A boiling Atlantic – Is it time for Europe to turn to China?


Since Donald Trump has assumed the White House office the US has increasingly severed the ties with its traditional allies in Europe. At the same time, China is trying to establish itself as a reputable international player in the leadership vacuum left behind by the US. How should Europe, including Switzerland, respond to this?

When travelling in China as an obvious “Westerner”, one is commonly confronted with the question: “Are you American?” Replying that one actually comes from Europe seems to go together with a significant loss of glamour. Another frequently posed question hints at the self-consciousness of many Chinese: “What do you think about China?”

The importance of the historical context

Both of these prevalent questions showcase the Chinese collective historical understanding determined by what some scholars have described as a superiority-inferiority complex. On the one hand, there is about 5000 years of history of the great Chinese civilisation achieving a high degree of state centralisation and inventing things like gun powder, the mechanical clock and noodles – which were later all copied and perfectioned by the Europeans. On the other hand, China did not keep up with the rapid development in the Western world in the 19th century and subsequently got invaded and partially colonialised by Europe, the US and Japan – an experience the Chinese are still struggling to recover from today. Concerning the obsession with the US, in the latter years of history, and essentially covering all generations alive in China today, the US has been the dominant economic and military world power. Longing for the re-establishment of the great Chinese civilisation, termed the “Great Rejuvenation”, and the respect that comes with it, the Chinese aim to surpass the US at everything they do. Supported by propaganda, this has resulted in an obsession with what the US does and stands for, selectively aspiring to enthusiastically follow or oppose, respectively, the matter in question.

What could EU-Sino relations do for global governance?

The current rise of strongman politics and the resulting geopolitical uncertainties show that the global order is in dire need of stronger multilateralism, where humanity’s common good is at the centre. Perhaps it is therefore not all too bad that the erratic and outright hostile behaviour of President Trump forces the Europeans to step out of the shadow behind the US. Europe has far too long supported an American global policy that is still stuck in the cold-war mindset, is based on “the-winner-takes-it-all” competition and is openly hostile towards other nations by forming military alliances and specifically naming other nations “foes” or “strategic competitors”. It is time to move away from such a worldview and move from competition to cooperation, a perspective the Chinese leadership has launched under the term “win-win cooperation”. After all, Europe also shares similarities with China: Both are ancient civilizations where the role of the state in providing public welfare is stronger than in the neo-liberal US. Following the implementation of the new Chinese Environmental Law in 2015, both Europe and China now have a relatively strong focus on sustainability. Thus, with ageing societies, unequal wealth distribution in society, pollution and climate change being major challenges of our time, cooperation in these areas is also likely to be highly profitable.

So yes, Europe should increasingly engage with China. Not as a replacement for the EU-US relations, but as a step towards a more balanced world order. As outlined above, the Chinese long for and also deserve more recognition, which ideally should come in the form of more global responsibility and has to include the willingness to learn from the Chinese. Increased cooperation between Europe and China might also facilitate the diffusion of “universal values” in a more credible and acceptable way compared to threats and coercion. After all, one is more likely to take advice from friends than from foes.

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