15.10.2017 Author: Vladimir Terehov

EU Joins Political Games in Asia-Pacific Region


One of the first signals of the desire of the Europeans to join the political games in South-East Asia (the key sub-region of the Asia-Pacific Region) was the speech by former French Minister of Defence Jean-Yves Le Drian at a security conference (the so-called Shangri-La Dialogue) that is held annually in Singapore.

This speech focused on the readiness of the EU countries, or at least some of them, to send their warships to the South China Sea with the aim to promote “freedom of navigation” there. As we have repeatedly noted, the geopolitical opponents of China are using this and similar mantras to brand the policy of Beijing in the South China Sea as unacceptable for them.

A year later, British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson and the country’s prime minister Theresa May have expressed similar statements.

It is worth mentioning that the EU has long since been present in the countries of South-East Asia, and in no small way. However, so far, this presence has been demonstrated only by the fact that the Europeans are the key trade partners of both the aforementioned countries and the leading Asian powers such as the PRC, Japan and India.

There was virtually no noticeable political component or preferences in the relations of the EU with the Asian countries until the second half of last year, when more serious problems in the sphere of the economic interrelations of the Europeans with China (apparently quite successful) began to surface. And this happened almost simultaneously with Mr Le Drian’s speech.

The two important actions taken by the Europeans in the economic sphere in recent months will inevitably impact the political situation in the Asia-Pacific Region. First, this refers to the decision taken by the European Commission on October 4 this year on harshening the rules regulating the process of the acquisition and merger of European companies by legal entities that are external as related to the EU space. Second, this also concerns the Japanese-European Economic Partnership Agreement concluded three months earlier.

As regards the first decision, it was a positive reaction to the proposal of the Minister of Economy of Germany Brigitte Zypries (which was supported by France and Italy).

The main “persons” mentioned above automatically meant the heads of Chinese state corporations that in the recent years have been noticed in the territory of the EU countries (mostly Germany) penetrating the businesses of the most advanced hi-tech products manufacturers. Such facts began to be viewed as threatening not only the competitive advantages of the European (German) industry, but also the security of the EU countries.

Semantically translated, the official title of the document could be interpreted as follows: “The changing of the EU of its anti-dumping and anti-subsidy legislation to address state induced market distortions”. Both the sophisticated heading of the document and some of its provisions require comments directly related to the topic of this article.

Firstly, the norms adopted by the European Commission less than a year ago (in November 2016) are “changing”. In the 10-11 months that have since elapsed, something extremely important had to happen, something that required another return to the topic of “trade protection ” that has been in the focus of the EU leadership since the mid-1990s. This “something” is related to the rapid growth of problems in the Chinese-European economic relations already mentioned above.

Secondly, the word “China” is not mentioned in the document, which refers only to “World Trade Organization (WTO) member countries that distort” the value of goods exported to the EU. By the way, the real target of the aforementioned “changes” does not have any illusions in this regard.

Thirdly, the term “market distortions” used in the document has an elastic definition determined by the adopted method of evaluation of the “real” value of the goods entering the market. Actually, the new methodology for such evaluations is the main topic of the document adopted by the European Commission on October 4. It (like any artificial construction) may well be subject to criticism, and has already served as a reason for the Chinese news agency Xinhua to accuse the EU government of “protectionism” in the sphere of foreign trade, contrary to the WTO norms. We emphasize that the authors of the document adopted by the European Commission also refer to these “WTO norms”.

Generally speaking, in the recent few months, all the key players adopted the manner of labelling each other with bad words like “protectionism”. The “big brother” of both the EU and Japan, the USA, was inexplicitly thus accused three months ago (on July 6 this year) when the first two countries concluded the Economic Partnership Agreement. Now, the USA is being accused of “protectionism” by Canada, which is supported by the UK.

It seems appropriate to regard both the aforementioned Agreement and the “anti-dumping” decision of the European Commission that was adopted three months later in the context of the process of the drastic re-formatting of the geopolitical game that is now underway. Its key players are making manoeuvres that a year or two ago seemed unthinkable.

In particular, the Japanese-European Agreement reveals, let us repeat again, a hidden message directed not so much at Beijing as Washington that looks approximately like: “Are you (Washington) against the integration projects in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans that are going on with our involvement? O.K., then let us join the efforts of Tokyo and Brussels, and you will certainly excuse us if such efforts are in some way directed against you”.

As far as China is concerned, the mere fact of concluding a Japanese-European Agreement accentuates the failure of the long-term efforts of Beijing to achieve a similar breakthrough in the format of its economic relations with the EU. The difficult negotiations between the EU and the PRC to conclude a similar agreement have not yet demonstrated any progress. It will suffice to refer to the absence of any official joint document after the most recent Chinese-European summit held at the end of May 2017 (where the PRC was represented by Prime Minister Lǐ Kèqíang).

Therefore, even if it may look absurd at first glance, the leading superpowers, whose mutual relations are complicated, are the main parties that have “suffered” from the latest actions taken by the EU (both independently and jointly with Japan).

Quite possibly, the Japanese-European manoeuvres may become a serious impetus for the rapprochement of the positions of Washington and Beijing on the key international issues that are now separating the two countries. In this regard, the upcoming visit of US President Donald Trump to China in November, in preparation for which representatives of the governments of both countries and some prominent private individuals are taking part, may become a landmark event.

The speech by Henry Kissinger on September 26 at a forum that was organized by Columbia University, which was attended by a delegation of Chinese scientists headed by Member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Liú Yándōng, was especially significant. In fact, the patriarch of the American foreign policy reproduced his own idea of eight years ago regarding the need to establish the “Big Two” (comprised of the USA and the PRC) for the purpose of resolving the global challenges of the 21st century.

Henry Kissinger first expressed his idea in January 2009 as part of his farewell speech to Barack Obama on the eve of the latter’s inauguration for his first presidential term. This idea was not developed further due to problems with the fundamental mutual relations that had already manifested by the moment. Here, we shall note that the said problems not only have not disappeared, but they have even acquired a more prominent character.

The Chinese participants were, undoubtedly, pleased to hear Henry Kissinger’s words on the need for the USA to join in the implementation of the concept of the revival of the “Great Silk Road”. This message cannot go unnoticed against the background of a very reserved approach to the Great Silk Road on the part of the EU.

A more careful (though in general also quite positive) evaluation of the prospects of the relations between the two leading global powers was given in an interview with Xinhua Agency by another recognized American politologist Joseph Nye (“Junior”) –author of the “soft power” concept and one of the ideologists in the formation of the US policy in the Asia-Pacific Region from the early 2000s.

On the whole, one may note that the political gambling unfolding in the Asia-Pacific Region literally in plain view is becoming more and more compelling, and one of its important patterns is due, we repeat, to the attempts of the Europeans at intensifying their political activity in the region.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”