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Set out below is my contribution to the debate, organized by the Forum for American/Chinese exchange at Stanford, at Peking University in 19 November 2009 in China-EU-US trilateral relations.

We have been asked to address six questions:

But first, some broad remarks:

I can’t resist commenting on Michael Chapman’s provocative and entertaining contribution. Until this morning, I believed that history was critically important and had unfortunately been downgraded. After listening to Michael, I’m not so sure! The EU is not only about economics.

I do not agree that balance of power is a good thing. The EU – and increasingly China – believes in multilateralism rather than multipolarity. The EU is hardly irrelevant. There is no “aggressively bipolar world”.

A comment on Wang Yong:

Mutual understanding is fundamental. It is important in any serious discussion to try to understand how the other person sees the problem and in what context.

The three bilateral relationships are undergoing a period of mutual re-assessment. The EU-US relationship is by far the closest of the three but cannot be taken for granted. Asia looms increasingly more important to Americans than Europe. Americans have different views of the world and each other’s role in it.

China and the US have competing geopolitical interests. Americans see China far more as a threat than do Europeans. The Chinese believe that the US is trying to prevent China’s rise as superpower.

China and EU both believe in multilateralism, as opposed to American unilateralism and exceptionalism. China sees the US as more influential than the EU but wishes to see a stronger Europe as a counterweight to US.

The 21st century requires an institutional structure appropriate for its time. China, India, Brazil and others must be properly represented in international bodies.

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg recently called on China to provide “strategic reassurance” that its intentions were peaceful. It is not entirely clear what he meant, but I can’t help feeling that this is not the right way to approach the matter. The “reassurance” needs to be mutual. While the US may worry about China’s “real strategic intentions”, Beijing is not comfortable with American strategic intentions. China must be addressed as an equal.

And now to answer the questions:

What form will trilateral relations between the United States, China, and the European Union take in the future?

There will remain essentially three sets of bilateral relationships. There will be greater coordination between them without institutionalisation. Different pairs will work closer together on different issues.

How important will this trilateral relationship be in an increasingly multipolar world?

Having regard to its underlying economic and political power, the relationship will remain important in the foreseeable future. However, there will be no ‘G3’. The US will continue to seek a leadership role, but not China. The EU is at the moment only able to play a leadership role in limited areas, eg climate change.

Given existing trade and human rights disputes, is it feasible to have such a trilateral relationship at all?

The effect of these disputes on the trilateral relationship is no different than on the bilateral relationships.

How will bilateral relations between China and the United States compare to those between China and the European Union?

Very differently. The EU & US share a similar history, culture and to some extent language. We are both full democracies. We were on the same side in the Cold War. We share many values. Without the US there would have been no EU. I could go on… China & the US share little. They are geopolitical competitors, with very different histories, cultures, social conditions and political systems.

Will a rising China and strong United States-China alliance affect relations between the United States and the European Union?

The G2 only lives in the minds of American academics. China rejects it. I can’t envisage a situation where in economic deliverables US can benefit where Europe does not. Politically and militarily, the EU encourages a closer US-China relationship.

What vision do we have of a Pacific structure based on close cooperation between America and China but also broad enough to enable other countries bordering the Pacific to fulfill their aspirations?

I do not agree that nations bordering the Pacific have a stronger sense of national identity than did European countries emerging from the Second World War. Of course I agree that they must not slide into a 21st-century version of classic balance-of-power politics.

I have no such vision. It suits the US but does it suit China? China’s region is Asia of which it will become the biggest player. Why create a region around the Pacific in partnership with the US. China does not want a leadership role yet. China seeks multilateralism. Of course, some countries may still want the American protector in the region. I’m afraid it’s the US who is the demandeur.


A European impression of the Obama visit:

The visit of the charismatic US president was not an unqualified success. The body language of Hu Jintao and Barack Obama was telling. The media coverage was deliberately limited. The so-called open discussion in Shanghai was scripted and its broadcasting very limited. The press conference did not allow questions. There was careful censorhip. Nothing happened that was not decided beforehand.

We need time to assess the effect on Obama of his Asian tour, as the first Asian President. But compare his cooler reception compared with Europe. How will this play out in Obama’s mind and policies?

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