For decades, the West questioned the Chinese political system and its capacity to bring socioeconomic progress to the Chinese people. But, in a striking reversal, while the 2008 financial crisis exposed Western hubris, Chinese analysts are now trying to assess the nature and the significance of the Occupy Wall Street protests or the Indignants movement in Spain. In 2011, the Chinese media, academia and think tanks expressed serious concerns about the viability of the European project and the effectiveness of the EU's leadership. At least two new elements characterize the current stage of the European construction: internally, the relative weight of Germany—both an effect of the reunification and of the positive impact of the euro on the German economy—and externally, the China factor. If the Chinese leadership resolutely opts for a strategic and targeted policy to support the present and future role of the euro in the world, if it encourages Chinese companies to invest and to create jobs within the EU, it will become a significant contributor to the success of the European project. The Chinese defense of the euro is an instrument to consolidate multi-polarity and to pave the way for the internationalization of the renminbi, in other words, to enter a world where the U.S. dollar will have lost its absolute preeminence. In March 2010 on the occasion of a speech delivered at Shanghai's Lujiazui International Finance Research Center on "the role of the EU and China in the world's financial architecture of the 21st century," former President of the European Commission Romano Prodi made the following remarks:
"When we started with the idea of the euro, the top Chinese leaders showed great interest. When I asked why the creation of the euro was so important for China while mentioning that the issue was not only about economics but also about politics, the then Chinese President Jiang Zemin said, 'I want to live in a multi-polar world.'"
In this new historical phase Sino-European relations are not only mutually beneficial, but they have become mutually transformational. While explicit and tangible Chinese support to European integration would help Europe defeat its fear of globalization, Europe's opening to the Chinese renaissance would weaken Beijing's Sino-centric reflexes. Sino-European dialogue and solidarity cannot completely eliminate nationalism and populism from the public debates, but they can keep them at a relatively benign level.
Germany's central position within Europe and the new role of Beijing in European affairs reinforce each other. In 2010, Berlin and Beijing issued a joint communiqué on "comprehensively promoting the strategic partnership between China and Germany," officially elevating their relations to a strategic level. Already 5 percent of German exports go to the Chinese market. In 2010, Sino-German trade reached 130 billion euros ($166.2 billion), increasing by 35 percent from a year earlier and representing 30 percent of the EU-China total trade, and will be over 200 billion euros ($255.7 billion) within the next five years.
In a eurosceptic posture, British Prime Minister David Cameron has already said the UK will not back the efforts of the EU countries aiming to transfer more power to Brussels. Consequently, while the euro zone will evolve toward more integration, the distance between London and the EU's inner circle will increase. In these conditions, the "special relationship" between the United States and the UK, which has been in the past a limitative factor in the Sino-European synergy, will lose, to a certain extent, its capacity to affect the relations between the EU and China.
In the context of the Cold War, American aid to Western Europe was also an instrument to contain the Soviet Union and the spread of what was perceived as an antagonistic ideology. In the 21st century, the role of China as a catalyst for European integration should not be seen as a way to contain the United States, but as a long-term strategic action to create the conditions for equilibrium in a multi-polar and globalized world system. China's readiness to contribute to the consolidation of the European construction could be the most appropriate answer to the U.S. "return to Asia," whose intentions are not, according to Washington, the containment of anyone but only a renewed engagement in a region of the highest significance.
The author is director of the Euro-China Center for International and Business Relations at the China Europe International Business School
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