Summer 2010

Elective Affinities: How the EU Can Bring China Into the Euro-Atlantic World

Lanxin Xiang

For a long time, the People’s Republic of China paid only marginal attention to the European integration process, there was even less interest in Euro-Atlantic security issues, which were dismissed by Beijing as Cold War concerns and the Western problem. Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, EU not only has become a major focus of China’s foreign policy, but also intertwined with Beijing’s broad geopolitical vision and grand strategy of Peaceful Rise.’ Any chance that China can be brought into the conceptual framework of the Euro-Atlantic West will have a fundamental impact on Chinese behaviour as it is integrating into the current international system.

Common ground on global governance ?

The China-EU convergence in the ideological dimension seems far more broad and deep than most Europeans and Americans have so far realized. An ideology is a system of ideas and beliefs, especially of political ideas and cultures. The EU and China are rapidly moving closer in their views on domestic as well as global governance. On the surface, however, the picture looks very different, a democratic Europe and an authoritarian China seem to have very little in common. The French Enlightenment thinker Montesquieu, inspired the American Constitution with his theory of Three governments’. It has long been assumed in the West that the division of powers is the best form of governance. This has led many in the West to believe that the tension in Chinese political system today is between democratic legitimacy’ and the free market economy. 

But this is a common misunderstanding based on ignorance of Chinese political history. For thousands of years in China, a dynasty’s rise and fall has been determined by contingent performance of the leadership, rather than by a particular political framework. Politics in the Chinese context, is ad hoc human performance, unrelated to space. According to Confucius, power cannot be separated from human character and behaviour, therefore, how could it be made into three or more divisions’ as Montesquieu suggested?

Unfortunately, the Western debate over China is still confined to the Enlightenment framework. Indeed, at the moment, a Neo-Yellow Peril sentiment is brewing in Europe. Beware of the Chinese!’ can be heard almost everywhere. Nevertheless, the mainstream European policy elite and politicians have made urgent calls for elevating EU-China strategic partnership. 

From the Chinese perspective, Sino-EU convergence is reflected by three dimensions. First, China rejects the traditional Eurocentric view of human history. There is no lack of intellectual soul-mates in Europe on this point. The Eurocentric view sustains the myth that Europe’s achievements derived from its cultural originality, technical innovation and free human spirit. Europe is the only Unbound Prometheus’ in the human history of economic and political development. Therefore, the rest of the world, including China, lacks dynamics for change, hence is absolutely inferior.

Second, China shares the EU view about the future international system. In particular, China wishes to work with the EU to dismantle the last bastion of the power theory of international relations, under which China had suffered a great deal, and which is still deeply embedded in the current international system. The EU is the first multinational political entity that has officially moved beyond the age-old logic of balance of power and hegemony. The EU has also moved beyond the Good vs. Evil’ image of the world. This is entirely compatible with the Chinese call for democratisation of international relations (Guoji Guanxi Mingzhuhua).’ International rules and institutions are becoming increasingly more crucial in China’s foreign and security policy decisions. The Chinese are dreaming of the day when multipolarity and multilateralism have unified the entire Eurasian continent as a result of the intense institution-building activities, largely inspired by the EU’s unique success.

Third, the claim that the China-EU relationship has to flourish at the expense of its relationship with the US is as absurd as the idea that China will remain under the tutelage of the West, during the process of a West-dictated globalization. Many Europeans are feeling, but not yet ready to admit, that a unified political West is disappearing. Promoting harmony among major civilizations has been put, with a degree of urgency, on the global agenda. Traditional Cold Warriors can never understand the fact that there is no Rise of China’, but simply its restoration, because, they hope that the task of dealing with rising Chinese threat might create another balance of power’ system. The truth is that China has simply re-entered the world after a lapse of over a century and half and is now ready to move beyond the balance of power system. It would be unrealistic to expect China not to use its cultural resources again, as in the 17th century, to influence the meaning, the context and the rules of the game of globalisation. 

The last but even more fundamental is the fact that, Europe and China are rapidly converging in their views about domestic governance as well as international security. The EU, unlike the United States, has become a genuinely secular, but humane society, whose governing principle is similar to Chinese political philosophy in more ways than many European elite care to believe. In reality, the Chinese traditional governing principle has always been the promotion of familial and social harmony and justice. By this standard, European democracy works better than most other models in the world. European social democracy, which is highly attractive in China, tends to produce a more harmonious society and community than laisser-faire America could ever do. Europe is more culturally tolerant and its racial relations are better than in the US.

On the use of force

In the global security arena, the EU and China also begin to converge on their perspectives on the need for using force in international affairs. The Chinese view of national security is predicated on two factors: the modern Chinese experience since the Opium War of 1840s, and the traditional culture concerning armed conflict. The first factor is crucial, since modern China had been a victim rather than beneficiary from the existing international system. Before the Opium War, the Chinese perception of national security had been based on a relatively benign hegemony — a Sino-centric international relations network, known as the Tributary System. The dramatic ending of foreign domination in 1949 means that China has obtained, for the first time in modern history, the opportunity to design national security policy based upon its own national interest. But China’s humiliating past since the 19th century has always cast a long shadow on any security policy to deal with the threat, real or potential, to its borders and neighbourhood environment.

From the very beginning of the People’s Republic, the Chinese view of security has been influenced by China’s ancient tradition and attitude regarding the use of force to deal with the security threat. Some Western scholars have labelled this factor strategic culture’. According to a central paradigm, strategic culture’ is designed to answer three questions: 1. what role warfare is to play in human affairs; 2. the nature of the threat and the enemy; and 3. how effective is the use of force in dealing with the threat. Johnston believed that the dominant Chinese strategic culture is parabellum, a term he used to refer to Chinese cultural realism – the alleged pro-offensive approach to dealing with the threat against the enemy. 

This analytical framework seems useful, especially since it is designed to correct’ the prevailing view in the West about an inherent Chinese pacifism’. But it is also misleading, because it suggests that war and peace can be considered separate subjects in Chinese tradition, ignoring the interactive dynamics of the two aspects of using force. The argument ignores the Confucian tradition dictating that the Chinese forego territorial conquest and colonial adventure, hence the traditional Chinese purpose of using force has to be fundamentally defensive, and linked to the desire of achieving a more durable peace at the frontiers through military superiority. The prevailing inclination is not aggressive or offensive. 

The alleged strategic culture’ about China’s propensity of using force is at best a pseudo-thesis, just like another pseudo-thesis: the Venus vs, Mars’ parody, advanced by Robert Kagan, about Europe’s innate unwillingness to use force in world affairs. The Europeans, like the Chinese, are by no means allergic or oblivious to the use of force, they simply want to reduce the role of using force in international affairs and more importantly, when force is necessary, it must be used with the consent of the international community at large. The Sino-European preference for moral authority in using force should not be confused with universal pacifism. Neither China nor the EU holds a typical pacifist view which rejects the use of force under any circumstances. It is here that traditional China and postmodern’ Europe meet. 

Undoubtedly, the body that represents moral authority of the international community has so far been the United Nations. Therefore, the EU and China share a common interest in upholding the UN authority when force must be used in settling international disputes. Multilateral diplomacy is logically considered the foundation for seeking international consensus. Today the EU and China have already become the key pillars of the international system. They simply need to recognize the reality of multipolarity and not to place their trust and security in any residual unipolar system. 

The importance of Institutions: CSFP and NATO

China is also changing its mind about a sensitive security question: the purposes of NATO and the EU enlargement. For several years, Beijing worried that the NATO enlargement was to create a larger strategic encirclement against China, pushing the line of containment from Russia and the Central Asia against the Chinese borders. In the mid-1990s, a counter-measure against the NATO enlargement was created by China and Russia on the Euro-Asian continent. With four ex-Soviet republics participating, a group of six states, named the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) founded in2001, has assumed an increasingly range of commitments, ranging from fighting terrorism, economic development, and energy cooperation to joint military exercises. 

The EU has played a critical role in drastically reducing China’s fear of NATO through the CFSP project. China’s ever closer economic and political ties with the EU transformed the global geopolitical structure. The most interesting feature of the year of 2003 was the new Euro-Asian strategic landscape. The US-led war on terror against Iraq triggered an anti-war entente active of four major powers: France, Germany, Russia and China, strategically linking Paris, Berlin, and Moscow to Beijing. De Gaulle’s dream of a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals has been effectively extended to the East China Sea. The Chinese leadership seized this historic opportunity to pursue a continental policy by reducing reliance on the relationship between China and the US in the Pacific region. Such a continental orientation’ is largely based on the assumption that the CSFP will take shape in the near future. 

In conclusion, despite the fact that real debate about the rise of China’ has yet to come in terms of integrating China into the current world, the chances are high of China and EU coming closer. Together they could make a decisive breakthrough in the rules of global governance.

Lanxin Xiang is Director of the China Centre at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, and holds the Chair in International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.