China, Geopolitics and the Global South
Uwe Hoering, April 21, 2023
The remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron on the European positioning in the Taiwan conflict have made waves. The geopolitical excitements: It is “not in our interest to be on the accelerator on the issue of Taiwan”, which was quickly reinterpreted as a rejection of any support for Taiwan. And: “Europeans should not let the US agenda or Chinese overreaction determine their policy”, which was read as a denouncement of the transatlantic alliance.
Adding grist to the mill was the fact that a Chinese military exercise was taking place around Taiwan at the same time – a show of force with an announcement along the lines of a stimulus-response scheme to the meeting between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy. But even without it, the waves would have been running high.
Little China Boy
A shitstorm erupted, especially in German media and among politicians, after the publication of the remarks. Lacking any German-French friendship, it was teeming with defamations that Macron had “lost his mind”, that he had let himself be “seduced” by Xi Jinping or driven by his “anti-American reflexes” and that he would “encourage more aggression” by Beijing. It was also suspected that he was now taking revenge for the embarrassment over the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal or simply wanted to divert attention from the pension conflict.
“The consideration of whether Macron might be right, at least on some points, apparently occurred to few.”
The consideration of whether he might be right, at least on some points, apparently occurred to few. His warning against hardened front lines and any attempts to solve the Taiwan conflict by military means were lost, as was his not so far-fetched concern for greater economic and security independence for Europe and a reduction of its dependence on China. Clarifications from the Elysee Palace or support for his position by SPD parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich and others that Europe should not appear as an appendage of the USA in the region were largely ignored or even rubbished.
The recurrent essence of the accusations: Macron is playing, consciously or unconsciously, Beijing’s game of dividing Europe and the US. The central question of how far the transatlantic solidarity with the United States should go, which topics and areas it would encompass, a distinction between being a ‘vassal’ and pursuing independent policies and interests, however, was left out of most of the commentaries. It is assumed that the US government only wants what is best – for Taiwan, for the West, for the world, for the defence of common values, especially if this goes hand in hand with an increase in arms sales and LNG.
The agenda of the US hawks
A very tangible rationale for the US government’s agenda, or rather the US hawks’ agenda, is not so much the defence of Taiwan as the threat to their global dominance. China’s further economic and political rise is to be slowed down, more than that: it is to be cut back. In contrast to Macron and the officially announced position of the European Union, in this US-American world view China is only seen as a rival, no longer as a competitor, let alone as a cooperation partner. This fundamental distinction that still exists between Europe and the USA is, however, being increasingly eroded in so many comments.
As the European positioning in the ‘Chip war’ shows, European politics has allowed itself to be put before the US cart for a long time. European activities are also no longer limited to promoting the unbundling of production chains and the reduction of dependency in the name of security and ‘de-risking’. Measures such as investment controls and economic obstacles are aimed at limiting China’s competitiveness, be it in the real estate sector, in factories for EV batteries or in harmless infrastructure technology for German railways. While the US is still a step ahead of Europe in this regard, the sprawling warnings about the economic and political influence of Chinese companies and thus the Communist Party are increasingly opening the door to curbing economic competition in Europe as well.
The next stick to jump over the US administration is likely to offer Europe is involvement in sanctions that might be legitimised by Beijing’s backing for Russia. Would Europe really go along with any punitive measures imposed by big brother, even if they would probably hurt ‘us’ more than the US? How far does the partnership go? Where does faithful vassalage begin? And: Would the desired balancing act between the maintenance of economic relationship and a reduction of ‘risks’, which is still an objective in the public political discussion, then still be possible at all?
Such conflicts and contradictions are frequently wiped away by the assumption that transatlantic alliance is a partnership that is regulated in a very cooperative spirit. But how far does the US really allow its allies to influence its agenda of confrontation with Beijing? The most recent example of the US government’s not particularly sensitive treatment of partners is the protectionist Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which was swallowed with a few softening phrases by the duped Europeans after an intial howl of protest.
When we walk side by side ….
The question of vassal loyalty is especially warranted in view of the military escalation. The fact that the USA is pushing ahead with a global arms race in addition to economic warfare is something that should no longer have escaped anyone’s notice. Most European governments are still wavering, having so far participated in the confrontation scenario in Asia rather symbolically, as with the adventurous voyage of the German frigate Bayern. However, with the military alliance AUKUS, the United Kingdom is already in the thick of it. And NATO’s new Pacific strategy more or less explicitly declares the Far East to be the ‘Hindu Kush’, where we will defend our security and values.
“The risk is that of a self-fulfilling strategy by the U.S. and China.”Emmanuell Macron
In view of this escalating spiral, driven by mutual provocations, a military conflict can no longer be ruled out. It might be triggered by a Chinese, nationalist-fuelled misjudgement of the situation (from which Beijing is hopefully spared, however, in view of Russia’s experience). The GAU would be a declaration of independence by Taiwan, fuelled by the expectation that the USA or the West would protect it (like the Ukraine). But even a simple ‘incident’ could be enough to set the machinery of extermination in motion on both sides.
A new world order
On one point, Macron may be indeed too blue-eyed: Taiwan is already of great concern for Europe, and the development naturally also has a potentially explosive effect on Europe. Taiwan is the most volatile (though by no means the only) thorn that can be driven further and further into the flesh of mainland China if one wants to. But instead of participating in the further escalation with words or deeds, it would probably make more sense to look for ways to ease the tension – before it is too late again.
In this regard, by the way, there are allies for Europe that also fear further bloc building and militarisation and do not want to be forced to position themselves on one side of the conflicting parties: The countries of the Global South. To win them over, however, Europe would have to do more than it has done so far – vague announcements like Global Gateway are not enough to compensate for decades of European disengagement. And opportunistic courting of natural gas autocracies or a neo-colonial consolidation of these regions of the world as raw material suppliers for green capitalism does not distinguish Europe significantly from China.
“Possibly, Europe could take up the ideas of a new, economically and socially more just world order and not leave this field of action to Beijing.”
Possibly, Europe could even take up the ideas of a new, economically and socially more just world order and not leave this field of action to Beijing. For in view of the multiple crises, the question of such a new order is indeed on the agenda, at least for many countries of the Global South. This could simultaneously strengthen economic diversification through industrialisation and democratic forces there. Europe, the North and the West could start by making a substantial contribution towards an effective solution to the threatening new debt crisis.