China has a global strategy of engagement. The Belt and Road Initiative is only the most visible example. Its vision to create stability through development encompasses the European and Asian continents and large parts of Africa. Everywhere you see Chinese leaders travelling, you see giant pledges of further engagement, in Africa, Latin America and even Europe: more trade, more investment, and more scientific and people-to-people exchanges.
And on global governance, China has promised more engagement. It is contributing more to the UN, from UN peacekeepers to development funds. It has called for strengthening the World Trade Organisation as the core of an open multilateral trading system. It has also become more active in peace and security. In the Middle East and North Africa, China has stepped up its diplomatic activity. This has not resulted in more stability in, say, Libya, Syria or Yemen, but China at least is not part of the problem and, potentially, is part of a solution. In Afghanistan, its active diplomacy to create more stability has also not yet achieved lasting results but its profile has risen dramatically.
The accession of both Pakistan and India to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was a diplomatic triumph and might contribute to confidence-building. And China almost single-handedly keeps the BRICS format alive, despite considerable internal problems.
Are we at the threshold of a new era, a new age of “globalisation with Chinese characteristics”? What could this look like? Possibly prosperous, but more based on informal arrangements with strong hierarchy rather than enforceable rules adjudicated by independent bodies. Many, if not most, activities and new formats devised by China are China-centric.
On trade, but also ideas, information and cyberspace, China’s openness is limited while it uses a lot of muscle to open up others. China shuts out foreign competition in vital areas such as rail transport, medical devices, telecommunications and now the IT sector. As a result, trade deficits and one-sided investment relationships in favour of China, with such diverse countries as Vietnam, Pakistan, Malaysia, Poland and Serbia, are extreme. We Europeans would like to maintain a rules-based global order with equal rights for every country, big or small, and would like to avoid one-way streets.
China’s world view is coherent and predictable. It has a strategy of engagement and, in many cases, offers what is needed to create a prosperous and stable world. In the West, many zero in on real or perceived faults in the Chinese approach. But what do we have to offer?
Does the United States offer a coherent strategy? Do we see more US engagement in the world? Leaving the Paris climate accord means disengagement from a global solution to the world’s most dangerous problem. Intended deep cuts in development assistance and contributions to the UN would, if carried out, imply massive disengagement. Negative comments about the WTO, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threatening to leave other trade agreements even with its closest allies would imply disengagement from trade multilateralism altogether.
Meanwhile, Europe remains committed to the multilateral system led by the UN, to open trade with the WTO at its core, to development and the Paris agreement. Germany is fully behind this agenda. On many of these key goals and values, the growing convergence with China is evident. However, there are also areas where Europe does not see eye to eye with China.
The playing field for European companies in the Chinese market is anything but level, and tilting further. While China benefits more and more disproportionately from a completely open German and European investment market, it has not opened its own investment market, with the exception of some minor fields, where the government, inter alia, through unfair procurement, has successfully pushed foreign competition out of the market. There are significant, even growing disagreements on human rights. The emerging “Chinese intranet” is growing ever more isolated and ever better policed.
But does Europe have a vision of its own to create stability in Africa, the Middle East and the still many underdeveloped parts of Asia? And how about Europe’s most important source of strength – unity? Just a few weeks ago, the EU, for the first time, failed to agree on a joint statement in the general debate of the UN Human Rights Council. Greece openly advertised that it was its delegation that broke EU unity. On trade, Hungary broke ranks with the EU by signing up to an unsatisfactory statement on trade at the Belt and Road Forum, despite the fact that trade is an exclusive competence of the union. On procurement rules and reciprocity on investment, EU solidarity becomes a rare currency where the promise of easy money looms, as the planned upgrade of the Belgrade-Budapest train link shows. There is evidence that a public tender was deliberately avoided so as to achieve the outcome desired by China.
When it comes to engaging the world, it seems that China is currently the only power that has both the will and the means to do so. The US has the means but increasingly lacks the willingness. Europe has good intentions but is grappling to develop a coherent strategy.
The West is losing its common vision on how to engage the world, with potentially disastrous results for the defence of global rules on equal market access, of human rights, of development and combating climate change. A unified West with a clear strategy and positive narrative to address the truly awful problems the world is facing is needed – not as a counterweight to China but as a respected partner to shape the global order together.
If China ushers in an era of “globalisation with Chinese characteristics” on its own in the coming years, the West will have itself to blame. It better not carp about it.
Michael Clauss is the German ambassador to China