Beyond the great wall of mistrustBy David Gosset
Economic uncertainties, environmental degradation and climate change, risks of nuclear proliferation, inadequate access to water, growing food insecurity and massive migrations threaten the stability of the global village, whose population has almost tripled in 60 years and which will increase by another 2 billion in the next 40 years. If nothing is done, today’s volatile situation could degenerate into tragic chaos.
While the challenges of the industrial and post-industrial society would require a new global governance, an ongoing rearrangement of power in world politics complicates and, to a certain extent, paralyzes the collective decision-making necessary to design it. In short, problems accumulate at a pace which exceeds dangerously the mobilization’s capacity of the international community.
The changes on the Asian continent, in South America, in the Muslim world from the secular Turkey to the Indonesia of the “Pancasila” (the philosophical foundation of the Indonesian state), or in the post-Soviet Union space are certainly significant, but the major redistribution of influence is taking place between the West and the Chinese world. China’s re-emergence corrects a development imbalance triggered by Europe’s industrial revolution in the 18th century, but the re-entry of one fifth of mankind at the center of history marks also the beginning of a period where different types of modernity have to co-exist. In other words, the Westernization of the world opened five centuries ago by Columbus, Vasco de Gama and Magellan has ended.
Even if, as shown by the tragic failure in Iraq or by the Afghan quagmire, an expansion of the Pax Americana has become a geopolitical fantasy, the US, still in a relatively dominant position and relying upon an incomparable hard power, will act to maintain an advantageous status quo. Despite an erosion of the US soft power – the more nuanced policies of President Barack Obama can not amend the catastrophic effects of the neo-conservatives’ hubris or erase Wall Street’s follies – American elites assume what they call world leadership, and wrongly postulate a universal acknowledgement of this ascendance in a posture which does not facilitate a collective response to the transnational problems. Worse, the American forces unwilling to relinquish the politics of hegemony could be tempted to manipulate some dimensions of the crises to contain perceived rising rivals.
Another scenario has to prevail to avoid disastrous consequences. The just appreciation of the extreme gravity of the transnational threats combined with a Jeffersonian America and a renewed Sino-European partnership, could lead to the construction of a more effective global governance. Despite the deception which followed the Copenhagen summit on climate change, the deadlock over the reform of the United Nations system, the difficulties to enter a post-Bretton Woods architecture or to reach a consensus on the Doha Development Round, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed by the Washington and Moscow or the shift from the exclusive Group of Eight to the Group of 20 as a consequence of the financial crisis can be interpreted as steps in a more cooperative and inclusive direction.
In a century of interdependence and coexisting modernities, if unipolarity is a mere illusion of order, multipolarity without effective multilateralism could be a source of real disorder. But in the international effort required to organize a multipolar world, can the West treat China as a truly equal partner? In the long and multilayered negotiation process which can lead to consensus on new international security or financial architectures, or in the complex but permanent global public debates echoed by powerful media, can the West look at the Chinese world without condescension nor preconception?
Sino-skepticism, defined as the reluctance to view China as a trustworthy co-architect of the new global order, impedes the progress toward a more balanced world governance. If one seriously hopes to see more Sino-Western synergy, one has first to apprehend the source of the mistrust which affects so deeply their mutual perception.
Although geographical distance does not separate anymore the West and China, a mental fault line keeps them apart. Less obvious than Sinophobia but more pervasive, unrelated with ideology which is to a great extent a diversion from deeper realities, an original schism divides the West and China like two opposite poles on a cognitive map.
For those who consider Kant’s league of peace (foedus pacificum), or a definitive conciliation seeking to make an end of all wars forever, as a political guide and not an utopia, the Sino-Western disunion seems to be an insuperable objection. But remarkably, Kant did mention China in his Treaty on Perpetual Peace (1795), one of the highest expressions of the European Enlightenment, and therefore, put the practicability of a world republic which logically could not declare a war against itself under the most extreme test.
The myth of the absolute otherness constructed by travelers in quest of exoticism and centuries of orientalism will disappear when, to borrow a thought that Thomas Paine applied to America in his pamphlet “Common Sense”, the cause of China with its 1.4 billion human beings will be spontaneously understood as the cause of all mankind.
Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), whose monumental work is still influencing the most serious intellectual exchanges between the West and China, did not spend almost half of his life in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to inflate the obvious differences between the two edges of the Eurasian continent. On the contrary, he tried to underline commonalities, and, in contact with concrete diversity never lost sight of universality. Understandably, his first book composed directly in literary Chinese was a treaty On Friendship (1595) in which he showed, on a highly meaningful topic where reason and sentiment are involved, the proximity between the European classical thinking and the Confucian tradition.
Inspired by the Ciceronian reflections on friendship, Ricci explained to the subjects of the Emperor Wanli that a friend, at the opposite of a distant other, is just another self, and by doing so, he not only implied the unity of mankind but the possibility of a universal concord. In his biography of the Italian Jesuit, the Japanese scholar Sukehiro Hirakawa insightfully presents Ricci as the first real citizen of the world.
Sadly, in some segments of the Western society, the financial and economic crisis has even reinforced latent Sinophobia. The Western corporate community which benefited enormously from Beijing’s opening up has recently criticized China’s business environment, but the perceived Chinese unfriendliness toward Western companies tells more about the West’s anxiety and nervousness than about China’s objective situation.
In July 2010 the Financial Times reported comments by General Electric’s CEO Jeffrey Immelt on “China’s hostility toward foreign multinationals”. Interestingly, the top leader of one of the world’s largest companies had expressed in the past more constructive views about the Chinese world: “Most people in the United States are negative about China because they see it as a threat. But I never trusted what other people said about China. I wanted to learn it on my own. And what I saw were great people – people who want what you want” (Dartmouth college, 2004).
While indispensable Sino-Western synergy does presuppose that the West fully connects with the dynamics of the Chinese renaissance, it also requires Beijing’s continuation of its post-Maoist strategy of reform and opening up. China’s undeniable economic achievements should not reactivate what Matteo Ricci called the “superbia Sinica”, Chinese haughtiness, nor generate Sino-centric behaviors, but should be seen as the conditions for more institutional adjustments and global engagement.
Fundamentally, the various discourses on Chinese exceptionalism do not serve the interests of the Chinese people because they often operate internally as excuses to tolerate the unacceptable and, on the other hand, they provide arguments to those, outside China, who want to believe in the myth of the absolute otherness. As much as the cause of the Chinese people is the cause of all mankind, the cause of all mankind has to be China’s cause. Beijing’s long-term success will not only depend on its capacity to build an open and creative cosmopolitan society but also to develop cooperative relations with the rest of the world.
At an operational level, if diplomacy, public relations’ efforts and dialogue are necessary to dissipate mutual misconceptions, they are not sufficient to induce trust. Sino-European relations are especially important since they could realistically envelop new forms of cooperation which would flatten the great wall of mistrust.Recognizing that the quality of the Sino-European links can impact the relations between China and the West, and beyond that, improve the climate of international relations, it is urgent for Brussels and Beijing to reinvigorate their partnership.
Regrettably, one could argue that since the 7th EU-China summit in 2008 at the very beginning of the first Barroso commission, the relationship has been characterized by an irresolution which partly explains the narrative on a hypothetical Sino-American diarchy. To a certain extent, the discourse on the Group of 2 aims to fill a strategic vacuum. However, the chapter of the hesitant Sino-European relations can be closed if both sides realize the unique value of their partnership and its global significance.
Following the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by the European Union’s member states in November 2009, Brussels is now better equipped to conceive and implement a strategic foreign action and Catherine Ashton, its first high representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, supported by Herman Van Rompuy the president of the European Council, could make a difference by putting the relations with Beijing in a truly global perspective at the top of her agenda
Brussels’ policymakers have to Europeanize former French president Charles De Gaulle’s policy toward Beijing, an independent and long term-strategy which considers China as a living matrix of civilization, which anticipates that its young republicanism will evolve into more perfect forms, and which counts on it as a generator of geopolitical equilibrium.
The EU should grant China the market economy status – before Beijing gains it automatically in the framework of the World Trade Organization by 2016 at the latest. The EU lift the arms embargo, both an obsolete policy and a manifest symbol of mistrust, and accelerate the negotiations for a comprehensive Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.
Simultaneously, the Sino-European link has to be reenergized by a new set of transformational cooperation. In order to support the development of the world’s poorest continent, Brussels and Beijing should work with the African Union and its 53 members on a Marshall plan for Africa. Moreover, Sino-European joint actions in Central and in South Asia would underline the importance of the Eurasian dimension. The thought of the Silk Road is one of the best antidotes against the great wall of mistrust.
Innovative Sino-European cooperation projects in China (it is time to invest in projects related to the media and to establish a Sino-European University), but also within the European Union (cooperation in medicine for example) could contribute to take the Sino-European relations at another level. This year’s 13th EU-China summit offers a platform to discuss some of these proposals.
It is nowadays very common around the Pacific to deride what is depicted as a marginalized continent, but despite its imperfections, the European Union is a giant laboratory which successfully tested new forms of governance. It has not only been able to reconcile former enemies but also to integrate ancient nation-states without the use of force.
To appreciate the spirit of this European republic in the making, one has to go back to the seminal Schuman Declaration (May 9, 1950), the first moment of the European integration: “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity”.
Although the idea of a supranational construction or a shared sovereignty between Brussels and Beijing is unrealistic, European and Chinese leaders can reinterpret the call for “concrete achievements creating de facto solidarity” or, in other words, recalibrate the notion of cooperation as an instrument to build trust and to unite people.
In his magisterial Postwar (2005) the late historian Tony Judt expressed a provocative view:: “In spite of the horrors of their recent past – and in large measure because of them – it was Europeans who were now uniquely placed to offer the world some modest advice on how to avoid repeating their own mistakes; few would have predicted it 60 years before, but the 21st century might yet belong to Europe.”
Europe will certainly have an important role to play in the coming decades but the 21st century does not have to belong to one continent, it should be an era of peace and prosperity for all, a century of world cooperation. The quality of the partnership between China and Europe, two ancient civilizations at work to reinterpret their humanistic traditions, can demonstrate that the great wall of mistrust is not inevitable and, therefore, can put all of us on the path toward a more balanced global village.
The post-World War II global security and financial architectures which survived the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR were first envisioned in the Atlantic Charter (1941) by Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, two giants of the English-speaking world, and, to a great extent, designed by a small group of Americans properly called the “wise men”. Cross-fertilization between Western and non-Western wisdoms in an enlarged group of “wise men” could transform what they have brilliantly established and take the global governance at a superior level.
For the contemporary “wise men”, the words pronounced exactly 60 years ago by Robert Schuman in its historical declaration at the Quai d’Orsay are more relevant than ever : “World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.”
David Gosset is director of the Euro-China Center for International and Business Relations at CEIBS, Shanghai, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.
(Copyright 2010 David Gosset.)
Beyond the great wall of mistrustBy David Gosset