China sees in Europe a political and cultural partner

Lanxin Xiang says with Sino-US relations at a crossroads, and American world influence on the wane, China increasingly sees Europe as a political and cultural ally

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 6:57pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2014, 1:46am

Not so long ago, China's policy elite were still debating whether the nation's relationship with the US would remain "the most important among all important bilateral ties".

As early as 2003, I was among the first to put forward the idea that China should start pursuing a westward geopolitical strategy, a Eurasian "continental strategy", and downgrade its heavy reliance on the geopolitical structure in the Asia-Pacific region. Almost all policy elite in Beijing were sceptical of this proposal at the time, but not any more.

US-China relations are at a crossroads. China's economy is now the world's second largest and is projected to surpass the US to become number one in either 2018, 2025 or 2030, depending on who you listen to. One thing is certain, however: China has rapidly increased its political and military clout commensurate with its economic power.

From the US perspective, the relationship has been characterised as a "Thucydidean Trap", when a rising power challenges the established one. Thus, the greatest challenge is finding a realpolitik framework in which both nations can work towards avoiding strategic miscalculations in the future.

Naturally, the American approach is to emphasise military balance, while China's leaders have proposed that China and the US seek a "new type of great power relationship". But nothing has come of this idea, as there has been little meeting of minds between the two.

China's strategy, as viewed in Washington, is all about achieving its long-term goal of forcing the US to cede its role as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing seems to believe the time has not yet arrived. To escape the (Thucydidean) trap, which usually leads to war, Beijing is seen to be biding its time while actively preparing for the inevitable conflict.

The Europeans, however, have never thought this way. The European Union and China have no geopolitical conflicts, and neither side sees the other as a long-term military rival. Instead, talk of co-operation, dialogue and a multipolar new world order are prevailing.

The relative decline of US influence in world affairs has provided conditions that are more conducive to producing genuine cultural understanding between China and the EU. It is not well understood in the West that a priority for the new leadership in Beijing is the resumption of genuine cultural dialogue with the West. President Xi Jinping made this point by paying an unprecedented visit to Unesco, the UN cultural agency, in Paris.

During an interview nine years ago with Le Figaro, former premier Wen Jiabao made a very important point. Quoting Gu Hongming, a colourful 19th-century Confucian scholar who was also deeply inspired by Western education, Wen said that perhaps only the French could really understand China and Chinese civilisation, because they possess "the same almost unique spiritual quality as the Chinese - subtlety". This statement must be seen as China's true attitude towards the EU.

It implies, first, that China rejects the traditional Eurocentric view of human history and has found intellectual allies in Europe. This view assumes the inherent superiority of the Greco-Roman civilisation, and sustains the myth that Europe's achievements derived from its cultural originality, technical innovation and exclusive free human spirit. Thus, the rest of the world, including China, is seen as backward, despotic and barbaric.

Second, China wishes to work with the EU to dismantle the last bastion of international power relations, deeply embedded in the current system dominated by the US. The EU is the first multinational political entity to have officially left behind the age-old balance-of-power logic and hegemony. Its "spiritual subtlety" has also helped the EU move beyond a "good and evil" view of the world. This fits very well with the Chinese call for "democratisation of international relations" and a "new type of great power relations".

International rules and institutions are becoming critical in China's foreign policy decisions. At the same time, multipolarity and multilateralism have begun to unify Eurasia, thanks to the intense institution-building activities inspired by the EU's success.

Third, the ideological West is disappearing. Harmony among civilisations is a global priority. But is Europe ready, intellectually and psychologically, to understand China?

The Eurocentric view of history has been destroyed by the Europeans themselves and the EU has become a postmodern political entity. The French have been among the first to challenge the Eurocentric historical perspective, calling for an "archaeological approach" to history in the words of philosopher Michel Foucault. This is undoubtedly closer to the Confucian view of a cyclical, organic history than it is to the linear, mechanical one invented by the post-Enlightenment West.

It has also become politically incorrect in Europe to publicly support racism, meaning the context of today's East-West debate is fundamentally different from the "white-man supremacy" of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Furthermore, the Western cold-war structure, featuring an artificial East-West ideological divide, has collapsed.

Thus, the European intellectual world is ready to accommodate China, even though resistance remains strong among those who have lived comfortably off transatlantic relations for too long.

Last but not least, unlike the US, Europe has become a genuinely secular but humane society, whose governing principles are close to the Chinese tradition that stresses the promotion of familial and social harmony and justice.

European democracy works far better than the American model, as we can see from events in Washington. European social democracy tends to produce a more harmonious society than laissez-faire America ever could, and Europe is certainly more culturally tolerant. In this way, the EU has become an ideal partner for China in its efforts to engage the West.

Lanxin Xiang, a professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, is currently in Washington as a senior fellow of the Transatlantic Academy at the German Marshall Fund