Fifty years ago, Richard Nixon, then President of the United States, embarked on a secret visit to Beijing, a journey that ended decades of American resistance to communist China and helped exacerbate the divisions in the communist world between China and the Soviet Union. level. of Washington to weaken its main rival in Moscow.
But in his biography of Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s then national security adviser, historian Niall Ferguson speculated that the Americans might not have come up with this idea.
From the late 1960s onwards, Kissinger met regularly with Europeans at conferences that brought together scientists and political thinkers from both sides of the Iron Curtain.
One such Eastern European was Antonín Šnejdárek, a former head of Czech intelligence operations in Germany. In a discussion, he made an observation that Kissinger later wrote “never occurred to me” – whether the United States and China would ever reach an agreement.
“It was not the Americans who thought of it at first,” Ferguson wrote. “It was the strategic thinkers of the Soviet bloc who foresaw the new world enchanted by the Sino-Soviet divide.”
Lack of political and security influence
Although limited, Europeans played a role in securing the dialogue between Washington and Moscow in the midst of the Cold War. In the late 1970s, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union went into a “relaxation”, and a driving force behind this was the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The third phase of the conference, held in Finland in 1975, produced the Helsinki Agreement, which committed the West and the East to dialogue and partial acceptance of each other’s strategic interests.
Today, as a “New Cold War” simmers between the United States and ChinaExperts disagree on whether Europeans can play a similar mediating role between the two superpowers.
“It is wrong to think that Europe can play the role of mediator in the conflict between the United States and China,” said Noah Barkin, a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in the United States.
“Neither the United States nor China has any appetite for this. And European member states are too divided on where they stand in the standoff of this superpower.”
The case against a mediating Europe is strong. That The EU and its individual member states lack the security or political influence in Asia to deter China. Many American politicians regard Europe as too soft on Beijing, while Chinese officials regard Europeans as isolationists and only worry about achieving economic gains.
What’s worse, Europeans themselves are bitterly divided on this issue, with the region divided between those states – such as Hungary and Greece – that are apparently pro-Beijing, and those – including Sweden, the Czech Republic and Lithuania – that are increasingly opposed to China. , said Barkin.
In the most likely scenario, as tensions between Washington and Beijing rise, Europe is “increasingly squeezed between the two and under pressure to choose sides,” he added.
The continent is apparently leaning closer to Washington. About 71% of Germans and 66% of French people now have unfavorable views of China, according to studies from the Pew Research Center.
Playing an intermediary role?
Last month, the EU took China to the World Trade Organization in response to Beijing’s trade war with Lithuania, a dispute over the small Baltic state’s relationship with Taiwan. ONE Comprehensive EU-China Investment Agreement (CAI)agreed at the end of 2020, has been put on the sidelines after both sides traded sanctions against each other’s officials May last year.
During Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, European public opinion took a significant negative turn toward America. But under President Joe Biden, things have gotten better. It also has political cooperation between the United States and Europe on China. Recent years have been introductory meetings of the US-EU dialogue on China and the US-EU Trade and Technology Council.
Despite The EU’s limited influence in Asia, some believe that the “securing position” of the bloc between the two superpowers gives it some influence. “Europe can and must play” the role of an intermediary, said Lizza Bomassi, Deputy Director of Carnegie Europe, a think tank.
“Because Europe has not been in the driver’s seat and blamed Chinese companies like the United States has, it theoretically has more legitimacy to facilitate some kind of tense – but stable – compromise that would allow our interconnected global system to continue to function, ” she said .
Brussels has been in a comfortable position since 2018, when it branded China as a “partner, a negotiator, an economic competitor and a systemic rival.”
On the one hand, this has meant that the EU can take a “full frontal” approach, for example by recently taking China to the WTO, Bomassi said. On the other hand, it gives the EU flexibility, e.g. with the political upheaval needed to join the now-stopped CAI in 2020.
“We will continue to see these pendulum swings over time because the relationship – given the varying economic dependence on China – cannot settle for silos,” Bomassi added.
Promote crisis management and conflict prevention
In December, two analysts from Yale Law Schools Paul Tsai China Center, Robert Williams and Moritz Rudolf, raised this issue when they published an influential essay entitled “Can Europe Prevent a War Between the United States and China?”
“The EU should consider launching a diplomatic initiative reminiscent of the Helsinki Process,” they wrote, referring to the 1975 agreements. “Through such a process, Europe could mediate agreements to promote de-escalation, risk reduction and crisis management, thereby reducing the likelihood of armed conflict.”
Williams, one of the authors, told the DW that the argument was “that European actors could play a narrow but important role in Indo-Pacific security issues by promoting crisis management and conflict prevention diplomacy.”
For Roberts, Brussels could start by convening a series of silent discussions focused on specific domains, such as maritime, cyber and outer space – “areas where crisis communication and risk reduction protocols are currently lacking.”
“This does not mean that Europeans can or should seek to mediate in significant disputes over Taiwan and the South China Sea, or that they can realistically resolve long-standing disputes between China and the United States.”
Instead, Roberts said, Europeans should focus on improving “mechanisms such as communication channels and security protocols – procedures that can reduce the risk of unintentional warfare,” Roberts added. “The point is specifically about conflict prevention and downsizing.”
Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru