Competition and convergence. These two words might be perceived as opposite, but it comes to a philosophic synthesis when they apply to the EU-US partnership. These two contrasting forces found a stable compromise into a rules-based order – the North Atlantic Partnership.
Anyway, since Mr. Trump moved to the White House, lots of things have changed. In contrast to the political approach of the former administration, the new US President decided in fact to make a U-turn on several issues of global concern. During the last G-20 Summit, the US removed a pledge about opposing protectionism in the official communiqué. In particular, in Hamburg, the US appeared swim against tide, butting heads with negotiators from the 19 other countries represented in the format on a wide range of topics – from trade to energy and climate change. Last but not least, the US did not give their consensus to the common resolution towards climate change, at the end of the G7 Summit in Taormina.
Thus, competition and convergence seems nowadays to have been translated in something more similar to division and divergence. This would better explain the two different and parallel path that the EU and US have been paving in the recent past (and present).
Focusing on trade, it is crystal-clear the turn made by the POTUS on the TTIP – the Transatlantic Partnership on Trade and Investments – and the TPP – a similar free-trade agreement concerning the Pacific area – moving away from this last one at the end of a very turbulent negotiating process. The NAFTA as well has been threatened by Mr. Trump and the project of vastly reducing the State Department’s budget is advancing in the direction of greater protectionism.
Many political commentators and journalists have spoken about the US coming back to a deeply inward-looking dimension, whether not a true isolationism. I would not define this as isolationism. I would rather endorse those theories which believe in a new course of the US foreign policy, where some new objectives are more important than the “traditional” ones. And the European Union knows it very well.
Divisions and divergences between the EU and the US, made the EU leaders think that a new global partner must be found in order to shoulder together the responsibility of the global governance. The connection between the European Union and China is not a brand-new issue: it is already a matter of fact and a strategic partnership is working on several relevant issues of the global agenda. By the way, it is true that this partnership has not achieved much in the last few decades, but today they have the opportunity to exert its full political power and build a functioning Group of 2.
In 2009 the US and China originally tried to settle a G2 forum. Some representers of the Realist school, working at that time with the US administration, underlined the importance to connect those two different models in order to achieve important results in a wide range of sectors – from military to security. On the other hand, the Washington-Beijing axis was a complicated partnership to manage for both the American and the Chinese administrations. Those were very different systems – the United States played the role of an “established power”, while China was a fundamentally “rising” country. Different systems are based on different values, beliefs, and try to achieve different goals. This relevant aspect created a profound feeling of distrust between the two countries. In presence of a lack of mutual trust – it is clear – no candid and reliable partnership can be put in place, harming inevitably the efficiency of the G2 work. Distrust have reached high peaks because of the continuous oppositions a contrasts – some of them particularly preoccupying – on several issues: the South-China sea disputes, the American arms sales to Taiwan, China’s disputes with Japan and the Philippines (these two are strong allies of the United States), Chinese hacking, and Beijing’s belief that the US are endorsing internal planning to harm and sabotage the Communist Party.
China perceive the US as an unreliable ally who is striving to contain and derail Beijing’s rise. Moreover, China’s growing military power made some US voices calling for a major American presence in the Asia-Pacific – a perilous choice that would lead to a potential military crisis in the area.
When it comes to the European version of the G2 initiative, it is clear that all those reasons of distrust we have sketched above do not exist anymore. Between the EU and China there is no distrust and no geopolitical competition. Their bilateral talks focus more on trade and regulation than military and security topics. The G2 initiative in fact will be much more concentrated on issues that pertain to such a G2: investments, economic development, eradicating poverty, taking action on climate change, and the research and scientific cooperation – considering that US law prohibit NASA to work with the Chinese authorities.
Together, the EU and China, account for a quarter of the world’s population and a third of its GDP. Plus, they share common views on how the global governance should advance. As we already mentioned, Trade, Aids and Climate change are just few topics that Brussels and Beijing want to discuss together with other countries in order to find solutions.
The reasons lying under the intention of building a EU-China G2 initiative, these are pretty the same reasons lying under the US-China G2 forum. The main intention is to create a powerful block which could be able to manage and guide the entire global community. The EU-China initiative because of its different nature, will not operate in the same way the US-China forum does. This one will not side-track in fact other existing mechanisms, while, on the contrary, it will complement them, favoring the consensus building between Brussels and Beijing. The world is increasingly facing new crucial issues, in a very liquid and dynamic international context. In this environment, it sounds a bit weird the disengagement operated by the US administration, being unwilling to lead the international community on several issues of common interest.
At least, even without the US, some progresses will be made. The TPP project might still advance even if it would be watered down by the US disengagement. Further, China is recollecting its area of influence thanks to the new OBOR – in its land and sea double version – and trade agreements with the main actors of the Asia-Pacific area: Japan, India, and the ASEAN countries.
It is time to employ that political capital coming up from Beijing. The Chinese rhetoric – profoundly globalist and pro-free trade – have convinced the EU members of the unique opportunity to open up the EU market to China – see the number of EU countries that joined the AIIB, founded in 2015, against the panicky and dubious US rhetoric – and to bond tight ties with Beijing, relaunching diplomacy, cultural cooperation, and bilateral research and innovation projects.