asia, guidelines for South Asia. This one saw a single region: the whole Indian Ocean and the Pacific. In putting it this way, Germany was merely following Japan, India, Australia, the US, and several ASEAN states, all of which had already come to understand that their relations with South and East Asia could no longer be assessed separately: From a strategic perspective, it’s all the Indo-Pacific.
German policy—for now the policy of the EU—seems, in turn, to be a broad, regional strategic gambit. Policy guidelines envisioned strong Franco-German cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, the joint agenda. It would not be limited to trade: It would compass security and defense, the transition to a digital economy, climate change, and more. Both countries, it points out, share a strategic interest in maintaining the Law of the Sea. Both depend upon complex, intertwined value and supply chains.
The guidelines call for the EU to augment its relationship with ASEAN. The EU, it recommends, should become a dialogue partner and seek observer status at the formal meeting of Southeast Asia’s defense ministers.
What is Germany’s objective? The guidelines are clear: Germany must avoid “unilateral dependencies” and “strengthen ties with the global players of tomorrow.”
They propose “closing ranks with democracies and partners with shared values in the region.” And yes, recent agreements such as the trade deal the EU signed with Japan, which came into force in 2019, do reflect this suggestion.
They don’t propose closing ranks with dictatorships without shared values in the region.
But Merkel is hedging her bets.
It is not just the Trump Administration’s disdainful approach to the transatlantic relationship that motivated the China-EU deal—though that certainly did motivate it. It’s the larger strategic and economic picture. Merkel fears a unipolar moment in Asia—Sinocentric, not globalized. She thinks this outcome sufficiently likely that the best she can do is try to shape this future, should it come to pass, and—no matter who comes out on top—protect Germany’s interests.
One might, in fact, easily imagine Merkel saying these famous wordsBY Lord Palmerston:
Therefore, I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of Germany. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.
Palmerston, by the way, was also dubious about the United States and a noisome thorn on Lincoln’s side. He supported the confederacy. He nonetheless dominated British foreign policy at the height of its imperial power and historians tend to rank him as one of the greatest of its foreign secretaries—perhaps the greatest. His policies in what we now call the Indo-Pacific had extensive, long-lasting, and highly beneficial consequences for Britain: Palmerston achieved his twin goals of securing extraterritorial rights for British citizens equality and opening China to trade.
His furious critics called Palmerston greedy and immoral. The Chartists and nonconformists—led by the young Gladstone, later to be Palmerston’s rival—accused Palmerston of concerning himself with nothing but the (massive) profits Britain would make from this deal. He was, they said, oblivious to the horrible moral evils of opium No one now really remembers these debates or Palmerston’s stance toward the United States—except, perhaps, for Angela Merkel.
From Jasper Williams’ biography of Palmerston, we learn that Gladstone would come to Cabinet meetings “charged to the muzzle” with reformist schemes.
Palmerston used to look fixedly at the paper before him, saying nothing until there was a lull in Gladstone’s outpouring. He then rapped the table and said cheerfully: “Now, my Lords and gentlemen, let us go to business.”