The global financial crisis, which began ten years ago this month, showed that the Western-led rules-based international order’s long-term survival is not inevitable. It is often assumed that if and when the United States loses its place as the global hegemon in that system, China will be the country to lead the world. But what would a Chinese-led order look like?
Events this summer hinted at an answer. In June, a subsidiary of the Spanish oil company Repsol began drilling an offshore well within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. China immediately protested, first by canceling a joint China-Vietnam security meeting, and then by reportedly threatening military action against Vietnamese positions in the Spratly Islands. Unable to rely on American support, Vietnam kowtowed to the Chinese, ordering Repsol to halt its exploratory drilling. It was a victory for naked power – and a defeat for shared rules.
Then, in July, just before the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, news broke that Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo – who had been detained by the Chinese government for most of the last decade over his calls for democracy – had been diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. Liu requested permission to receive treatment abroad, but the Chinese government denied him that dignity. He died shortly thereafter.
Far from condemning this cruel approach, the international community – and Europe, in particular – offered only a muted response. No one raised Liu’s name publicly during the G20 meeting. And even after Liu’s passing, Western leaders offered only anodyne messages of condolence. Nobody wanted to rock the Chinese-powered boat.
The sad truth today is that if Europe does not speak up, nobody will
At first glance, that approach might seem sensible, particularly for a Europe that is still finding its footing after years of economic crisis. China is the European Union’s second-largest trading partner after the US, and it has become a key source of direct investment, having invested over €35 billion (US$41 billion) in the EU last year.
But such ostensible pragmatism has serious drawbacks. Perhaps more than any other global actor, Europe – not just the EU, but all of Europe – has an interest in the continuation of a liberal order founded more on cooperation than on competition. Indeed, the existing order plays to Europe’s strengths, while mitigating its weaknesses.
Rules-based cooperation is embedded in Europe’s – and especially the EU’s – institutional DNA. It forms the basis of the European project, which links separate states through shared norms, interests, and values. And it has facilitated unprecedented peace and prosperity in a region long wracked by conflict and competition.
For Europe, soft power far outstrips hard power. That works fine within today’s rules-based system, where the EU – with its well-enforced laws, technological competence, educated population, and broad cultural influence – plays a critical role in bringing together diverse actors. But in a brave new world of ad hoc transactions and raw power relations – the kind that both China and US President Donald Trump seem to prefer – these qualities would do Europe little good.
But what is Europe to do? The EU is in no position to serve as the leader of the free world, no matter what European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk say. The US is – and, for the foreseeable future, will remain – the world’s indispensable power.
The problem is that the Trump administration seems to have little interest, and even less competence, in leadership, preferring instead to tout a short-sighted and largely undefined “America First” approach. If this is a permanent condition, there can be little hope for a rules-based international order. But if the Trump administration does not snuff out the candle of values-based policy and the rule of law in the next four (or eight) years, then all is not yet lost.
During this time of uncertainty, Europe must tend to that flame. It should do so not by launching headlong into foolhardy and fruitless crusades, but by continuing roughly – albeit more courageously – on its current path, picking its battles and weighing risk against reward. Where it can promote human rights or institutional approaches at a reasonable cost, it should do so. Where such efforts would prove unproductive and costly, Europe should tread carefully, while still upholding its values. The sad truth today is that if Europe does not speak up, nobody will.
A China-led transaction-based world order would have clear winners and losers – and the latter would far outnumber the former. Europe must do what it can to prevent that outcome, balancing ambition with realism, and courage with caution. Leadership may be a bridge too far for Europe today. But stewardship is within its grasp.
Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former Senior Vice President of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State and a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
The rule based order is designed to favour the west. In Essence it is a display of raw power. It can collectively bring much power to bear on the belligerent regimes like in the case of Iraq on some cook up charges or regime change in Libya and sowing much destruction in Syria on the notion of regime brutality against its people. Yes these are viewed by the west as morally correct regardless of the destruction and sufferings of the locals. As Long as it is done over there the actions can be justified. Only when the western powers are challenged, and unable to prevail that they fall back on the immediate past history for support to justify the current order which has benefited the west tremendously but at a steep cost the rest, especially the underdeveloped countries instead of adopting to changes in the world. What a pathetic article.
Liu wa made a political football which made it difficult for the West to take him out of China. To blame that as the cause of his succumb to liver cancer is disingenious. Steve Job with unlimited resources too quickly succumbed to liver cancer too. Was not mentioned that China invited teams of medical experts from both the US and Germany to attend to Liu in China.
As for EU soft power, just ask the Afghans. After 16 years brush with US and NATO, the Afghans long for the good old days of Russian rule.
"Liu Xiaobo – who had been detained by the Chinese government for most of the last decade over his calls for democracy". Rubbish. China is one of the world’s leading democracies. Liu was jailed for treason–and he also failed to declare his income for tax purposes.
Here is a record of his payments from the US Government’s National Endowment for Democracy* to Minzhu Zhongguo, Democratic China, Inc., which Liu founded. In 1991, Allen Weinstein, who helped draft the legislation establishing National Endowment for Democracy (NED), candidly said: "A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA". In effect, the CIA launders money through NED. (The Washington Post, Sept. 22, 1991). Western media simply reported that Professor Liu was an innocent man fighting for democracy. More on the Western media coordinated narrative here.
2009: $195,000 + $18,000 (supplement): $213,000
Total sum from NED to Democratic China, Inc., $1,000,000
Mr. Liu received additional money from NED for being the president of Independent Chinese PEN Centre, Inc.:
NED payments for «Independent Chinese PEN Centre, Inc.»: US $844,800. Professor Liu’s total receipts from NED: US$1,844,800, about 14 million yuan.
Just a regular, paid traitor.
If China were a democracy, there should be multiple presidential candidates to compete in elections. Were there any thing like this in the Chinese presidential elections? None. And by the way, the article 79 of the Chinese constitution specifically speicified any Chinese citizen is eligible to be elected as the national president. Did any Chinese citizen ever take part in the presidential elections? None. And again, there has never been a presidential election but the Chinese constitution uses the term "election" to fool people into believing so, In any election, the voters will choose names among competitors, but in the so-called Chinese "election" the voters chose and will choose between nay and yea since there was and will be only one candidate. If you know enough of the Chinese constitution, you should have noticed that whenever there is only one candidate, the constitution uses the term "decision" in other cases than the presidential decision. It is all a farce in the Chinese system.
Yes, Mr. Liu Xiaobo might have got foreign aid but the Chinese communists do not want to use it as a criminal charge because the founding fathers of the Communist Party of China had done so too. Without foreign money aid, the Chinese communists could not have come into a party at all in the 1920s.
To the Madrid based author, perhaps it is all the rules in Europe that led to BREXIT, no? And where are the rules when a majority of Catalans wish to have a referendum to secede from Spain?
It is the blantantl self serving, self righteous, double standards rule based order. The world has seen the trick long time ago. Who is to fool again?
Wood Wu Kim Lun Wong and other members of PLA : You have zero knowledge of world order and blinded by imperial ambition. The real China that was Han Chinese belongs within Great Wall you guys built. Now, stay there and donot start poaching on other parts of world.
The author speak of rule based order. Whose rules? Must they be based on Western rules?
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