Not too long ago, members of the Chinese policy elite were still debating whether China’s ties with the United States would constitute their most important bilateral relationship. There was a consensus that China could become mostly trouble-free in its rapid rising to global power, as long as the U.S.-China relationship was stable. The idea that China should start pursuing a westward geopolitical strategy across the Eurasian continent toward Europe, and downgrade its heavy reliance on the geopolitical structures of the Asia-Pacific, was viewed in Beijing with much skepticism only a decade ago. But not anymore.
Relations between China and the United States are today at a crossroads. China is now the second-largest economy in the world and is projected to surpass the United States in the near future. China has also increased its political and military clout commensurate with its economic power. From the U.S. perspective — which is deeply rooted in the Westphalian conception of a world order based on balance of power and sovereignty — this relationship is a “Thucydidean trap,” which arises whenever a rising power challenges an established one. Thus the greatest problem is finding a realpolitik or power-backed framework in which both nations can work to avoid strategic miscalculations.
Naturally the U.S. approach has involved an emphasis on the military balance, while China’s leaders have proposed that China and the United States seek a new type of great power relationship. But nothing has come out of this idea, for there is hardly any meeting of the minds between the two leaderships. China is perceived in Washington as having a strategy for achieving one long-term goal: forcing the United States to cede its role as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing seems to calculate that its time has not yet arrived. To escape this inevitable trap, which usually leads to war, Beijing is seen to be biding its time while actively preparing for inevitable conflict.
Europeans, however, rarely think this way. The European Union and China have no geopolitical conflicts at all, and neither side perceives the other as a long-term military rival. Instead, talk of cooperation, dialogue, and multipolarity in the new world order prevail over the Eurasian mainland. Despite the euro crisis, mainstream European politicians and policy elites do not use China as a scapegoat, and are hardly persuaded by the Thucydidean trap argument. The relative decline of U.S. influence in world affairs has provided conditions that are more conducive than ever to producing genuine understanding between China and the EU.
On his recent visit to Europe, Chinese President Xi Jinping intended to imply that his country rejects the traditional Eurocentric view of human history and has found intellectual allies in Europe. Additionally, China wishes to work with the EU to undermine the power theory of international relations, which is deeply embedded in the current system dominated by the United States. International rules and institutions are becoming critical to China’s foreign policy decisions, just as multipolarity and multiculturalism have taken root. The EU is the first multinational political entity to have successfully moved beyond the age-old system of national sovereignty.
Last but not least, Europe, unlike the United States, has become a genuinely secular but humane society, whose governing principle is close to Chinese traditional principle that stresses the promotion of familial and social harmony and justice. European democracy works far better than the U.S. model, as developments in Washington demonstrate. European social democracy tends to produce a more harmonious society than a laissez-faire United States could.
During his 11-day European tour, Xi dramatically elevated China’s all-dimensional strategic partnership with Germany, reiterated Beijing’s special ties with Paris, and strengthened the strategic partnership with the EU based on an important agreement signed in Beijing last November, the EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation. It is not well understood in the West that the new leadership in Beijing considers genuine cultural dialogue as a top priority, similar to that between the Jesuits and the Chinese elite in the 17th century, interrupted by European Enlightenment. Xi made this point deliberately by paying an unprecedented presidential visit to UNESCO in Paris. His speech there emphasized the need for civilizational dialogues. “Civilizations are like water, moistening everything silently,” he said. “We need to encourage different civilizations to respect one another and live together in harmony while promoting exchange of mutual learning as a bridge of friendship among people, a driving force behind human progress and a strong bond to human peace.” For Xi, the EU has become an ideal partner with which China can engage in such dialogues.
Lanxin Xiang is a fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC, and a professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.